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

Category: joy of writing

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?

undulations of the everyday

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

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

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

Unknown

socrates: 469–399 B.C.E.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–david whyte: essentials

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

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

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

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

the cartography of discovery, one page at a time

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i am finding my way, or trying anyway, one page at a time.

the stacks of books are growing at a precipitous, and possibly murderous, rate. it’s not quite as death-defying as the bibliophiles who cowered on the cover of middle june’s new yorker, the brilliant bruce eric kaplan’s “bedtime stories,” which made me laugh out loud (in sorry self-recognition). but it’s growing at a rate that might make ol’ jack and his beanstalk shudder.

certainly propelled by the question of the season — what will you do with your one wild and precious life? — i climb the stairs of this old house, this increasingly arthritic house (the old wood slabs and my old bones now creaking in something akin to unison). i am, more often than not, carrying a small armload of books. i carry them, logs to the pyre, to see what i might kindle from the depths of their pages.

IMG_0265my destination is the nook by the window that’s become my signature perch. my aerie. the crow’s nest for those not tossing on the seas, but merely tossing in the undulations of her own uncharted life.

i am, i suppose, reading my way toward some more certain path. and, more often than not, i find myself inside poetry. i find poems the surest way toward clarity. it’s the way a poem illuminates the barest wisps of the everyday, the quotidian. imbues those moments with the volumes of understanding, or wisdom, i’ve always sensed. poetry puts dimension, puts shadow, light, and a spectrum of color, to the otherwise unnoticed.

and therein i find what i call sacred. the holiness of the every blessed moment. if only we stop to mine the depths, the strata, the igneous rock bed beneath the flimsy shale.

this week, as i squirm inside the borderless plateau that is my newfound station, as i arch this way and that, wondering where my path is hiding, i stumbled onto this most perfect poem, one that almost seemed to be a polaroid of the moment in which i find myself: the work of my lifetime, mothering, now coming to a turn.

but what i love the most about this poem, “things you didn’t put on your résumé,” by the brilliant minnesota poet laureate, joyce sutphen, is that it holds the everyday up to the light. shines incandescence on the otherwise invisible. she says it more pulsingly and achingly than i’ve ever managed to capture it (though i wrote three books trying…..)

so from my corner nook in my window seat, looking out into the linden boughs and the serviceberry where the sparrows romp, here’s the perfect poem for this moment when i am looking back at all that’s been, missing it terribly, and wondering where oh where will i next find the closest thing to holiness in my everyday?IMG_0262

Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé
by Joyce Sutphen

How often you got up in the middle of the night
when one of your children had a bad dream,

and sometimes you woke because you thought
you heard a cry but they were all sleeping,

so you stood in the moonlight just listening
to their breathing, and you didn’t mention

that you were an expert at putting toothpaste
on tiny toothbrushes and bending down to wiggle

the toothbrush ten times on each tooth while
you sang the words to songs from Annie, and

who would suspect that you know the fingerings
to the songs in the first four books of the Suzuki

Violin Method and that you can do the voices
of Pooh and Piglet especially well, though

your absolute favorite thing to read out loud is
Bedtime for Frances and that you picked

up your way of reading it from Glynnis Johns,
and it is, now that you think of it, rather impressive

that you read all of Narnia and all of the Ring Trilogy
(and others too many to mention here) to them

before they went to bed and on the way out to
Yellowstone, which is another thing you don’t put

on the résumé: how you took them to the ocean
and the mountains and brought them safely home.

“Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems by Joyce Sutphen, University of Nebraska Press.

simply: what are the things you don’t put on your résumé? 

the illuminating work of the modern-day manuscript

IMG_0011on the eve of the night before she died, she asked me to write her obituary. and then, a month later, after her brother had read her will, she tapped me on the shoulder (or he did for her, literally, in a jam-packed cafe after her memorial, when he came up from behind, leaned in and whispered the question that made my knees go weak); she asked me to be the custodian, the caretaker, of her creative work.

