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?
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.
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 I’ve 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)
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?
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.
“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.”
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.
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?
and, 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.
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.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way to begin
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
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….
who will be your guideposts through this new and fresh terrain?
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.
my 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?
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.
on 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.
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…
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?
how unlike me to post on a thursday, but i’d already had thoughts about tomorrow, and didn’t want this latest book for the soul to get lost. i’ve been waiting weeks and weeks for this to run in the chicago tribune, because i can’t post here till my book for the soul reviews run there. at long last! i’ve been dying to tell you more about this most amazing soulful “urban monk,” christine valters paintner, who is among the most soulful souls i’ve run across in my kitchen table literary travels, where i follow tributaries and estuaries, one after another, never knowing where one will lead, never knowing what amazement i will bump into. i’d been reading another one of her books, “the soul’s slow ripening: 12 celtic practices for seeking the sacred” — mentioned here — when suddenly from the daily mail there tumbled this newest collection of her poems. call it serendipity, or call it “the gods smiled.” (i’ll take the smile…) i promise if you click over to abbey of the arts, and poke around for a while, you will be restored, refreshed, refueled, and ready to tie on your hiking shoes and head for the celtic ruins of wherever christine leads you. my dream, as of a few months ago, is to one day trek the wild ancient places of western ireland with christine. i feel drawn to her sacred discipline, to her profound and soulful poetry and wisdoms. i hope you do too.
‘Dreaming of Stones’: Poetry collection offers spiritual solace
By BARBARA MAHANY |CHICAGO TRIBUNE|
Dreaming of Stones: By Christine Valters Paintner, Paraclete, 96 pages, $18
To enter the pages of Christine Valters Paintner’s “Dreaming of Stones” feels akin to wandering the undulations of Celtic wilds, the barren landscape that cloisters timeless secrets and truths. It’s not hard to imagine ancient ruins off in the mist-drenched distance. Nor to hear the cry of North Atlantic winds, sweeping across moor and mountain. It’s haunting and it’s beautiful.
Most of all, it’s to find yourself at home in a place you’ve never been — the very definition of soulful retreat.
And so it is in this first full poetry collection by Paintner, a writer, painter and Benedictine oblate who moved to the west coast of Ireland in 2012. She now calls herself the abbess — or “urban monk and part-time hermit” — of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and global ecumenical community that combines contemplative practice and the arts.
No less than Richard Rohr, the best-selling spiritualist and Franciscan friar, writes that Paintner’s poems “have both a mystical and earthly sensibility, drawing us to the transcendent as well as the immanent presence of the divine.” Paintner herself writes that “poetry is language carved down to its essence,” and she calls these 80 poems “little love notes to the world.” Love notes of the soul, perhaps.
Paintner is fluent in the lush language of earth and sky as well as the otherworldly, the mysterious beyond. Born and raised in New York City, she is old-soul Celtic, through and through. Her poems rise out of the monastic practice of dwelling in silence, and hers, often, is a churchless god. A god who can’t — and won’t — be confined. A god who belongs to any and all.
The poems here are distillations of the most enduring wisdoms — love, hope, heartache, the unfolding of time — penned with a painstaking eye on the earthly. Carved out of the raw stuff of existence, especially in these troubled times, these dispatches offer safe harbor for taking stock, seeing the sacred, absorbing the solace.
And as with all the finest poetry, it’s the unwritten volumes beyond the words that hold our lingering attention. To enter these poems is to slow time, to pause long enough to grasp what might otherwise have escaped us.
The poems here might as well be prayers — many of them anyway. Others put words to lasting truths.
In one of the collection’s six sections, in a poem titled “St. Gobnait and the Place of Her Resurrection,” Paintner writes: “Is there a place for each of us, / where we no longer yearn to be elsewhere? / Where our work is to simply soften, / wait, and pay close attention?”
Or, pages later, in “St. Brigid and the Fruit Tree,” this: “Your tears splashed onto / cold stony earth, ringing out / like bells calling monks to prayer, / like the river breaking open to / the wide expanse of sea. … There will always be more grief / than we can bear … Life is tidal, rising and receding, / its long loneliness, its lush loveliness, / no need to wish for low tide when / the banks are breaking.”
