in which, once again, i bring you a wee bouquet, this time an assemblage from the springtime garden. . .
it creeps in unawares, something like a mosquito circling your pillow deep in the night. barely there at the edge of your consciousness, then suddenly smack dab and nettlesome straight in your face.
it’s the itch that comes in the chill of not-yet-real-spring. in the the days when drab is the only real color you see out your window. when the world seems to be broadcasting its thousand ways to be brown. or gray. or washed-out leftover green. at least that’s how it is in my humble neck of the woods.
a week or so ago i finally managed to heave the bundles of pine that had all but petrified over the winter. and all that was left in the pot by the door was left-behind scraps of last autumn’s sheddings. and then suddenly, smack dab like the pesky mosquito, i could stand it no longer.
the drab had taken its toll, the drab stirred me to action: to pick up my keys, lope to the wagon, and drive into the distance. i passed garden store numero one, where the guys were heaving large satchels of loam, with nary a pansy in sight. i motored on, further south, and a wee bit west, into the lot of the big box store, where an old man shivered inside the cash register shack, and the very bare shelves carried only one thing: the bright yellow fluttering faces i’d suddenly craved.
i snatched up three little flats, and carried them home, where the itch of not really spring has been quelled for the moment. it’s too cold for the trowel, so i’ll leave them perched where they are. but my morning’s botanic adventure, the first of the season, is giving me reason to hope. and hope is the thing that animates the first blush of spring.
once the snowflakes recede, and the thermostat warms, once march turns to april, and brings on the palette of exuberant spring, we might actually, actually turn the page on old winter.
don’t hold your breath. . . . or put away your mittens. . .
it seems my mailbox in the middles of the week finds itself with flag up, and something luscious tucked inside. this poem from joyful, wise, and wonderful lamcal, who has been a font of wonder for me for all the years she’s been pulling up a chair.
this is actually anne sexton’s poem, the 20th-century american poet known for her highly confessional works, though this confession radiates with joy.
if i was ever pushed to pick the one sub-genre of poetry that most speaks to me, it’d surely be domestic poetries. those quotidian hours and ordinary nooks and crannies of our everyday lives that are made sacramental through the simple holy practice of paying attention. perhaps you’ll consider joy the next time you towel off in your cannon bath towel, or make a chapel of your eggs. oh, anne sexton, thank you. and, even more so, lamcal. xoxo
There is joy In all: In the hair I brush each morning, In the Cannon towel, newly washed, That I rub my body with each morning, In the chapel of eggs I cook Each morning, In the outcry from the kettle that heats my coffee Each morning, In the spoon and the chair That cry “hello there, Anne” Each morning, In the godhead of the table That I set my silver, plate, cup upon Each morning.
All this is God, Right here in my pea-green house Each morning And I mean, Though often forget, To give thanks, To faint down by the kitchen table In a prayer of rejoicing As the holy birds at the kitchen window Peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it, Let me paint a thank-you on my palm For this God, this laughter of the morning, Lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard, dies young.
and since april (on the morrow) is poetry month, why not one more, from one of my patron saints of poetry, mary oliver? the line i’ve emphasized in bold is the one i know by heart. i live for holiness visible, entirely. i’m guessing you do, too.
Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way
If you’re John Muir you want trees to live among. If you’re Emily, a garden will do. Try to find the right place for yourself. If you can’t find it, at least dream of it.
When one is alone and lonely, the body gladly lingers in the wind or the rain, or splashes into the cold river, or pushes through the ice-crusted snow.
Anything that touches.
**God, or the gods, are invisible, quite understandable. But holiness is visible, entirely.
Some words will never leave God’s mouth, no matter how hard you listen.
In all the works of Beethoven, you will not find a single lie.
All important ideas must include the trees, the mountains, and the rivers.
To understand many things you must reach out of your own condition.
For how many years did I wander slowly through the forest. What wonder and glory I would have missed had I ever been in a hurry!
Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still
it explains nothing.
The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.
~ Mary Oliver ~
and, finally, because this took my breath away in that way that only the Inklings could and can, here’s c.s. lewis trying to put language to the ineffable, talking about “the inconsolable longing for we know not what.”
he’d felt this longing his whole life – it came to him during moments of almost unbearable beauty: “[t]hat unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of ‘Kubla Khan’, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
have you ever heard a lovelier expression for a searching for the sacred, no matter what name you put to it? i call it Holy God. and in my heart, i genuflect each time i utter those blessed words.
what visible holiness did you stumble upon this week, and might the itch to bring on springtime have buzzed by your nose this week? how’d you satisfy the itch?
that is to make an adverb of the adjective “commonplace,” as in “commonplace book,” a descriptive i’ve already tweaked into a transitive verb, “to commonplace,” to partake of the act of commonplacing. the commonplace book, you might recall, is a centuries-old literary tradition of squirreling away snippets and bits of esoterica and wonder, and tucking them into a common place, a journal or diary in days of old, or here on this rickety old laptop in the digital age.
it’s a habit i’ve taken to voraciously. i am a packrat of linguistic persuasion. or, as my beloved friend amy more poetically put it, as she described her incessant gathering of singular words or wisdoms as that of a magpie, that feathered species known for its “borrowing” proclivities, as it feathers its nest with an assemblage of freshly plucked (and pilfered) shiny objects and upholsteries.