to peel back the tape from a dozen or so boxes and crates, to lift from layers of dust, old essays, typed and stapled, some typewritten the old-fashioned way, others spewed out from every iteration of computing in the late-20th century. another four years of 21st-century essays, dustlessly tucked away inside her sleek hulk of a computer, one that would be boxed and moved and plugged in at my house, where for weeks i couldn’t bear to click open folders, never knowing if i’d find cold, hard diagnostic reports, chemo spreadsheets, or an essay that would rip my heart out.

my job was to sift and sort, read and re-read, move from pile “yes!” to pile “maybe?” to chisel away at the stack till what was left were those words, those essays that could not, should not, be left to crumble into paper flakes, the ink fading by the year, passwords lost and irretrievable.

but, more than anything, to be the caretaker — to be asked in someone’s last will and testament, for heaven’s sake, not just some passing rumination — is to take to heart the work of seeking light. of lifting up what amounts to someone’s heart and soul and inextinguishable brilliance, and offering it sacramentally to the world, believing wholly that it will find its way to every pair of eyes, to every thirsty soul, to every pathfinder who cannot find her or his way. especially, in this case, anyone who happens to be searching for a path through the tangled woods of cancer, a path my friend mary ellen knew too well. and took on like no one i’ve ever known.

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admittedly, my drop caps are not quite so frilly…

it’s been three years, with fits and starts, and sudden rushes of momentum. i’m riding a tail wind right now, have been deep in teaching myself the ways of self-publishing. yesterday laid out 71 pages, complete with drop caps (those giant-sized first letters of every essay, a typographic wonder with roots in the illuminated manuscripts of eighth-century British isles, and those bent-over cloistered monks who traced Biblical text with quill of peacock, crow or eagle, and ink from insects, plants, burned bones or bits of gold).

along the way in this modern-day manuscript making, a brilliant friend (formerly a new york times book review editor) was hired as a second pair of eyes in the sorting phase, to add her voice to the hard task of editorial umpiring, calling balls and strikes and the occasional grand slam. a proposal was written, sent to a literary agent and a publisher, both of whom deemed the writing “beautiful” — “smart, reflective, emotionally transparent,” declared the agent — but because publishing in any circumstance is a steep uphill climb, doing so posthumously is even steeper. they pointed us toward doing this on our own: meaning, learning the ways of self-publishing.

in recent weeks, as i puttered about my garden and my life, it began to feel as if my friend mary ellen was traipsing behind me, tap-tapping me on the shoulder once again, getting antsy (as might have been her way), wondering what the heck the bottleneck was all about. and if i’ve learned anything in my decades here on earth, you do not — repeat, not! — ignore the sotto voce whispers of one you’ve loved, now keeping watch from wherever it is those whispers come.

so i got to work. and we’re ready to grab our ISBN (the 13-digit numeric monogram that makes a book a book, gets it entered into the library of congress, for crying out loud; next best thing to tying it up with a frilly bow, baking it a cake).

if writing is holy work, and for some of us it is, burrowing deep inside the wisdoms and epiphanies of someone wise and wiser as her death drew near is among the holiest. and the most blessed. i am blanketed inside the skeins of her sentences. i punctuate paragraph after paragraph with my tears. i hear her voice so loudly, so emphatically, and yet more gently than i’ve ever heard before, i wouldn’t be surprised if she tapped me in a dream, whispered blessings for bringing her holy work across the finish line.

it’s what she dreamed. it’s what she asked. and it’s a task carried not on our shoulders, but in our twinned hearts. where the magic is this: along the way it can sometimes feel impossible, and too heavy a load. but sticking with it — be it this book, or any seemingly unbearable assignment — forgiving the lulls and sabbaticals, carrying it into the light, just might make it the most essential work in a long long while, love’s true labor.

mary ellen, any day now you’ll have your ISBN. and your name forever gracing the cover. and someone, some day, will pull you from the shelf, and your words will be inscribed in countless hearts. which is what you set your sights on from the very beginning…

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Mary Ellen Sullivan, author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: An Invitation to Intentional Joy,” ISBN coming soon. (photos courtesy of Maureen Butler)

have you considered the holiness of the daily work you do? what moments in particular seem shot through with something a bit bigger than the moment at hand? and how might your daily tasks illuminate this too-dark world?