pull up a chair

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

Category: joy of writing

forecast: more quiet

we seem to have stumbled around here onto the recalcitrant version of the red-ringed bug, the one that won’t go away. or came back before it left. i was on the mend, as was my mate here in this old house, when suddenly a cumulus nimbus of cloudy congestion came roaring back to the head of the one with whom i share these rooms. and then the little test confirmed our suspicions: it’s covid again. so he’s re-grounded and i’m shuffling quietly, still under wraps (aka mask).

which means that with a weekend forecast for snow and cold, along comes one for much more quiet. to which i let out a little yelp of muffled delight. because that means more time to dig into my latest reads: thoreau’s walden; and what could be more fitting for a january cold spree than a charming tome titled the nightingale: notes on a songbird?

and that means that once again, i’ve spent bits of my week cobbling together a few morsels for my friends who might pull up a chair.

to wit:

i begin with this beauty from henri nouwen, the modern-day mystic and deep theologian whose wisdoms are many, and whose birthday this week had me bumping into this:

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.

Henri Nouwen

a more beautiful definition of compassion, of being a profoundly alive human, i do not know. perhaps you’ll marinate in these holy words for a few hours this cold, cold weekend.


next up, in the wonders of the week, i found myself in a poetry conversation that spanned continents (thank you, oh wonders of zoom), and thanks to my friend Pádraig Ó Tuama, i discovered a poet whose work and whose voice i can’t get enough of. his name is dante micheaux, and what i know is that i will be chasing down his poetries in any form i might find them. here’s a bit of his bio (though i am starting to dream of a journalistic beat in which i wander the globe talking to poets, in hopes of filling out the fine grains of their stories). . .

Dante Micheaux is the author of Circus (Indolent Books, 2018) and Amorous Shepherd (Sheep Meadow Press, 2010). He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from New York University. His poems and translations have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Poetry, PN Review and Tongue—among other journals and anthologies. Micheaux’s honors include a prize in poetry from the Vera List Center for Art & Politics, the Oscar Wilde Award and fellowships from Cave Canem Foundation and The New York Times Foundation. In 2019, he won the Four Quartets Prize from the T.S. Eliot Foundation. He grew up in New Jersey, but lives now in London, and we shared a wee bit of enthusiasms for a bagel shop on Brick Lane, or as the brits would spell it, a “beigel bake.”

the judges’ citation on the Four Quartets Prize is this: “How right that this poet’s first name should be Dante. For his Circus is a Comedy: a savage comedy, lacerating dialects, fingering wounds, looking for loves right and wrong in the crevices of history and of humiliated bodes. And yet, and yet. His language exults, triumphs, and freely rummages in the treasuries of the Bible, Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot, Baraka, and Mahalia Jackson, taking what it needs, making it his sovereign own, a wrested blessing. Congratulations, Dante Micheaux, on your astonishing Circus.”

you can hear a bit of him here, in a podcast called beyond the red door, an audio companion to a poetry series that brings poetic meditation inside the walls of St Mark’s, an Anglican church in Jackson Heights, in New York City. Here, Micheaux is in conversation with Anglican priest and poet, Father Spencer Reece (himself a whole nother story). Micheaux reads a poem reminiscient of Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and at the end a Canto …

(i’m promising more on Spencer Reece next week, as i’ve requested a slew of his books from the library…) and here is but one of dante’s poems that took my breath away…

Mary at the Torture

Everyone was out that day, for a show.
Sure, it was sad for people who knew him
but she was his mother, slinking about
the rabble in that dark halug, veiling
her face with a headscarf—as if no one noticed her.

Some say it served her right,
letting her son run about the countryside
the way she did. Poor Joseph,
for all efforts at teaching the boy
a skill, never succeeded,
hadn’t a chance against Mary’s coddling.

But how could she just stand there, watching?
Each time the scourge met flesh she didn’t even flinch.
No cry, no lamentation—most unlike a child of God.
Any other mother would have had to be contained,
would have put herself between lash and child,
would have succumbed to conniption—at the least,
rent her clothing. Not one tear.

She was always strange, though—quiet,
dark days about her since she was a girl.

It wasn’t easy: the scandal before the wedding;
him getting into trouble with the law.
Perhaps, she was relieved.

–Dante Micheaux

(first published May 11, 2011, in Painted Bride Quarterly)


the techno team here at the chair is figuring out how to host a virtual launch of my soon-to-be book, The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text (which got its very first official review this week, in Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, and which you can find over on Book of Nature’s very own page here at the chair. details and sign-up soon as the techno wizards figure it out. and yesterday, in a meeting with the lovely team who does the heavy lifting in the book-peddling department, someone held up an actual hot-off-the-presses copy of said book, proving its existence, and alerting me to the notion that it could soon be landing with a plop on my snow-covered stoop. (though it’s official pub date is still firmly on the vernal equinox, march 21, 2023)

before closing, a wee bit about the two books waiting on my butter-yellow-checked chair: thoreau’s walden i am reading cover to cover as preamble to the weeks ahead when i’ll likely be extolling the wonders of keen-eyed watchkeeping on the woods and the turning of seasons.

sam lee’s the nightingale has been on my bedside table for at least a year (there’s a whole essay on the books we keep close at hand, yet never manage to crack). for the pure whimsy of it (as well as a fine excuse to read the pages of the irish news) here’s what they have to say about the wondrous love-letter to the vanishing bird. but should you refrain from clicking, here’s the book jacket description:

Come to the forest, sit by the fireside and listen to intoxicating song, as Sam Lee tells the story of the nightingale. Every year, as darkness falls upon woodlands, the nightingale heralds the arrival of Spring.

Throughout history, its sweet song has inspired musicians, writers and artists around the world, from Germany, France and Italy to Greece, Ukraine and Korea. Here, passionate conservationist, renowned musician and folk expert Sam Lee tells the story of the nightingale. This book reveals in beautiful detail the bird’s song, habitat, characteristics and migration patterns, as well as the environmental issues that threaten its livelihood.