in flicking my wand over the quaint coinage, commonplace, i’ve taken linguistic liberties to make it an adverb describing the ways i exercise my curiosities and enchantments. i commonplacely gather up bitlets––a wisdom here, a sigh-triggering superword there. and, with pure joy percolating in my heart, i scurry here to bring them to you.
in the house where i grew up, the only girl amid a huddle of brothers, with a mother who recited poetries as a way of waking us from our long night’s slumbers, and a father who punctuated all conversation with endless puns and wordplay, i come by my affinities maternally, paternally, and i imagine generationally (my grandma mae, a kentucky school teacher whose testing scores earned her a blue-ribbon blurb in the bourbon county news, certainly must have loved a succulent word––and, oh, that i would have known her to have basked in her starlight . . .).
and so, standing on the shoulders of all of them, i commonplacely bring you this wordly bouquet for your literary delight and soulful ponderings . . .
let us begin with a romp through a sandbox of little-used words, all of which deserve prompt and hearty resuscitation…
from Ounce Dice Trice:
a few fine words for times of day: day-peep (dawn), dimity (time of day when daylight dims), dayligone (twilight)
a smattering of “terms of venery” or “nouns of assembly,” collective nouns specific to certain kinds of animals, a tradition that traces its roots back to english hunting in the late middle ages:
a booing of buffaloes
a pioling of pelicans
a skulk of foxes
a smother of spiders
a trembling of goldfish
a scribbitch of papers
a tumbletell of church bells
a snigglement of string
and from a dear friend who might have been spuddling along:
spuddle: (17th century) to work feebly or ineffectively; to be very busy whilst achieving absolutely nothing.
and now let us turn from singular words to singular wisdoms….
visiting a cemetery atop a sacred mountain three hours from his home in japan, pico iyer, the british-born essayist known for his voluptuous and epiphanic travel writing, brings us this summons to attention, elicited by a ghostly walk amid the gravestones:
“The thought that we must die, I might have heard the two hundred thousand graves saying, is the reason we must live well.” — Pico Iyer
George Herbert, the English poet and priest, described prayer as “heart in pilgrimage.” (The Secret Gospel of Mark) (page 255)
this next one particularly struck me, as someone whose writing often references God, and who understands viscerally that the very name can stir a host of untapped responses. more and more i claim my ground as an ecumenicist, one who seeks out and sees the glory, wonder, and wisdom in myriad paths to the Sacred Source, and who stakes no single road as the sole salvation. God for me is a name of great comfort, but not all react quite that way. and so i understand why a writer might wrestle therein. and, as so often happens in my Russian doll school of reading, where one idea opens into another, one reference leads me on to another, stumbling upon the quote below introduced me to a writer i certainly should have known, and whose works i am now gathering from my ever-acquisitive neighborhood library.
so this, from Lyanda Lynn Haupt, naturalist, ecophilosopher, and author* of Mozart’s Starling, The Urban Bestiary, Crow Planet, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, and Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds: (*i’ve already put on library hold as many of her titles as i could find on the shelves)
“When the fraught name God comes up in conversation or reading, I always remind myself that whatever the source or language used, we are at root on common ground — invoking the graced, unnamable source of life, the sacredness that cradles and infuses all of creation, on earth and beyond. I know that prayer is the lifting of our hearts, our thoughts, and even our bodies in conversation, or contemplation, or remembrance, or supplication, or gratitude within this whole, requiring no dogma, only openness. Hildegard counseled, ‘To be alive is to give praise.'”
and from the late great david foster wallace, whose birthday was marked this week, on february 21:
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
– David Foster Wallace from This is Water
the season of lent began this week, with ash wednesday when we’re reminded through the smearing of burned bits of palm on our foreheads that our short swift lives are indeed bracketed, and that we’d best step up the pace toward whatever is our life’s holiest work. i scanned all week for a lenten offering to bring here, but didn’t find just the right one yet. if you’ve one you’d be inclined to leave here on the table, by all means, do.
and in the housekeeping department: remember that little gathering we’ve planned (march 21, 7 p.m. central time)for the “official launch” of The Book of Nature, my forthcoming adventure in publishing, well, i upgraded my zoom-i-ness this week, and we are no longer confined to 40 short minutes. we can gather for as long as 30 hours at a stretch. though i don’t think we’ll need quite that much time. if you’ve registered, you’ll be getting an email from EventBrite with the link to the event two days, two hours, and 10 minutes prior to the gathering. they work hard to make sure no one forgets.
*page from commonplace book with sketches and poetries of Patrick Branwell, among the many commonplaces found at the Harry Ransom Center atthe University of Texas.
next week the chair will post from the capital city, land of about-to-bloom cherry blossom, where i shall be deeply and joyfully ensconced in the project of helping my firstborn settle into his new book-lined apartment in the adams-morgan neighborhood, where he shall launch his professorial life in the weeks and months and years ahead….it never grows old, being there in the trenches, as my boys find their ways. it’s my holiest work, and i am so blessed to have it…..
what wonderments did you stumble upon whilst wandering this week?
my days these days are filled with simple verbs; staccato, monosyllabic verbs: chop. stir. turn. sigh.
in other words, i fill my hours tucked between the pages of tall stacks of books i am guzzling down as if to carry me across the frozen tundra out my window. i guzzled my way through january, and except for a few days in the air in february, i aim to do it all over again in this the shortest month.