In her afterword, Paintner writes of her devotion to the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke and “the way he wrote about the God of darkness and mystery, the God who loves the questions rather than the answers.” She shares that inquiry. And it’s her hope, she writes, that those who find their way through “Dreaming of Stones” find “a moment of sanctuary” in its pages.
The poet’s prayers, then, are answered. This collection — probing the mystery and the darkness, embracing the god of question not answer — indeed carves out sanctuary in a most turbulent landscape, amid these wild, wild times.
Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.
“…the great poet should not only perceive and distinguish more clearly than other men [sic], the colours or sounds within the range of ordinary vision or hearing; he should perceive vibrations beyond the range of ordinary men, and be able to make men see and hear more at each end than they could ever see without his help. … it is therefore a constant reminder to the poet, of the obligation to explore, to find words for the inarticulate, to capture those feelings which people can hardly even feel, because they have no words for them; and at the same time, a reminder that the explorer beyond the frontiers of ordinary consciousness will only be able to return and report to his fellow-citizens, if he has all the time a firm grasp upon the realities with which they are already acquainted…
“the task of the poet, in making people comprehend the incomprehensible, demands immense resources of language; and in developing the language, enriching the meaning of words and showing how much words can do, he is making possible a range of emotion and perception for other men, because he gives them the speech in which more can be expressed.”
t.s. eliot, “what dante means to me”
“perceive vibrations beyond the range of ordinary [inhabitants of this moment in time on this place called earth], and be able to make [those souls] see and hear more at each end than they could ever [otherwise] see…”
that’s the essence of it to me. the whole draw toward language, toward poetry in particular, the knowledge that at the far reaches of this thing called our capacities we might — if we work at it, if we think about it — possess the possibility of capturing the ephemeral, the ineffable, the slipping-through-our-fingertips. those quivers of human heart and spirit that shimmer just beneath the surface, but once illuminated prompt us — each and every one of us — to sigh in recognition. “i am not alone.” i too know that pain, that joy, that loneliness. that hallelujah of the heart. the long dark night of the soul.
it’s why from the beginning, in writing — be it the stories i scribbled as a child, sprawled across my bedroom’s braided oval rug, or later in chasing and telling the stories of heartbreak and crime and injustice for the chicago tribune — i reached toward poetics, i reached toward those combinations of words that shattered through the barriers of the every day.
i never set out to write poems, i still don’t (i’ve written one to my name and it’s locked in a drawer, just as my mother tells me she too has reams locked in drawers, some burned along the way), but i have always always sought to understand the work, the magic, that poetics does, so that i too could weave it into the plainspoken sentences as i try to write my way through life.
the more deeply i read, the more deeply i study the powers of poetry, the more amazed i am by its otherworldly capacities. the more i ache to reach its borders.
why write? because we are plopped onto this planet as if a babe in the woods. there are mixed-up trails all around, and we are finding our way, every one of us. some are born with illuminators nearby. some are not. we all stumble onto lessons, onto truths, endure trials and temptations. come out wiser, if we’re paying attention. if we’re listening and keeping close watch. if along the way, we can trace the trails, write what we see and hear and come to understand, well then don’t we begin to serve as cartographers for those in the woods with us? might we cover more of the woods if we all share what we etch in our notebooks?
writers write, painters paint, dancers dance. we all illuminate the coursings of the heart in the movements that most stir us. poetry — the art of distilling the unseen, unheard, but often felt gyrations and quiverings of the heart and soul — poetry enters it all.
we reach beyond the range of the ordinary, we illuminate what’s often lost. we aim to hold it high, to whisper, “behold this holy moment, study its undulations, its depths and inclines. extract a droplet of wisdom.” and go on with your humdrum day.
that’s what i thought about at poetry school last week. that’s what i wrapped myself in. and carried home in my backpack.
culled from my notebook:
books you might choose to read, all highly recommended:
scott cairns, Recovered Body(especially, “The Recovered Midrashim of Rabbi Sab”)
how do you try to capture the ineffable? and why does it matter to see and hear what’s beyond ordinary range? your thoughts on eliot’s thoughts up above?