From Greek mythology to John Keats, to Persian poetry and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’, Lee delves into the various ways we have celebrated the nightingale through traditions, folklore, music, literature, from ancient history to the present day. The Nightingale is a unique and lyrical portrait of a famed yet elusive songbird. Sam Lee has brought the poetic magic that has long enchanted so many of his musical fans into the written word.

and that’s the news, thin as it is, from here at covid central.

how shall you be soaking in your quiet hours ahead?

sixteen.

sixteen years old. old enough to drive a car, the chair now is. not quite old enough to vote, but we’ve stayed away from politics all these years; allowing only goodness, grace, to be our guide––even in those rare few times we’ve wandered in the public square, celebrated the election of a president, felt crushed by the words and ways of another.

we’ve stood watch here as the world crushed us (i can still see the image of that precious little two-year-old, the syrian toddler––alan kurdi was his name, the little boy in the bright-red T shirt, the little black sneakers, and scrunched-up navy pants––washed up on the sands of the aegean sea, trying to escape a war’s unimaginable horrors and terrors). we’ve felt the crushings, too, of close-to-home heartaches, the ones not felt much beyond our own intimate borders, but more piercing than all the rest sometimes. 

why do we invite in crushings here? because it’s how i’m wired, i suppose. i’ve always felt hurts so, so deeply (some say too deeply; to them i say not sorry). and i have always wished for a place where tender comforts, heart healings, might occur. where the one who’s hurt could find a featherdown place to curl into. to be tucked under fuzzy afghans. handed warm mugs of tea. and a bowl of clementines, for when the tears paused long enough to give way to nibbling. maybe it’s the nurse in me, the heart of me. i can’t bear to see, to hear, to feel, to imagine hurting. but i will witness every time. for every hurt needs witness. needs bearing. needs extra body parts––shoulders to lean on, hands to squeeze, eyes to gently smile––to bear and share the load.

sometimes, i’ve brought silly here. not because i’ve any proclivity for clowns or clownishness. but because life not seen through comic lens is sometimes too unbearable. to laugh is to lighten the load. to be lifted by the effervescence of a good giggle. or even a guffaw. there’s alchemy and medicine in the sound of joy rising from the lungs.

in sixteen years, we’ve held up to the candlelight life’s beginnings and endings and all in-betweens: goodbyes and homecomings, births and death, and the littlest flickerings of the everyday. 

i’ve uncorked a bit of my soul here, let you see my heart’s wanderings as i moved deeper and deeper, bolder and bolder into saying aloud what i was sometimes plenty timid to whisper. somehow, over the years, the sacred i call God––God, a name that resonates a tenderness to me, a name whose very uttering fills me with a knowing, a hope––has pulsed so palpably through my every day, i now put breath to it without too much trembling. and in words––i hope––that do not close doors. i’m more intent than ever to draw forth the wisdom, the wonder, the light from any path that winds toward God, Allah, Adonai, Divine and Holy Wisdom. i reach for the doorways, have no use for locks on doors.

i’ve brought tinkerings at the cookstove here, too. in part because i will always be trying to find my way back from a dark, dark place when i was just 18, and, for reasons that escaped me at the time, i’d somehow decided i’d see how little food i could swallow in a day. it’s a place that filled me with cringing shames for years, and years. and tangled me in terrible knots. not knowing how to eat, being daunted by and quaking in the face of simple food, is a scourge i’d wish on no one. the question i’d long asked, and which was long asked of me: how does the homecoming queen find herself riding an elevator to a full-blown psych ward? (1975 was back in the day before anyone really knew what anorexia was; and there were no such eating disorder programs as there are today. and the movie “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” had just come out on the very big screen, so it set the stage for a most awful fright.) i can type those sentences now because the years have gentled my shame, and slowly, faithfully, i’ve found my way to a shore of my own. a shore where olive oil doesn’t scare me anymore. and where just last week i drizzled honey (on dorie greenspan’s sweet & smoky roasted carrots*). and it seems that when you’ve struggled so to feed yourself, you find a quiet certain joy in feeding those you love. (and maybe by osmosis you’re hoping to absorb some ease…)

i didn’t intend for this birthday note to grow so confessional. but over all these years, you’re the ones who’ve made this place into the sacred, gentle, quiet space i once dreamed of. and always believed in. you’ve shown me, though your unending kindness, that what i write here is safe here––and i will protect to the end your safety to say here what you will. and, hard as it might be to imagine (given the crude world in which we live), never once in all these years have i found a harsh or mean-spirited comment left here at the so-called “old maple table.” (it would crush me if i found one.) your gentle graces, your heartfelt, heartfelt notes and comments, as well as your incredibly heavenly occasional snail mails, have emboldened me to tell only truth here. life is short, too short, we know. and why waste a day fudging around the edges when what draws us whole––and into each other’s embrace––is saying who we are, and what hurts us, and what makes us giggle? and aren’t we all, in truth, wobbly creatures at the core, only slowly ascending from all the snags and quirks that make us so delightfully who we are? 

so here’s to truth. and sixteen, a number imbued with introspection, and spiritual purity, and a sign of good things to come, according to those who study numbers, find meaning therein. 

may this next whirl around the sun bring blessings to us each and all…

i have an especially lovely birthday present for all of you, one i will leave here on the table (down below). my friends at the SALT project dug it up from wendell berry’s bookshelf, and it’s a beauty like no other. it’s called “the birth (near port william)” and as you’ll see, it’s a nativity poem for all. happy blessed birthing day, for whatever it is you’ll birth today….(the poem is long, so i will leave it at the very bottom here….) (p.s. because the formatting itself is lovely and i can’t get it replicated here, and because you might love the SALT project, i’m leaving the link to their page here.)

one other gift, before i leave you the poem. little alan kurdi’s father, the only one of the family of four who survived the escape in a rubber boat back in the early autumn of 2015, a few years later started a foundation to help children whose lives have been torn apart by war. it’s yet another miracle of the human spirit’s capacity to rise from the deepest, darkest ashes. you can find out more about the kurdi foundation here.