i do rise on occasion from my butter-yellow-checked chair, mid-morning sometimes, to take my station at the chopping block, where my knife work begins. usually in the alliums, chopping onions to bits, mincing garlic buds, filling the room and my fingertips with the essence of under-earth. i glug olive-y oils into the big red pot, the one weighty enough to shatter my toes should i ever let it slip from my grip. i slow-cooked my way through the year’s first month: stews and soups and braises. more stews and soups and braises.
it’s the simple rhythms that put the hum in my day. sustenance, really. the exotic and the excitement––the sighs and the gasps––come in the pages i turn. the ones where i might find a sentence so lovely i all but haul out my scissors to make of it a shrine to the genius of human mind and soul that so sees the world in these breathtaking ways, and dares to combine words in ways we’ve never before imagined. or felt.
really, it’s all filling my tank for the weeks ahead when my little book will take its pirouette for a few short moments, and i will step beyond my shadows long enough to put voice to its birthing. those of us who tremble when stepping before a crowd, we need to store up a winter’s worth of quietude, of sustenance, so we’ve a reserve to dip into. to share abundantly.
these wintry months i am doing winter’s work: letting the roots seek deeper ground whilst on the surface all looks still.
and so my offerings here are leaning more than usual on the genius of those i gather round me. and my hope is that what punctuates and titillates my day might bring the same to you…
we begin with mary oliver, a little poem she wrote as part of a septet.
“So Every Day”
So every day I was surrounded by the beautiful crying forth of the ideas of God,
One of which was you.
a beloved, beloved friend of the chair sent me this the other day. and i thought you too might want to tuck it in your drawer of special words (i could not for the life of me find its origins, only that it was tagged “healers” and so i share it thusly:
some will turn away when you show them your bleeding. some will stay. will press stars into the wounds. will hold your feet as you learn to walk again with the weight of a too-full heart pummeling your bones. (healers)
i mentioned last week that i’d tumbled my way into a poetry conversation between dante micheaux and a poet priest named spencer reece, whose story so intrigued me i ran to the library and found his magnificent, magnificent memoir, the secret gospel of mark: a poet’s memoir, which is hands down the most gasp-inspiring book i’ve read in a good long while. i couldn’t stop reading; inhaled 400-plus pages in two days. tried hard as i could to stay awake into the night to keep reading. but my old body refused. i saved it till the morrow. i wound up giving it five stars in an amazon review, and i wrote this:
In an age of binge-watching, this magnificent, tender, deeply vulnerable, and utterly breathtaking memoir from poet and Anglican priest Spencer Reece deserves to be binge-read. In one gulp, if you don’t need to sleep. I swallowed it whole in two sittings. And I couldn’t wait to get back to its pages when I had to put it down. Reece writes gloriously on multiple levels. He is at once raconteur and poet. A lifetime’s close read of poetry pours from the pages, as Reece takes us deep into his fluency in — and kinship with — Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, James Merrill, Mark Strand, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Interwoven with his own sometimes wrenching, occasionally tragic, story — one that carries him through dark years as a closeted gay teen, and later an alcoholic who briefly finds himself on a psych ward, and ultimately stumbles into grace as a priest called to love with abundance — Reece writes that “poetry saved me more than the church.” The twinned lenses, funneling toward a holy and redemptive intersection of God and poetics, serve to make this a book I’ll long press close to my heart. As a longtime reviewer of Books for the Soul for the Chicago Tribune, this one counts among the rare few unforgettable treasures tucked on that bookshelf. It’s at turns bawdy, and funny, and crushing, and always, always crafted in sentences so beautiful, so crisp, and — yes — so poetic, they will leave you gasping in awe.
and from the pages of reece’s secret gospel come this week’s. . .
sentences of the week(in which i invite you into my commonplacing world and share some of the snippets that filled my notebook this week):
“The hint of night scratched at the edges of the day.” (372; Spencer Reece, Secret Gospel of Mark)
“foggy green lawn footnoted with hedgehogs” The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Poet’s Memoir, by Spencer Reece (“footnoted” as in splattered, punctuated with…(113)
“the land oozed God.” (and for the trifecta, it’s Spencer Reece once again…)
i often let my friends at the New York Review of Books point me toward what belongs on my shelves. and so it is, especially, in the children’s corner. i’ve long been mad for whimsical nearly obsolete words, words that need a puff of oxygen to keep their hearts still beating. and, so, i’m enchanted by this long-time favorite, which i’d not known before: Ounce Dice Trice, with words by Alastair Reid and illustrations by Ben Shahn. Ounce Dice Trice was the only children’s book ever illustrated by Shahn, and only one of two books Reid wrote for children.