i can’t leave the chair this morning without a cannon’s blast of birthday blessings for my beautiful firstborn, who is off in DC, without an actual mailing address (he’s living in a condo not yet on the market and for some reason the developer can’t give him a reliable street address nor the promise that any mail would actually be delivered…), and who is turning 26 tomorrow. the only thing worse (for the mama, anyway) than a kid having a birthday far far from home, is not being able to send a single care package! so, not that he’d wander by to read this, but i am sending all the love in my heart and then some. i send prayers as well, mountains of them. may this year ahead illuminate all that is good and joyful in you and around you and because of you. i love you to the moon. have since long before you were born. xoxoxoxo
oh, dear God, i love this child, love him far beyond the borders of my humble little heart….
steeple of marquand chapel at yale divinity school
before i pack my bags for summer camp for nerdy nerds (the so-called camp i’m going to has a pack list rife with yellow highlighters, five-tab binder, reams and reams of pages; dictionary, encouraged), i am dipping back into my nursing days, and wielding ice bags and ibuprofen like nobody’s business.
i’ve been up every hour on the hour through the night, employing what amounts to a giant-sized sock filled with ice, tied round the not-yet-swollen cheeks of my now-college-bound kid, the one who had his wisdoms extracted yesterday. excavated would be a more apt choice of verb, the friendly oral surgeon whispered, suggesting muscle (perhaps pick axes?) — more than usual — might have been involved. not exactly the last hurrah of high school anyone would wish for…
soon as we round the bend on impending swelling, soon as pudding and jello gives way to mushy mac-and-cheese (a second-day staple), once this escapade in extracting/excavating wisdom fades into the sunset, i am seeking wisdoms all my own: i’ll scramble to pack the last of my poetries and hop a plane to NYC, whereupon i’ll glide my way to new haven, aka elm city, where an empty apartment waits for me, and a whole div school besides.
in the rarest fluke of my non-adventurous days, i somehow found myself signing up for a one-week summer course, “reading poetry theologically,” at yale divinity school, a bastion of ecumenicism (with a strong dash of anglicanism) since 1822. i’d have signed up for this first week too, when a tantalizing class in henri nouwen was stretched across the days, but those wisdom teeth got in my way, so i’m signed up for next week’s poetry, taught, curiously, by a professor named david mahan, and i’ll soon find out if he’s my distant cousin who’s done away with his closing syllable, lobbed off his exclamatory y. (ours is not a name — with or without all its syllables — you bump into very often.)
i never was much for camp of the mosquito-and-sunscreen variety. never did like that kool-aid poured from vats, the red stuff they called bug juice, as if that would warm me to its redness. but i am positively twitterpated at the notion of making believe i’m back in school. the thought of loping down the cobblestones, my book bag swinging by my side, well, it’s akin, i’d think, to how cinderella felt when she traded in her whisk broom for her sparkly shoes.
for anyone who wants to play along at home, the reading list of poets (a brilliantly eclectic mix of voices, the very sort i love the most) includes: gerard manley hopkins, wendell berry, scott cairns, lucille clifton, denise levertov, mary karr, langston hughes, louise erdrich, and the glorious (new to me) r.s. thomas, an anglican priest from wales, often ranked as one of the three great english-language poets of the 20th century, alongside yeats and eliot, and often called “poet of the hidden God.” (be still my hidden heart.)
as was the case back in our year of thinking sumptuously, when in one academic year my appetite for binging at the course-list trough was forever whetted, i’ll send along a dispatch of whatever poetic morsels stir my hungry heart.
and now, before the timer pings reminding me to grab an ice pack, here’s the latest book for the soul, an exploration deep into islam, and my review of Muhammad: Forty Introductions, by Michael Muhammad Knight, as it ran in the pages of the Chicago Tribune last week:
‘Muhammad: Forty Introductions’ is a soul-stirring primer on Islam
‘Muhammad: Forty Introductions’
By Michael Muhammad Knight, Soft Skull, 320 pages, $16.95
Review by Barbara Mahany Chicago Tribune
When Michael Muhammad Knight — whom The Guardian of London has called “the Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic literature” — set out to teach a religious studies seminar on classical Islam at Kenyon College in Ohio, he promptly realized that no single snapshot served to introduce his mostly non-Muslim students to the great prophet Muhammad, “Messenger of God.”
Instead, the professor settled on 40 such snapshots, or “introductions,” drawn from a broad swath of voices — the canonical as well as the marginalized — citing ancient Islamic scholars, French philosophers, and even “Star Wars” (though not in equal measure).
His “Muhammad: Forty Introductions” is part gonzo devotional, part Muslim primer, and, ultimately, a soul-stirring portal into a personal vision of Muhammad.