and another treat: the other evening i time-traveled to amherst, mass., for a birthday celebration in the glorious home of emily dickinson, the great butter-yellow house on the hill, known as the homestead, and during that hour and a half of marvelousness, one of curators mentioned that emily’s beloved sister-in-law susan had written emily’s obituary, which was published in the springfield republican on may 18, 1886. immediately curious, i asked for the link, and here tis, with some of the most lovely writing, and most charmed intimacies of emily’s life, written in the immediate wake of emily’s death by the one who perhaps knew her most dearly…. https://www.emilydickinson.it/edobituary.html

here is but one passage i found delectable…

As she passed on in
life, her sensitive nature shrank from
much personal contact with the world,
and more and more turned to her
own large wealth of individual resources
for companionship, sitting thenceforth, as
some one said of her, “In the light of
‘her own fire.” Not disappointed with the
world, not an invalid until within the past two
years, not from any lack of sympathy, not be-
cause she was insufficient of any mental work
or social career – her endowments being so ex-
ceptional – but the “mesh of her soul,” as
Browning calls the body, was too rare, and the
sacred quiet of her own home proved the fit
atmosphere for her worth and work.

and the obit ends thusly:

To
her life was rich, and all aglow with God and
immortality. With no creed, no formulated
faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas,
she walked this life with the gentleness and
reverence of old saints, with the firm step of
martyrs who sing while they suffer. How
better note the flight of this “soul of fire in a
shell of pearl” than by her own words? –

Morns like these, we parted;

Noons like these, she rose;

Fluttering first, then firmer,

To her fair repose.

*oh, and those carrots drizzled with honey? dorie greenspan’s sweet + smoky roasted carrots you’ll thank my sister-in-law, brooke, who sent them my way…

and that, dear friends, is the stack of gifts i have for you this blessed early morn…..(one question, and then wendell berry’s poem…)

so here’s the question: how did you find the chair?

“THE BIRTH (NEAR PORT WILLIAM),” BY WENDELL BERRY

They were into the lambing, up late.
Talking and smoking around their lantern,
they squatted in the barn door, left open
so the quiet of the winter night
diminished what they said. The chill
had begun to sink into their clothes.
Now and then they raised their hands
to breathe on them. The youngest one
yawned and shivered.

                         “Damn,” he said,
“I’d like to be asleep. I’d like to be
curled up in a warm nest like an old
groundhog, and sleep till spring.”

“When I was your age, Billy, it wasn’t
sleep I thought about,” Uncle Stanley said.
“Last few years here I’ve took to sleeping.”

And Raymond said: “To sleep till spring
you’d have to have a trust in things
the way animals do. Been a long time,
I reckon, since people felt safe enough
to sleep more than a night. You might
wake up someplace you didn’t go to sleep at.”

They hushed awhile, as if to let the dark
brood on what they had said. Behind them
a sheep stirred in the bedding and coughed.
It was getting close to midnight.
Later they would move back along the row
of penned ewes, making sure the newborn
lambs were well dried, and had sucked,
and then they would go home cold to bed.
The barn stood between the ridgetop
and the woods along the bluff. Below
was the valley floor and the river
they could not see. They could hear
the wind dragging its underside
through the bare branches of the woods.
And suddenly the wind began to carry
a low singing. They looked across
the lantern at each other’s eyes
and saw they all had heard. They stood,
their huge shadows rising up around them.
The night had changed. They were already
on their way — dry leaves underfoot
and mud under the leaves — to another barn
on down along the woods’ edge,
an old stripping room, where by the light
of the open stove door they saw the man,
and then the woman and the child
lying on a bed of straw on the dirt floor.

“Well, look a there,” the old man said.
“First time this ever happened here.”

And Billy, looking, and looking away,
said: “Howdy. Howdy. Bad night.”

And Raymond said: “There’s a first
time, they say, for everything.”

                                   And that,
he thought, was as reassuring as anything
was likely to be, and as he needed it to be.
They did what they could. Not much.
They brought a piece of rug and some sacks
to ease the hard bed a little, and one
wedged three dollar bills into a crack
in the wall in a noticeable place.
And they stayed on, looking, looking away,
until finally the man said they were well
enough off, and should be left alone.
They went back to their sheep. For a while
longer they squatted by their lantern
and talked, tired, wanting sleep, yet stirred
by wonder — old Stanley too, though he would not
say so.

          “Don’t make no difference,” he said
“They’ll have ’em anywhere. Looks like a man
would have a right to be born in bed, if not
die there, but he don’t.”

                         “But you heard
that singing in the wind,” Billy said.
“What about that?”

                         “Ghosts. They do that way.”

“Not that way.”

                         “Scared him, it did.”
The old man laughed. “We’ll have to hold
his damn hand for him, and lead him home.”

“It don’t even bother you,” Billy said.
“You go right on just the same. But you heard.”

“Now that I’m old I sleep in the dark.
That ain’t what I used to do in it. I heard
something.”

               “You heard a good deal more
than you’ll understand,” Raymond said,
“or him or me either.”

                        They looked at him.
He had, they knew, a talent for unreasonable
belief. He could believe in tomorrow
before it became today — a human enough
failing, and they were tolerant.

                                 He said:
“It’s the old ground trying it again.
Solstice, seeding and birth — it never
gets enough. It wants the birth of a man
to bring together sky and earth, like a stalk
of corn. It’s not death that makes the dead
rise out of the ground, but something alive
straining up, rooted in darkness, like a vine.
That’s what you heard. If you’re in the right mind
when it happens, it can come on you strong;
you might hear music passing on the wind,
or see a light where there wasn’t one before.”

“Well, how do you know if it amounts to anything?”

“You don’t. It usually don’t. It would take
a long long time to ever know.”

                                 But that night
and other nights afterwards, up late,
there was a feeling in them — familiar
to them, but always startling in its strength —
like the thought, on a winter night,
of the lambing ewes dry-bedded and fed,
and the thought of the wild creatures warm
asleep in their nests, deep underground.