NYBR says this: “Ounce Dice Trice operates as a haphazard, whimsical dictionary of words and word play. Reid, a Scottish-born poet and long-time correspondent for The New Yorker, provides list upon silly list of fantastic words, most of them real, some completely made-up. Shahn, the Lithuanian-born American artist known for his socially- and politically-informed art, provides hilarious drawings to accompany the words.” [see below, for a wee quickling of a peek. and be charmed, like me, by the name for a little pig. i suppose dear wilbur (of charlotte’s barnyard) was a tantony.]
and that, dear friends, is my week’s worth of sustenance. except for one thing: the big red pot. so here is but one of the many things that filled that pot this past week and this past month:
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, more for serving, if desired ½ cup panko or other plain dried bread crumbs ¼ cup minced onion ¼ cup chopped chives or basil 2 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane or minced 1½ teaspoons kosher salt ½ teaspoon black pepper ½ teaspoon dried oregano Pinch red pepper flakes (optional) 1½ pounds ground turkey, very cold 1 large egg, beaten 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed 3 cups marinara sauce, more to taste*
PREPARATION Step 1 In a large bowl, combine cheese, bread crumbs, onion, chives, garlic, salt, pepper, oregano and red pepper flakes, if using, and mix well. Add turkey and egg and blend with your hands until well mixed. If you’ve got time, cover mixture and chill for an hour or up to 24 hours. These are easiest to form into balls while very cold. Form into 28 meatballs, each about 1¼-inches in diameter.
Step 2 Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large sauté pan. When hot, add enough of the meatballs to fit in one layer without crowding, and brown on all sides, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate, add another tablespoon of oil to pan and brown another layer of meatballs, transferring them to the plate as they brown. Repeat until all meatballs are browned, adding more oil to the pan as needed.
Step 3 When meatballs are all browned, add marinara sauce to pan and bring to a simmer, scraping up the browned bits on the pan bottom. Return meatballs and their juices to pan, shake pan to cover the meatballs with sauce, and lower heat. Partly cover pan and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes.
Step 4 Serve hot, drizzled with more olive oil and sprinkled with more cheese, if you like.
*note: this week i super jazzed up the sauce with a shiny night-black eggplant: while the meatballs chilled in the fridge, i took my marinara up a couple notches: sautéed onions, garlic, and then eggplant. added fennel, red pepper flaks (a pinch), marjoram and oregano, salt and pepper. cook till browned and then relaxed. add splash red wine. jar of tomato basil marinara; let simmer a good half hour. (here’s where i added extra bowls: i scooped my simmered sauce into a bowl, and browned my meatballs in the big red pot; once browned, i poured back the sauce, and let it all get cozy, simmering for another while. at dinner time, they all arrived deliciously on our plates. (and this is why you’d best take your cooking instruction for a more precise cook!)
we seem to have stumbled around here onto the recalcitrant version of the red-ringed bug, the one that won’t go away. or came back before it left. i was on the mend, as was my mate here in this old house, when suddenly a cumulus nimbus of cloudy congestion came roaring back to the head of the one with whom i share these rooms. and then the little test confirmed our suspicions: it’s covid again. so he’s re-grounded and i’m shuffling quietly, still under wraps (aka mask).
which means that with a weekend forecast for snow and cold, along comes one for much more quiet. to which i let out a little yelp of muffled delight. because that means more time to dig into my latest reads: thoreau’s walden; and what could be more fitting for a january cold spree than a charming tome titled the nightingale: notes on a songbird?
and that means that once again, i’ve spent bits of my week cobbling together a few morsels for my friends who might pull up a chair.
i begin with this beauty from henri nouwen, the modern-day mystic and deep theologian whose wisdoms are many, and whose birthday this week had me bumping into this:
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.
a more beautiful definition of compassion, of being a profoundly alive human, i do not know. perhaps you’ll marinate in these holy words for a few hours this cold, cold weekend.
next up, in the wonders of the week, i found myself in a poetry conversation that spanned continents (thank you, oh wonders of zoom), and thanks to my friend Pádraig Ó Tuama, i discovered a poet whose work and whose voice i can’t get enough of. his name is dante micheaux, and what i know is that i will be chasing down his poetries in any form i might find them. here’s a bit of his bio (though i am starting to dream of a journalistic beat in which i wander the globe talking to poets, in hopes of filling out the fine grains of their stories). . .
Dante Micheaux is the author of Circus (Indolent Books, 2018) and Amorous Shepherd (Sheep Meadow Press, 2010). He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from New York University. His poems and translations have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Poetry, PN Review and Tongue—among other journals and anthologies. Micheaux’s honors include a prize in poetry from the Vera List Center for Art & Politics, the Oscar Wilde Award and fellowships from Cave Canem Foundation and The New York Times Foundation. In 2019, he won the Four Quartets Prize from the T.S. Eliot Foundation. He grew up in New Jersey, but lives now in London, and we shared a wee bit of enthusiasms for a bagel shop on Brick Lane, or as the brits would spell it, a “beigel bake.”
the judges’ citation on the Four Quartets Prize is this: “How right that this poet’s first name should be Dante. For his Circus is a Comedy: a savage comedy, lacerating dialects, fingering wounds, looking for loves right and wrong in the crevices of history and of humiliated bodes. And yet, and yet. His language exults, triumphs, and freely rummages in the treasuries of the Bible, Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot, Baraka, and Mahalia Jackson, taking what it needs, making it his sovereign own, a wrested blessing. Congratulations, Dante Micheaux, on your astonishing Circus.”
you can hear a bit of him here, in a podcast called beyond the red door, an audio companion to a poetry series that brings poetic meditation inside the walls of St Mark’s, an Anglican church in Jackson Heights, in New York City. Here, Micheaux is in conversation with Anglican priest and poet, Father Spencer Reece (himself a whole nother story). Micheaux reads a poem reminiscient of Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and at the end a Canto …
(i’m promising more on Spencer Reece next week, as i’ve requested a slew of his books from the library…) and here is but one of dante’s poems that took my breath away…
Mary at the Torture
Everyone was out that day, for a show. Sure, it was sad for people who knew him but she was his mother, slinking about the rabble in that dark halug, veiling her face with a headscarf—as if no one noticed her.