The narrations Knight turned to are a bedrock of Islam: the hadith, an oral tradition of “news” or “reports” of Muhammad’s sayings or doings, a tradition that traces its lineage of authenticity through a chain of teachers, resting in proximity to the prophet himself. Hadiths — apart from the Qur’an — serve as instruction for Muslims looking for guidance in how to live their lives. As Knight put it, “I want to know Muhammad’s way of being human.”
Knight is a novelist and essayist who converted to Islam at 16, traveled to Islamabad at 17 to study at a madrasa, then got a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. In gathering 40hadiths, the author followed the ancient Islamic literary tradition of the arba’in, wherein scholars over the millennia have collected and curated 40 hadith, often by theme. For Knight, who rose to literary fame with his 2003 self-publication of his novel “The Taqwacores,” now considered a cult classic and a “manifesto for the Muslim punk movement,” his “Forty Introductions” is a decidedly contemporary collection, reaching into queer theology, feminist commentary and core Islamic teachings.
Something of a crash course in Muhammad, Knight’s intellectually charged collection of fragments makes for a multi-textured, many hued mosaic. In a revelatory aside, Knight acknowledges that for every student of Muhammad, the prophet becomes a “montage of images, an arrangement of moving parts.” This fragmentation is inevitable — and necessary — he writes: “the ingredients of my Muhammad often come to me as shattered pieces that have been chipped away from something else.”
Alternating between the professorial and the personal, Knight hits his highest notes when he pushes away from the seminar table and bares his own soul. “Some hadiths soften my heart and bring me to tears,” he writes toward the end of the book. “I cling to the image of Muhammad as a gentle grandfather who lets his daughter’s sons Hasan and Husayn climb onto his back as he prays.”
While the introductions he’s chosen cover a full range and complexity — from Muhammad’s physical appearance to his family life, infallibility, legal authority and mystical nature — and while Knight boldly puts one interpretation or argument up against another (a seamless synthesis is hardly the point here), it seems particularly telling that he chooses as his closing introduction Islam’s parallel to the Golden Rule:
“The Messenger of God (God bless him and give him peace) said, ‘One of you does not believe until s/he loves for another what is loved for self.’ ”
And then, Knight reminds why this, of all teachings in all religions and world views, matters most in the end.
“Claimants upon a religious tradition have numerous modes by which they can disqualify each other as illegitimate. You pray wrong; you dress wrong. You read the wrong books, or perhaps read the right books wrong. Your prophetology is wrong. Your preferred scholarly authorities are wrong. Your opinions about permissible and forbidden acts are wrong. This hadith reminds us that we can get everything right … and still fail as Muslims on the grounds that we’re selfish pricks.”
Muhammad, the professor reminds us, came “to perfect the noble traits.” For emphasis, he adds: “Muhammad reminds us that becoming less of a selfish prick would confront many of us as an epic struggle. Being a good person isn’t the easy part.”
Knight, by way of his 40 Muhammadan introductions, illuminates the way.
Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.
back to the summer-camp question: what would be your rendition of the ideal mosquito-free summery week away, with or without a tent?
and before we go, i am sending the biggest smushiest birthday blessings to beloved nan, whose big birthday is today, and beloved amy, whose blessed day was yesterday. love you both to the moon and stars and back…..xoxoxo
it’s a tundra out there. i’ve just crunched across the hard crust of snow, coffee can of fat black seed in tow. if ever the birds depend on me, the pewter-haired one who clangs around as if the keeper of the flocks, it’s on a dawn like this. even the wind is shivering.
inside this toasty-warm old house, we’re dwelling in the rarest of quiet pauses. the soon-to-be college kid has turned in his last exam, and might sleep till dusk. it’s the first day in eons that there’s not a single essay or snatch of homework for me to pester him about. he has literally zippo, zilch in the to-do pile, which means i, too, am off whatever hook we mothers impale ourselves.
i’m going nowhere on a day as cold as this. and, till nightfall, have every intention of plunking myself right here, at the old maple table, where i keep watch on flash of scarlet at the feeder, in the boughs. i’ve got all i need within reach: a mug that’s warm and filled with morning brew, a stack of books so tall it sometimes teeters.