Wendell Berry

**sixteen, in case you wondered, is how many years the chair has been this quiet little place where these days we gather every friday morn. or at least that’s when i pull up a chair. you’re welcome to stop by any time, stay as long as you’d like. or, for years and years….’twas launched, the chair was, on 12.12.06, with this little post…

it’s the-light-will-save-you season

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Erskine Caldwell

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in which we haul old words out of the crypt…

whilst i take a necessary romp through the copy editing room––chasing errant commas, untangling knotted sentences from my book in the making––i bring you a lexicographic exercise all your own, a few old words to haul from the crypts of time….

traipsing through the big apple for the last deliriously heavenly string of days, i found myself in the tenement museum on the lower east side, just a hop and a skip from 53 suffolk street, the very tenement where my children’s great grandfather settled in and built a life—running a bakery and fathering four children of his own, the baby of whom was my father-in-law who grew up to be a newspaper editor and publisher on the jersey shore and the father of my beloved. isidore kaminski, once a wheelmaker in the russian czar’s army, found his way to delancey and suffolk streets upon arrival to these shores via the SS Uranium, direct from the port of rotterdam, where he was leaving behind the austro-polish-russian city of ostrołęka—and a young wife he’d soon beckon to america. 

the corner of delancey and suffolk streets, lower east side

while awaiting our illustrious tour guide who would provide a peek inside grandpa izzie’s early days, and the squalid life crammed inside three shotgun rooms measuring all of barely 300 square feet, we idled in the decidedly excellent gift shop. among the many many tchotchkes that beguilingly glimmered to catch my eye, the one i grabbed was none other than the little book of lost words: collywobbles, snollygosters, and 86 other surprisingly useful terms worth resurrecting, by a fellow named joe gillard, the creator of “history hustle,” an online history publication for the digital age.

it is so packed with deliciousness (of a literary ilk) it nearly made me drool (in a purely literary way). and so whilst i deep dive into the copy edits that just landed on my desk, for this latest book of mine in the making, i thought i’d let you frolic in a wordly romp all your own. 

ramfeezled: exhausted from a hard day’s work

herewith a short list of words we must work to resurrect, to bring back into daily conversation at dinner tables, water coolers, and playlots all across the land. they run from A (absquatulate: to run off with someone in a hurry; to abscond) to W (wamblecropt: severe digestive discomfort). and i hereby pledge to bring you the best of the bumper crop, the ones sure to whirl off your lips or are so dreamily defined as to demand daily exercise. 

so, settle in, grab your mugs, and repeat after me:

akrasia: (ancient greek) the act of knowing you shouldn’t be doing something, but doing it anyway. deliberately acting against good judgment.

amphigory: (19th-century english) a piece of writing that appears to have meaning but is really just foolish nonsense. (i know nothing about amphigory. ahem.)

betweenity: (18th-century english) being in the middle, or between things.

collywobbles: (19th-century english) stomach pain or sickness from nervous anxiety. (can’t imagine.)

flapdoodle: (again, 19th-century english) foolish or blatantly false ideas or words. (we seem to be living through an outbreak.)

honeyfuggle: (19th-century english. dialect) to compliment or flatter someone to get something you want. (who would do such a thing?!)

mayhap: (16th-century english) perhaps, possibly.

ninnyhammer: (16th-century english) a fool. 

quanked: exhausted or fatigued from hard work

prickmedainty: (16th-century english. dialect) an overly nice person.

quafftide: (16th-century english) the time for drinking alcohol. (i admit to being a fool for Q words. i find them poetic to no end, nearly every time…)

quanked: (19th-century english) exhausted or fatigued from hard work.

sloom: (19th-century scottish) a light, gentle sleep.

snollygoster: (19th-century english. american slang) a dishonest, corrupt, and unprincipled person. esp. a politician. (again, we’re overpopulated here.)

somewhile: (12th-century english) at some other time, sometimes. (this might be the word i’ll work hardest to revive. although betweenity might be my runner-up.)

sonntagsleerung: (early 20th-century german, medical terminology) the depression one feels on sunday before the week begins. (i remember it well from days gone by.)

uhtceare: oot-kee-ar-uh (10th-century old english) lying awake in bed feeling anxious. (can’t imagine.)

i leave you now, mayhaps, to breathe life into these dusty, musty old bits of archaica. call me a ninnyhammer, but i’ve a hunch we can make this happen….or else we’ll all get quanked from trying….

any favorite old words you’d nominate to bring back to the daily lexicon? was there a word or words you always heard growing up, one whose very utterance to this day sweeps you back in time to the particular place or someone from whose lips it fell?

ultracrepidarian: a person with opinions on subjects beyond their knowledge

and, yes, yes, i do note that among the pages i’ve made into pictures i seem to have plucked a preponderance of words expressing sheer exhaustion. coincidence not missed on me….

out of chaos, come pages of quiet

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

This, too, can be written about. 

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

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

George Saunders, Story Club newsletter

or this, from jane hirshfield:

“Poetry’s work

is the clarification

and magnification

of being.”

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

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

the room to which i return….

in need of beannacht, i found my way back to an old friend, the irish poet of infinite blessing…

the author photo of John O’Donohue, now fading, but still my bookmark

in search of profound goodness this week, i found my way back to the saint of a gentle soul, a poet with whom i once shared a st. patrick’s day, and who would remain a kindred spirit and friend, with warm and occasional phone calls until 2008, when he died in his sleep on january 3, a day that happens to be my birthday, and two days after his own 52nd birthday.

john o’donohue was a priest and a poet on the day in 1999 when i (a newspaper scribe at the time) pulled up to his hotel in my little brown toyota corolla and spirited him away to one of those ridiculous faux irish pubs that line chicago’s more touristy streets. we landed there, amid faux celtic ruins and an endless loop of tin pipes and ditties, with more than a touch of irony. we talked till the sky beyond us went dark, and the city streetlights turned on. it was one of those newspaper interviews that wound its way into something that never ended. we were there in the wake of his best-selling anam cara‘s american publication (and marking the occasion of what would become his second best-seller, eternal echoes), and we found our own soul friendship. he was and is a rare blessing to me. his mind was voluminous. his heart and his soul even more so.