Some say it served her right, letting her son run about the countryside the way she did. Poor Joseph, for all efforts at teaching the boy a skill, never succeeded, hadn’t a chance against Mary’s coddling.
But how could she just stand there, watching? Each time the scourge met flesh she didn’t even flinch. No cry, no lamentation—most unlike a child of God. Any other mother would have had to be contained, would have put herself between lash and child, would have succumbed to conniption—at the least, rent her clothing. Not one tear.
She was always strange, though—quiet, dark days about her since she was a girl.
It wasn’t easy: the scandal before the wedding; him getting into trouble with the law. Perhaps, she was relieved.
(first publishedMay 11, 2011, in Painted Bride Quarterly)
the techno team here at the chair is figuring out how to host a virtual launch of my soon-to-be book, The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text (which got its very first official review this week, in Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, and which you can find over on Book of Nature’s very own page here at the chair. details and sign-up soon as the techno wizards figure it out. and yesterday, in a meeting with the lovely team who does the heavy lifting in the book-peddling department, someone held up an actual hot-off-the-presses copy of said book, proving its existence, and alerting me to the notion that it could soon be landing with a plop on my snow-covered stoop. (though it’s official pub date is still firmly on the vernal equinox, march 21, 2023)
before closing, a wee bit about the two books waiting on my butter-yellow-checked chair: thoreau’s walden i am reading cover to cover as preamble to the weeks ahead when i’ll likely be extolling the wonders of keen-eyed watchkeeping on the woods and the turning of seasons.
sam lee’s the nightingale has been on my bedside table for at least a year (there’s a whole essay on the books we keep close at hand, yet never manage to crack). for the pure whimsy of it (as well as a fine excuse to read the pages of the irish news) here’s what they have to say about the wondrous love-letter to the vanishing bird. but should you refrain from clicking, here’s the book jacket description:
Come to the forest, sit by the fireside and listen to intoxicating song, as Sam Lee tells the story of the nightingale. Every year, as darkness falls upon woodlands, the nightingale heralds the arrival of Spring.
Throughout history, its sweet song has inspired musicians, writers and artists around the world, from Germany, France and Italy to Greece, Ukraine and Korea. Here, passionate conservationist, renowned musician and folk expert Sam Lee tells the story of the nightingale. This book reveals in beautiful detail the bird’s song, habitat, characteristics and migration patterns, as well as the environmental issues that threaten its livelihood.
From Greek mythology to John Keats, to Persian poetry and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’, Lee delves into the various ways we have celebrated the nightingale through traditions, folklore, music, literature, from ancient history to the present day. The Nightingale is a unique and lyrical portrait of a famed yet elusive songbird. Sam Lee has brought the poetic magic that has long enchanted so many of his musical fans into the written word.
and that’s the news, thin as it is, from here at covid central.
how shall you be soaking in your quiet hours ahead?
sixteen years old. old enough to drive a car, the chair now is. not quite old enough to vote, but we’ve stayed away from politics all these years; allowing only goodness, grace, to be our guide––even in those rare few times we’ve wandered in the public square, celebrated the election of a president, felt crushed by the words and ways of another.
we’ve stood watch here as the world crushed us (i can still see the image of that precious little two-year-old, the syrian toddler––alan kurdi was his name, the little boy in the bright-red T shirt, the little black sneakers, and scrunched-up navy pants––washed up on the sands of the aegean sea, trying to escape a war’s unimaginable horrors and terrors). we’ve felt the crushings, too, of close-to-home heartaches, the ones not felt much beyond our own intimate borders, but more piercing than all the rest sometimes.
why do we invite in crushings here? because it’s how i’m wired, i suppose. i’ve always felt hurts so, so deeply (some say too deeply; to them i say not sorry). and i have always wished for a place where tender comforts, heart healings, might occur. where the one who’s hurt could find a featherdown place to curl into. to be tucked under fuzzy afghans. handed warm mugs of tea. and a bowl of clementines, for when the tears paused long enough to give way to nibbling. maybe it’s the nurse in me, the heart of me. i can’t bear to see, to hear, to feel, to imagine hurting. but i will witness every time. for every hurt needs witness. needs bearing. needs extra body parts––shoulders to lean on, hands to squeeze, eyes to gently smile––to bear and share the load.
sometimes, i’ve brought silly here. not because i’ve any proclivity for clowns or clownishness. but because life not seen through comic lens is sometimes too unbearable. to laugh is to lighten the load. to be lifted by the effervescence of a good giggle. or even a guffaw. there’s alchemy and medicine in the sound of joy rising from the lungs.
in sixteen years, we’ve held up to the candlelight life’s beginnings and endings and all in-betweens: goodbyes and homecomings, births and death, and the littlest flickerings of the everyday.
i’ve uncorked a bit of my soul here, let you see my heart’s wanderings as i moved deeper and deeper, bolder and bolder into saying aloud what i was sometimes plenty timid to whisper. somehow, over the years, the sacred i call God––God, a name that resonates a tenderness to me, a name whose very uttering fills me with a knowing, a hope––has pulsed so palpably through my every day, i now put breath to it without too much trembling. and in words––i hope––that do not close doors. i’m more intent than ever to draw forth the wisdom, the wonder, the light from any path that winds toward God, Allah, Adonai, Divine and Holy Wisdom. i reach for the doorways, have no use for locks on doors.