all week, i’ve been deep in the pages of mary oliver. one by one, i’ve pulled her books off my shelves, and pored over line after line. i’ve been drawn especially to her prose, the long sentences as stitched with poetry as any of her verse. i inhaled upstream: selected essays, and a poetry handbook, her 1994 master class in the making of a poem.
reminded me — as i scribbled notes on sound (did you know our alphabet is divided into families of sound? and that besides good old vowels and consonants, there are semivowels and mutes? a mute, it seems is most important in the realm of poetry; a mute, mary tells us, “is a consonant that cannot be sounded at all without a vowel, and” — here’s the interesting part, where the little bitty alphabet letter seems to take on menacing character — “suddenly stops the breath.” the mutes are k, p, t, as in ak, ap, at.) — and as i was saying before i interrupted myself, being inside the pages of mary oliver’s masterclass reminded me of the glorious semester i spent studying poetry with helen vendler, the great literary critic and mastermind of poetry, who every monday and wednesday at 1 o’clock on the dot, marched into harvard’s emerson hall, plonked her satchel on the desk and dove in. with nary a hello. we had 60 minutes to squeeze in all there was to know about lyric poetry — from ancient to modern — and she would shave off not a second for distractions such as long-winded greetings. helen vendler was one of those treasures, a lioness of american poetry, whose every poetic utterance you knew was met with full-stop attention far beyond the cambridge city limits, and had she not been such a gentle-souled professor in her sensible shoes, dabbing tissues at her nose in between recitations of pound and eliot and coleridge, you might have shuddered in her presence. but in fact we all sat hushed, even the snotty little harvard first years who hush for almost no one. (i was already pewter-haired, as this was amid our nieman year, our year of living sumptuously, when we all went off to college at the ripe old age of 55.)
and, yes, it’s something of a magic trick, a measure of her writerly powers, that mary oliver could make the pages of a book feel as alive as a living, breathing, whole-semester class.
it was in the fresh wake of her death — just a week ago — that this reading felt almost sacramental. it was a reverential rite, absorbing her wisdoms with a measure of urgency, a sense of hurry-before-she-slips-too-far-away. read against the sharp edge of the final bracket of her life, her words and wisdom felt infused with the prophet’s cry. and, certainly, in her returning over and over to themes of the eternal cycle, life to death to life in newly configured form, there was a peace that rose from the pages, from the knowing. if anyone who’d walked among us was welcoming that last great surrender, it was mary O who all along had seen the glistening beauties in the mystery of death, who lived and breathed the truth of life’s brevity, who asked again and again, how will you live this one wild and precious life?
because i’m reading mary O with an eye toward a talk on thomas merton and the Book of Nature, i took notes, lots and lots of notes.
here are just a few that insisted they make their way into my notebooks — and now, perhaps, yours too:
“Beauty has its purposes, which, all our lives and at every season, it is our opportunity, and our joy, to divine.” So writes Mary O in Upstream, and then she goes on to witness the dawn of day across a 20-acre field in winter: “The sun has not yet risen but is sending its first showers over the mountains, a kind of rehearsal, a slant light with even a golden cast. I do not exaggerate. The light touches every blade of frozen grass….The still-upright weeds have become wands, encased in a temporary shirt of ice and light….It is the performance of this hour only, the dawning of the day, fresh and ever new. This is to say nothing against afternoons, evenings, or even midnight. Each has its portion of the spectacular.” (“Poe claimed he could hear the night darkness as it poured, in the evening, into the world….I will hear some sound of the morning as it settles upward.”)
Later, she writes: “For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water….To the young these materials are still celestial; for every child the garden is re-created. Then the occlusions begin.”
A bird, she writes, “was, of course, a piece of the sky.” “…This is not fact; this is the other part of knowing, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief.”
Of a great-horned owl, swooping through the forest, she writes: “When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of mystery….”
Knowledge, she writes, entertained her, shaped her, and ultimately failed her. “Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worthy of my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my spiritual state.”
“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family….we are at risk together. We are each other’s destiny.
“For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”
and this, the closing lines of poetry handbook, is the one i’ll leave with you to ponder for the day:
“For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.”
—Mary Oliver, “A Poetry Handbook”
may our own occlusions be swept away by wonder and the telltale tingle of the spine that reminds us we’re in the presence of the holy, the infinite, the ever….
which line above from mary O most stirs you? or which did you unearth this week?