i found my way back to john, against the drumbeat of this unrelenting savagery in ukraine, because i was looking for words that might comfort. i was trying to be hopeful in hard times (per howard zinn down below, sent to me this week by a beloved friend of the chair.) i’d been collecting a litany of small wondrous moments of human kindness and utter goodness arising from the brokenness in kyiv and kharkiv and mariupol, when i decided to search for words that capture this moment of brokenness, of enormity distilled into poetries, well-chosen words that give us a way in to whatever is true, and beyond our worldly comprehension.

i found john’s beannacht or blessing, a blessing with a tinge of goodbye, “goodbye and God bless,” and whenever i read john’s words, i think of the day — and the story that came of it — back in march of 1999. as i started to read the story under my byline, a story that ran in the chicago tribune on st. patrick’s day of that year, i decided i’d bring my friend here to the table, for all of us. we could all use some comfort. we could all use some john o’donohue.

THE GOOD GREEN POET

By Barbara Mahany

Chicago Tribune

Mar 17, 1999

The poet-philosopher, who lives in solitude in the west of Ireland, leapt the curb and strode into a North Clark Street saloon purporting to be an authentic Irish pub — about a block away from another place purporting to be a rain forest.

The poet-philosopher has experienced the real thing plenty — pubs, that is — and when he looked up and saw, beside the tavern door, faux stone slabs pretending to be ancient Celtic ruins, he jolted up a bit and mumbled something about the Flintstones.

But not wanting to sound impolite, he muffled most of the rest of what he had to say, here in a place in downtown Chicago where the accents on the waiters were so thick he couldn’t believe they came from the country he has called his own for all of his 43 years.

John O’Donohue, a giant of a thinker, and a pretty tall guy, too, folded his 6-foot-3-inch frame onto a carved-wood bench, and did what any self-respecting Irishman would do, caught in such a circumstance. He ordered a pint of Guinness, and a bit of Irish stew to wash it down.

Then, his feet occasionally breaking into an under-the-table tap, in tune with some fine accordion blaring over the speakers, he settled into a long afternoon of conversation — the great art he alternately refers to as “an old blast of ideas” or “the source of luminosity in the Western tradition, going back to Plato’s dialogues.”

Oh, how he laments that discourse is dying, one of the great casualties of postmodern culture. What passes for it these days, he says, is really “just intersecting monologues.”

For a man who spends most of his days hearing only his own thinking, living alone as he does in the wilds of Connemara, O’Donohue–a Catholic scholar, priest and, of late, a best-selling author–is spilling with much to say about everything from how odd it is to refer to coffee as regular, “as distinct from coffee that misbehaves,” to how we should cross the threshold of the millennium in two days of silence, “with a liturgical solemnity in some way.”

He cracks Steven Wright jokes –“I went into a restaurant. It said, `Breakfast Any Time.’ I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.” He croons with Sinead O’Connor. He drops the names of philosophers from practically every century dating to ancient Greece. He sprinkles blessings on everything from the car he had just bumped around in, to the table where the afternoon’s conversation unspooled.

And the world is very much starting to listen–even if it’s only to him talking to himself, as he puts it.

In fact, of his pair of best-selling books, both spiritual works laced with Irish lyricism–“Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom,” the No. 1 best seller in Ireland for 18 months until it was bumped from that spot by his new book, “Eternal Echoes,” now shifting between No. 1 and 2 in the country that, after 800 years of colonization, has built an empire of words–he says: “All I’m doing with these two books is allowing, maybe, others to overhear some of my own internal conversations. I’m not sure I’m right at all.”

And some conversations they are.

“He is the finest English-language-speaking spiritual writer of our time,” says Rev. Andrew Greeley, the Irish-Catholic priest and best-selling author of 42 novels, including his newest, “Irish Mist,” in bookstores for St. Patrick’s Day.

“When I started his first book, I said, `Oh, I’ll sit down and read the whole thing.’ Well, I soon realized I’d only read a chapter a day. It got down to a paragraph, at most a page, a day. I’m using the new book for spiritual reading, and the section I’m on now, it’s about a sentence a day.”

It’s not that it’s drudgery. “It’s rich,” says Greeley, who has the heroine of his new book quoting O’Donohue, a sure sign that he’s seeping into popular culture.

No less than Deepak Chopra, the best-selling author, physician and spiritualist, is a fan. He says O’Donohue’s work is “a rare synthesis of philosophy, poetry and spirituality.” He calls it “life-transforming for those who read it.”

Yow.

And how is it that the boy who grew up on a sod farm, whose vision of hell to this day is an endless prairie of turnips that need thinning, who lives an ascetic’s life alone in a cottage with walls held up by books, the nearest human a mile away, how is it that such a lad grew up to be “well on his way to becoming one of the master practitioners of the trade,” in the words of Greeley, the trade being the saving of souls through spiritual writing?

“I was born on a farm in the west of Ireland, and I’m so glad of that because I think one of the finest places to begin acquaintance with the universe is on the land,” says O’Donohue. “The landscape at home is exceptionally dramatic, the Burren region of County Clare, the amazing stonescapes, you know.”

You mean sort of like the stones standing near the door?

“No, not at all,” he says, barely glancing away from his Guinness.

“It was an intimate landscape. Every field had its name. It was a folk world, a world of folk culture. Also, through working the land –cows and cattle, sheep and fowl, sowing crops, cutting hay and turf, it was a full farming life–it meant that you became acquainted with the landscape.”

His favorite chore: Cutting turf in the bog, slicing half-foot slabs of earth, boring deeper and deeper with every slice. The bog, he explains, “is where there was a forest and where it collapsed, and where all the past life is congealed underneath the surface in a fallen way.”

And so, “in a sense, cutting turf is a place where you enter the hidden time of a landscape, where its memory is interred.”

It is those poetic riffs, infused with a passion for the natural world, that are the underpinning of O’Donohue’s vision. It is his Celtic soul oozing out–in conversation or in his books.