i’ve brought tinkerings at the cookstove here, too. in part because i will always be trying to find my way back from a dark, dark place when i was just 18, and, for reasons that escaped me at the time, i’d somehow decided i’d see how little food i could swallow in a day. it’s a place that filled me with cringing shames for years, and years. and tangled me in terrible knots. not knowing how to eat, being daunted by and quaking in the face of simple food, is a scourge i’d wish on no one. the question i’d long asked, and which was long asked of me: how does the homecoming queen find herself riding an elevator to a full-blown psych ward? (1975 was back in the day before anyone really knew what anorexia was; and there were no such eating disorder programs as there are today. and the movie “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” had just come out on the very big screen, so it set the stage for a most awful fright.) i can type those sentences now because the years have gentled my shame, and slowly, faithfully, i’ve found my way to a shore of my own. a shore where olive oil doesn’t scare me anymore. and where just last week i drizzled honey (on dorie greenspan’s sweet & smoky roasted carrots*). and it seems that when you’ve struggled so to feed yourself, you find a quiet certain joy in feeding those you love. (and maybe by osmosis you’re hoping to absorb some ease…)
i didn’t intend for this birthday note to grow so confessional. but over all these years, you’re the ones who’ve made this place into the sacred, gentle, quiet space i once dreamed of. and always believed in. you’ve shown me, though your unending kindness, that what i write here is safe here––and i will protect to the end your safety to say here what you will. and, hard as it might be to imagine (given the crude world in which we live), never once in all these years have i found a harsh or mean-spirited comment left here at the so-called “old maple table.” (it would crush me if i found one.) your gentle graces, your heartfelt, heartfelt notes and comments, as well as your incredibly heavenly occasional snail mails, have emboldened me to tell only truth here. life is short, too short, we know. and why waste a day fudging around the edges when what draws us whole––and into each other’s embrace––is saying who we are, and what hurts us, and what makes us giggle? and aren’t we all, in truth, wobbly creatures at the core, only slowly ascending from all the snags and quirks that make us so delightfully who we are?
so here’s to truth. and sixteen, a number imbued with introspection, and spiritual purity, and a sign of good things to come, according to those who study numbers, find meaning therein.
may this next whirl around the sun bring blessings to us each and all…
i have an especially lovely birthday present for all of you, one i will leave here on the table (down below). my friends at the SALT project dug it up from wendell berry’s bookshelf, and it’s a beauty like no other. it’s called “the birth (near port william)” and as you’ll see, it’s a nativity poem for all. happy blessed birthing day, for whatever it is you’ll birth today….(the poem is long, so i will leave it at the very bottom here….)(p.s. because the formatting itself is lovely and i can’t get it replicated here, and because you might love the SALT project, i’m leaving the link to their pagehere.)
one other gift, before i leave you the poem. little alan kurdi’s father, the only one of the family of four who survived the escape in a rubber boat back in the early autumn of 2015, a few years later started a foundation to help children whose lives have been torn apart by war. it’s yet another miracle of the human spirit’s capacity to rise from the deepest, darkest ashes. you can find out more about the kurdi foundationhere.
and another treat: the other evening i time-traveled to amherst, mass., for a birthday celebration in the glorious home of emily dickinson, the great butter-yellow house on the hill, known as the homestead, and during that hour and a half of marvelousness, one of curators mentioned that emily’s beloved sister-in-law susan had written emily’s obituary, which was published in the springfield republican on may 18, 1886. immediately curious, i asked for the link, and here tis, with some of the most lovely writing, and most charmed intimacies of emily’s life, written in the immediate wake of emily’s death by the one who perhaps knew her most dearly…. https://www.emilydickinson.it/edobituary.html
here is but one passage i found delectable…
As she passed on in life, her sensitive nature shrank from much personal contact with the world, and more and more turned to her own large wealth of individual resources for companionship, sitting thenceforth, as some one said of her, “In the light of ‘her own fire.” Not disappointed with the world, not an invalid until within the past two years, not from any lack of sympathy, not be- cause she was insufficient of any mental work or social career – her endowments being so ex- ceptional – but the “mesh of her soul,” as Browning calls the body, was too rare, and the sacred quiet of her own home proved the fit atmosphere for her worth and work.
and the obit ends thusly:
To her life was rich, and all aglow with God and immortality. With no creed, no formulated faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas, she walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old saints, with the firm step of martyrs who sing while they suffer. How better note the flight of this “soul of fire in a shell of pearl” than by her own words? –
and that, dear friends, is the stack of gifts i have for you this blessed early morn…..(one question, and then wendell berry’s poem…)
so here’s the question: how did you find the chair?
“THE BIRTH (NEAR PORT WILLIAM),” BY WENDELL BERRY
They were into the lambing, up late. Talking and smoking around their lantern, they squatted in the barn door, left open so the quiet of the winter night diminished what they said. The chill had begun to sink into their clothes. Now and then they raised their hands to breathe on them. The youngest one yawned and shivered.
“Damn,” he said, “I’d like to be asleep. I’d like to be curled up in a warm nest like an old groundhog, and sleep till spring.”
“When I was your age, Billy, it wasn’t sleep I thought about,” Uncle Stanley said. “Last few years here I’ve took to sleeping.”
And Raymond said: “To sleep till spring you’d have to have a trust in things the way animals do. Been a long time, I reckon, since people felt safe enough to sleep more than a night. You might wake up someplace you didn’t go to sleep at.”
They hushed awhile, as if to let the dark brood on what they had said. Behind them a sheep stirred in the bedding and coughed. It was getting close to midnight. Later they would move back along the row of penned ewes, making sure the newborn lambs were well dried, and had sucked, and then they would go home cold to bed. The barn stood between the ridgetop and the woods along the bluff. Below was the valley floor and the river they could not see. They could hear the wind dragging its underside through the bare branches of the woods. And suddenly the wind began to carry a low singing. They looked across the lantern at each other’s eyes and saw they all had heard. They stood, their huge shadows rising up around them. The night had changed. They were already on their way — dry leaves underfoot and mud under the leaves — to another barn on down along the woods’ edge, an old stripping room, where by the light of the open stove door they saw the man, and then the woman and the child lying on a bed of straw on the dirt floor.
“Well, look a there,” the old man said. “First time this ever happened here.”
And Billy, looking, and looking away, said: “Howdy. Howdy. Bad night.”
And Raymond said: “There’s a first time, they say, for everything.”
And that, he thought, was as reassuring as anything was likely to be, and as he needed it to be. They did what they could. Not much. They brought a piece of rug and some sacks to ease the hard bed a little, and one wedged three dollar bills into a crack in the wall in a noticeable place. And they stayed on, looking, looking away, until finally the man said they were well enough off, and should be left alone. They went back to their sheep. For a while longer they squatted by their lantern and talked, tired, wanting sleep, yet stirred by wonder — old Stanley too, though he would not say so.
“Don’t make no difference,” he said “They’ll have ’em anywhere. Looks like a man would have a right to be born in bed, if not die there, but he don’t.”
“But you heard that singing in the wind,” Billy said. “What about that?”
“Ghosts. They do that way.”
“Not that way.”
“Scared him, it did.” The old man laughed. “We’ll have to hold his damn hand for him, and lead him home.”
“It don’t even bother you,” Billy said. “You go right on just the same. But you heard.”
“Now that I’m old I sleep in the dark. That ain’t what I used to do in it. I heard something.”
“You heard a good deal more than you’ll understand,” Raymond said, “or him or me either.”
They looked at him. He had, they knew, a talent for unreasonable belief. He could believe in tomorrow before it became today — a human enough failing, and they were tolerant.
He said: “It’s the old ground trying it again. Solstice, seeding and birth — it never gets enough. It wants the birth of a man to bring together sky and earth, like a stalk of corn. It’s not death that makes the dead rise out of the ground, but something alive straining up, rooted in darkness, like a vine. That’s what you heard. If you’re in the right mind when it happens, it can come on you strong; you might hear music passing on the wind, or see a light where there wasn’t one before.”
“Well, how do you know if it amounts to anything?”
“You don’t. It usually don’t. It would take a long long time to ever know.”
But that night and other nights afterwards, up late, there was a feeling in them — familiar to them, but always startling in its strength — like the thought, on a winter night, of the lambing ewes dry-bedded and fed, and the thought of the wild creatures warm asleep in their nests, deep underground.
**sixteen, in case you wondered, is how many years the chair has been this quiet little place where these days we gather every friday morn. or at least that’s when i pull up a chair. you’re welcome to stop by any time, stay as long as you’d like. or, for years and years….’twas launched, the chair was, on 12.12.06, with this little post…
it wafts in, gold dust, falls in rivulets across the table, broad swaths and shafts through the windowpanes. it’s molasses light, the amber season, the light of autumn coming that just might save me. it holds alchemical powers, makes my heart quicken, might even push out the walls of my veins a wee bit. i imagine it expands the little red blood cells ferrying molecules of oxygen all around my labyrinthine insides. it makes me more alive than any other season’s sunlight. and it’s coming day by day.
the sun is slipping is how we put it. but, really, that’s not the science. that’s the egocentric way we humans always try to think: putting ourselves in the core of the equation. really, it’s just plain old geometry, all about the angles of earth to sun, and axis to angle. we’re spinning at our cockeyed angle, and come autumn, when we’re leaning out from the sun, the angle shrinks from summer’s straight-on-from-on-high 90-degrees to the slenderer 23.5 degrees, meaning the sun no longer shines straight down in an intense tight cone, but rather the light’s diffuse, the shadow longer. the sun––should you imagine it as a flashlight shining on a table (should you care to do a bit of third-grade science, here)––is not shining from straight above, but now (imagine moving your hand and the flashlight lower in an imaginary arc) it’s shining from off to the side, and the light cast is, per our hypothesis, less intense, more spread out, and––here’s the magic, if we’re talking earth and not flashlights and tables––more golden.
dylan thomas said we should “rage against the dying light.” mary oliver called it “the old gold song of the almost finished year.” i call it molasses light. and i won’t rage against it. i will all but gulp it down. heck, i’d lick it off the table like an autumn lollipop if i didn’t know how impolite that was.
it’s the-light-will-save-you-season, and it’s saving me.