He was blessed with a father “with a lovely mind for a farmer. He always had the ability to think. He could go to the horizon with the thoughts.”

And always, turning the hay, cutting the turf, there was conversation.

“At night, too, around the fire at home, the experience of the day is sifted. With all kinds of silence, loads of silence looking into the fire. A lot of old time for integrating experience, digesting, mulling over things.

“It was a lovely way for a young man to grow up. James Hillman (the Jungian analyst) said, `Women relate face to face, but men relate shoulder to shoulder.’ “

It wasn’t long before O’Donohue went off to university, where he studied philosophy and English literature, and where his mind, he says, “really woke up.”

“I always think that thoughts are the most intimate part of humans,” he says. “The way you think is the way you are. Meister Eckehart (a 13th Century German mystic) says our thoughts are our inner senses. Polish them and refine them; the edge of your thinking will determine who you hold yourself to be, what you hold the meaning of life to be and how you will live with yourself in the world.

“I think one of the things that really holds us back and atrophies us and condemns us to live such forsaken lives is the deadness of our thinking, and how we swallow like fast food the public cliches that are given to us, and how we dedicate so much of our precious inner time of the mind to listening to garbage that has nothing to do with anything.”

O’Donohue, in his own humble way, wouldn’t mind turning that around. He doesn’t much like the trappings of celebrity, though. He quips as his picture is being taken, “Rilke says, `Fame is the sum total of misunderstandings that gather around a new name.’ “

He never set out to be the writer of books that have made him a household name back in the old country. And lately he has been crisscrossing America where people line up, sometimes in the hundreds, waiting for a word, and his scrawl on the books they buy, often four or five at a time.

“One of the things that consoles me about all this is that I didn’t go out looking for it at all,” he says.

He was quite satisfied with having completed his PhD in philosophical theology with a dissertation on the philosopher Georg Hegel that won him a summa cum laude in 1990 from the University of Tubingen, near the edge of the Black Forest in Germany. That dissertation, written in German, draws rave reviews — one as recent as last summer in The Review of Metaphysics, a scholarly journal. He’s thinking he should have it published in English.

But back to the, er, more accessible road his writing career has taken.

It just kind of took off on its own, it seems.

Having written poetry since he was 21 and along the way becoming a priest, although not tied to any parish or particular order, O’Donohue had been invited several years ago to share his meditations at a conference in California. Someone made tapes of his talks that were later heard by an agent in New York. The agent got them tucked between covers as “Anam Cara,” which sold like hot cross buns from Dublin to Donegal. In America, sales topped 50,000 in hardcover and 60,000 in paperback, not too shabby for a first book of its ilk.

“I’ve been totally blown away, really amazed, so humbled, by the resonance these books have found,” says O’Donohue, who for long hours every morning sits with a fountain pen in a little room with an open fire, writing a sentence, throwing it out, writing another, tossing it too. “After three hours, you have four miserable sentences,” he says. “For every one of them, you’ve thrown out 100.”

But in the end, when all the sentences add up to a finished work, he whispers one last benediction as he seals the envelope to his publisher. “Always when I’m launching a book,” he confides, “the last line I always say is, `May this book find its way to those who need it.’ “


and here is the beannacht that started my way back to my old poet friend….

written for his mother, Josie; beannacht, in Gaelic, is a word with more nuance than mere blessing, it’s “goodbye and God bless,” so here is a beannacht for the those we have lost, in ireland, in ukraine, here on our very own sod…

Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~ John O’Donohue ~

(Echoes of Memory)

if you’d like surround-sound comfort, you can listen to him — and hear that beautiful lilt — here, talking with krista tippett about beauty….

and here is the wonderful wisdom from howard zinn that had me looking for hope….(with huge thanks to PJT, my holy light in D.C.)

where did you find comfort — and hope — this week?

nativity is birth, after all

fragment of The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Guido Reni, circa 1640

nativity, by dictionary definition, the occasion of a person’s birth. most often told in airbrushed terms. but i find myself drawn in more deeply by the grainiest of tellings. 

for me, the miraculous emerges in contemplating the earthiest of details: not simply imagining the lowings of the cow, or the stench of a barn, or the cold night air, but the raw biology of birthing. how it stretches almost to the breaking point the mother’s flesh and frame; the messiness of all the leaking. from afterbirth to latching on, gestation’s final act is no theater of the sanitized. 

that we begin our resurrection story in a barn, that the virgin mother did not escape the grunts and tears and unveiled exposures of labor pains, of crowning and pushing, of colostrum and breastmilk coming in, engorging. that divinity begins in common birth, as every one of us began: through birth canal and searing pain, through a mother’s intense focus and channeled superhuman forces, through flesh to flesh for days and weeks on end. 

as one poet so powerfully put it: “For any birth makes an inconvenient demand; / Like all holy things / It is frequently a nuisance, and its needs never end /…” and as another poet begins her own musings, “sometimes I wonder / if Mary breastfed Jesus. / if she cried out when he bit her / or if she sobbed when he would not latch. / …”

two poems, both nativity poems, struck me hard this week. they trickled in separately, but when i looked at them together, side by side, i found them magnifying and illuminating in echo of each other. 

here are the poems, and a bit about each poet. all in the spirit of drawing our deepening attention to the birthing story coming….

first the poems, beginning with the older one, written some time between 1939 and 1943 (i discovered it last year, and promptly ordered from england anne ridler’s collected poems); and the newer poem, written just two years ago and published on facebook, no less, on december 16, 2019.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s watercolour of The Nativity

Christmas and the Common Birth
by Anne Ridler

Christmas declares the glory of the flesh:
And therefore a European might wish
To celebrate it not at mid winter but in spring,
When physical life is strong,
When the consent to live is forced even on the young,
Juice is in the soil, the leaf, the vein,
Sugar flows to movement in limbs and brain.
Also, before a birth, nourishing the child,
We turn again to the earth
With unusual longing – to what is rich, wild,
Substantial: scents that have been stored and strengthened
In apple lofts, the underwash of woods, and in barns;
Drawn through the lengthened root; pungent in cones 
(While the fir wood stands waiting; the beechwood aspiring,
Each in a different silence), and breaking out in spring 
With scent sight sound indivisible in song.

Yet if you think again 
It is good that Christmas comes at the dark dream of the year 
That might wish to sleep ever.
For birth is awaking, birth is effort and pain;
And now at midwinter are the hints, inklings 
(Sodden primrose, honeysuckle greening)
That sleep must be broken.
To bear new life or learn to live is an exacting joy;
The whole self must waken; you cannot predict the way 
It will happen, or master the responses beforehand.
For any birth makes an inconvenient demand;
Like all holy things 
It is frequently a nuisance, and its needs never end;
Freedom it brings: we should welcome release
From its long merciless rehearsal of peace.

   So Christ comes 
At the iron senseless time, comes 
To force the glory into frozen veins:
   His warmth wakes 

Green life glazed in the pool, wakes 
All calm and crystal trance with the living pains.

   And each year 
In seasonal growth is good – year 
That lacking love is a stale story at best; 
   By God’s birth 
Our common birth is holy; birth
Is all at Christmas time and wholly blest.

***

William Blake’s The Nativity

sometimes i wonder
 by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired
hungry
annoyed
overwhelmed
loving

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.

***

Anne Bradby Ridler (1912-2001)

A British poet and librettist, remembered as “essentially a sacramental poet,” Anne Bradby Ridler was originally hired as a secretary at the London-based publisher Faber & Faber, and later worked as an assistant to T.S. Eliot, selecting the poems for A Little Volume of Modern Verse. She was a friend, too, of C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and Lawrence Durrell, and was considered “on the edge” of the Inklings group (the closest proximity for a woman of those times). Born to a literary family, her mother was a writer of children’s books, including The Enchanted Forest; her father, a first-class cricketer, schoolmaster, and poet.

According to a charming passage in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

“In childhood Anne Bradby was surrounded by influences that fed her imagination and intellectual inquisitiveness. At home there was white wallpaper and William Morris chintzes, a picture (attributed to Canaletto) of the Campanile at Venice and a Broadwood piano—and in playing it she experienced the joy which she later remembered Yehudi Menuhin describing as the essential ingredient for the education of any player. In Rugby School (where her father was schoolmaster) there was architecture by William Butterfield and in his style. In the community there were dramatized scenes from Shakespeare that her mother produced for the children of various families. A favourite place at home was the midway ledge of the double bookcase in the hall, in which was stored a mass of books. ‘Reading to myself’, she wrote, ‘began to be my greatest resource … and the basis of my imaginative life’.” 

She’s been called a modern metaphysical poet, whose work is rife with complex metaphors. Overtly Christian, she explored religious themes, and human experience, especially motherhood and marriage. “Many of her poems mark arrivals and departures: her husband leaving in wartime, the birth of a child, the death of her father. The need to understand things passing and to give them some currency in memory and then in poetry lies at the heart of her work,” wrote Peter Forbes, editor of the Poetry Review, shortly after her death.

She earned a degree in journalism from King’s College London; her first volume of poetry was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1940. A member for three decades of the Oxford Bach Choir, her poetries are best heard aloud, “full of subtle coloration and rhetorical balance.” You can hear her reading one of my favorites, “Snakeshead Fritillaries” here.

Shortly after her death in October of 2001, The Guardian wrote in her obituary: “Ridler’s poetry displayed an attention to cadence and musicality in both her formal and her free verse, and managed to combine a Christian spirituality and Latinate, Elizabethan elegance with a more modern, even sceptical, tone. While some poems are overtly religious – Carol To Be Set To Music and Prayer In A Pestilent Time – she would more often situate her everyday subjects in contexts of both faith and doubt.” Later in the obit, the literary critic Grave Lindop was quoted as saying: “She had the clearest and best-balanced poetic intelligence I have ever met.”

Shortly before her death, Ridley was made an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to literature. She sought not fame, preferring, she once claimed, “to think of herself as invisible.” According to the Poetry Archive, a British-based not-for-profit that preserves recordings of poets reading their own works aloud, “Her quiet excellence, however, is far from inaudible.”

***

Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

Kaitlin Shetler’s poem, “sometimes i wonder,” has been called a “short sermon in the form of an Advent poem.” Shetler describes herself as an “advocate for women and justice, and occasional preacher in Churches of Christ circles.” This one poem—something of an internet sensation—was thought to have reached—through the powers of social media—more than 10 million, a number exceeding the worldwide membership of the evangelical Churches of Christ. And that was almost two years ago. The arithmetic knows no bounds. What’s most critical to understanding the subtext of her poem is that hers is a church known to be one of the most restrictive to women and girls in its fold (women and girls are completely excluded from speaking, or leading, or otherwise actively serving in its worship services).

Now a senior program associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, a not-for-profit whose mission is to end the overcriminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, immigrants, and people experiencing poverty, Shetler is a Licensed Master Social Worker, and described on the Vera Institute’s website thusly: “Kaitlin has over 10 years’ experience working with vulnerable populations. During her senior year in undergrad, she managed the domestic violence shelter in her college’s small town. After college, she spent a year working as a case manager and mental health intern at the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital. After graduating from the University of Tennessee Knoxville with her master’s in social work, Kaitlin worked as a behavioral rehabilitation instructor for the state of Tennessee. There she developed a passion for the disability community and best practices for advocating for young adults with disabilities.”

She started writing poetry in 2018, and her Advent poem, a year later; since then, she’s penned a growing library of Poems for the Resistance. She mentioned in one interview that she “felt a little guilty about taking credit for this poem, because I truly feel it was God speaking and I was just writing it down.”

Her mission, she says, is “to find the kicked out, the bruised, and burdened and to learn at their feet.” 

***

and through her poetry, we all do.

through both their poetries–through anne’s, the poet who preferred invisibility, and through kaitlin’s, who has found a pulpit in her poems–i find myself on my knees, contemplating the complexities and interweavings of birth and God, of the radical equation that is the Christmas wonder.

amen, amen to all.

your thoughts on the poems? or your own favorite nativity poem?

huge and unending thanks to my beloved friend andrea who sent me kaitlin’s poem, and to the inimitable poet priest malcolm guite, who a year ago sent me (and many others) the beginnings of my anne ridler steepings.

p.s. one tiny housekeeping thing: for clarity’s sake, when writing the biographies above, i step into my big-girl writing shoes and bring out the caps key, lest my fondness for lower-case prove too vexing when trying to seize the facts. (and maybe just to prove i can find the caps key when pressed!)

inside the word factory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bookplate

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

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

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

*excerpt from “December: Sacred Invitation”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The January Kitchen:

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

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

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

Worth-the-Wait Porridge

Elixir (Bread) Pudding

Cure-All Mac and Cheese

Beef Stew with Pomegranate Seeds, Nestled Beside Aromatic Rice

Winter Salad: Roasted Fennel, Red Onion, and Orange

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

A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar

Fourteen Blessings for February

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

juneteenth

in which, once again and imperatively, we listen. this time to the words of abraham lincoln, Black activist jadon-maurice forbes, and poets maya angelou and marilyn nelson…

“a proclamation,” it begins, simply, declaratively. a beginning ground deep in the soil of justice. long overdue justice. 

“Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

so begins president lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, issued at the dawn of the new year, 1863.

so why did it take till the 19th of june in 1865 for the slaves of galveston, texas, to find out they were free?

juneteenth, at heart, is the commemoration of that announcement of overdue emancipation— marking the official end of slavery in these united states — a full two and a half years after lincoln’s proclamation. 

quoting from juneteenth.com:

“Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or none of these versions could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question.  Whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.”

why did it take till the 19th of june in 2020 for most of a nation to awake to the lingering injustices, to finally empower one Black activist, jadon-maurice forbes, to write: “Juneteenth, perhaps for the first time, is for all of us.”

for all of us to inventory our souls, to ask the hard, hard questions: what are the isms in my life that put up walls? where are my blinders? what are the ways i acquiesce to otherism? and, most emphatically, how can i break down whatever stands between me and true and unbiased justice for all?

forbes goes on to write:

This is a day that my grandmother taught me to honor as the beginnings of a new life for the African diaspora. She was very close to her African-American heritage and wanted to impart that quality to me. So much so that she would replace my Hooked-on-Phonics books with ones she felt were more suitable — like Imani and the Flying Africans — a fantastic tale of a band of Africans taking to the sky to escape to freedom.

When I think of Juneteenth, I often imagine those winged, black faces breaking their chains and finding freedom. But the true American tale of how slaves were freed is more grounded in a nuanced, complicated, and painful struggle for freedom that has continued for 155 years (read: that means ‘til today). Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day the last of the enslaved Africans in America were freed from their chains, having continued to work in bondage for a full two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In many ways, Juneteenth is a bittersweet reminder of what was promised but never delivered to Black folks post-emancipation. It’s a reminder of delayed justice. Every year, even after my nana passed away, we celebrated this holiday. And every year, we do so in honor of progress as much as for a continually delayed sense of justice and equality.

But this Juneteenth is different. Can you feel it? We’re in a rare moment in that the world is coming together to really grapple with that delay. In the last three weeks, millions have taken to the street in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and now, Rayshard Brooks, in addition to the many other Black people who have been killed at the hands of vigilantes or law enforcement. The explosion of protest is in response to a pattern of killings, piled onto the deadly impacts of COVID-19 and four years of Donald Trump.

linger over these unanswered questions. let them settle deep down to where your conscience unsettles you. ask where you might begin. and in the meantime, let maya angelou further stir your soul.

here she is reading “the slave auction,” a poem by frances ellen watkins harper, written in 1854, after harper, a Black poet, witnessed one such auction…

and read the words of poet and author marilyn nelson’s “juneteenth.” nelson, the daughter of one of the last of the tuskegee airmen, was a three-time finalist for the national book award, poet laureate of connecticut, winner of the robert frost medal, and more and more and more. but before you read her poems, read this short bit she wrote on “how i discovered poetry”:

It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,
but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne
by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me
to read to the all except for me white class.
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo playing
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.

and, now as promised, nelson’s poems. first up, “juneteenth,” and then, the riveting “worth.”

juneteenth

With her shiny black-patent sandals
and her Japanese parasol,
and wearing a brand-new Juneteenth dress,
Johnnie’s a living doll.

Juneteenth: when the Negro telegraph
reached the last sad slave…
It’s Boley’s second Easter;
the whole town a picnic.

Children run from one church booth
to the next, buying sandwiches,
sweet-potato pie, peach cobbler
with warm, sweaty pennies.

The flame of celebration
ripples like glad news
from one mouth to the next.

These people slipped away
in the middle of the night;
arrived in Boley with nothing
but the rags on their backs.
These carpenters, contractors, cobblers.
These bankers and telephone operators.
These teachers, preachers, and clerks.
These merchants and restaurateurs.
These peanut-growing farmers,
these wives halting the advance of cotton
with flowers in front of their homes.

Johnnie’s father tugs one of her plaits,
head-shaking over politics
with the newspaper editor,
who lost his other ear
getting away from a lynch-mob.

Worth

For Ruben Ahoueya

Today in America people were bought and sold:
five hundred for a “likely Negro wench.”
If someone at auction is worth her weight in gold,
how much would she be worth by pound? By ounce?
If I owned an unimaginable quantity of wealth,
could I buy an iota of myself?
How would I know which part belonged to me?
If I owned part, could I set my part free?
It must be worth something—maybe a lot—
that my great-grandfather, they say, killed a lion.
They say he was black, with muscles as hard as iron,
that he wore a necklace of the claws of the lion he’d fought.
How much do I hear, for his majesty in my blood?
I auction myself. And I make the highest bid.

how will you mark juneteenth? how will you join in the movement for justice for all?