it comes with its cousin, tinge-in-the-air. or at least it does here where i live, not far from the shoreline of that great lake michigan. as one long summer sings it’s almost-finished song, i will relish the next one on the song list: the song of autumn’s gold, with a chaser of goosebumps-in-the-morning air…
commonplace corner: i tend to read in tandem, two books at once; sometimes more. and it’s magic when one book finds itself in conversation with another, unbeknownst to all of us till we stumble on the paragraphs that talk to each other. that happened this week when the subject was how we learn to tell stories. and it’s making me think hard and long about the places in my life where i learned what it meant to sit at a table and be transfixed by the ones from whom the words were pouring, the one with the magical capacity to make a whole room laugh at the very same moment, as if a giant feather had just tickled all our funny bones. at once. how miraculous is that, to make a whole room laugh? to make a whole room cry? to make a whole room think? i can’t think of anything more magical. maybe other than making someone walk who’d never walked before.
here are two sumptuous paragraphs that made me think this week. one’s from erskine caldwell, an american novelist and short story writer whose father was a home missionary at the turn of the last century who moved from place to place in the clay hills of georgia, so young erskine absorbed the dialect and wisdoms of the impoverished sharecroppers where his papa preached. the other’s from kerri ní dochartaigh, a breath-taking writer born on the border of the north and south of Ireland, whose recent memoir, thin places: a natural history of healing and home (pointed to me by beloved chair sister sharon b.) seems to be taking the writerly world by storm. deservedly so. she too has written a sumptuous paragraph about the storytellers in her life. maybe they’ll make you think about the story spinners in your own sweet life…
I was not a writer to begin with; I was a listener. In those early decades of the century, reading and writing were not common experiences. Oral storytelling was the basis of fiction. You learned by listening around the store, around the gin, the icehouse, the wood yard, or wherever people congregated and had nothing to do. You would listen for the extraordinary, the unusual; the people knew how to tell stories orally in such a way that they could make the smallest incident, the most far-fetched idea, into something extraordinarily interesting. It could be just a rooster crowing at a certain time of night or morning. It’s a mysterious thing. Many Southern writers must have learned the art of storytelling from listening to oral tales. I did. It gave me the knowledge that the simplest incident can make a story.
from Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home by Kerri ní Dochartaigh
My grandfather was born in the same week as the Irish border. He was a storyteller, and his most affecting tales, the ones he gave me that have shaped my life, were about place, about how we relate to it, to ourselves, and to one another. Good seanchaidhthe––storytellers––never really tell you anything, though. They set the fire in the hearth, they draw the chairs in close; they shut all the windows so the old lore doesn’t fall on the wrong ears. They fill the room with a sense of ease, a sense of all being as it should be. The words, when they spill quietly out of the mouth of the one who has been entrusted with them, dance in the space, at one with the flames of the fire. It is, as always, up to those who listen to do with them what they will.
“‘Consider the lilies,’” Emily Dickinson said, “is the only commandment I ever obeyed.” Some days, that one is enough. More than enough.
and finally in this week’s version of the chair gazette, a celebration this week of shifting sunlight and words that awaken us, i need to leave one last bit. some but hardly all of you play on the various social media playgrounds — facebook or instagram (i try to do little of either) — and my job as a person with a book in the publishing chute is to tell the world it’s coming (which i intend to do as quietly as my publisher allows). and this week the marketing folks at broadleaf books sent me my “blurbs,” those words of kindness that early reviewers send along. because i promised those marketing wizards that “the chair” would always be my core people, i need to quietly leave those blurbs here to keep up my end of the promise. if you’ve seen ’em in a little post i left on facebook, well then apologies. if not (and my mother counts among those who’ve not seen them elsewhere) here’s the lineup that frankly broke me out in goosebumps. the kindness of these five, all of whom are heroes of mine, pretty much made the last two years worth it….
some heart-melting kindnesses from early reviewers of The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text
“Regardless of where one’s spirituality (or lack of it) may lie, Barbara Mahany’s The Book of Nature is a deeply rich celebration of the ageless overlap between religion and the many faces of the natural world—the ‘Book of Nature’ to which mystics, monks, and others have turned for insight into the sacred. Best of all, this thought-provoking exploration is wrapped in Mahany’s luscious and luminous writing, which makes every page a delight.” —Scott Weidensaul, author of A World on the Wing
“Attention is among the deepest forms of integrity. In The Book of Nature, Barbara Mahany pays attention. She doesn’t look through nature; she looks at nature and, there, sees the mysteries that make and unmake us. In an age of environmental threat and neglect, Barbara Mahany’s book is a theological, poetic, and devoted plea for attention to our most fundamental constitution: matter—and everything that comes from it, including us.” —Pádraig Ó Tuama, host of Poetry Unbound from On Being Studios
“The Book of Nature is an invitation to step into the newness of each day: sunrise, garden, forest, waters, nightfall. These pages reflect both awe and heartbreak, a pause when our world feels on fire and the climate crisis calls us to collective lament, communion, and action.” —Mallory McDuff, author of Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories, and 50 Women United for Climate Justice
“Following in and deepening the footsteps of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, Barbara Mahany’s The Book of Nature invites you to engage with nature as the body of God: to know that all life is the happening of a nondual Aliveness called by many names. Calling to a humanity drunk on transcendence and desperate to escape from Nature and our responsibility to Her, The Book of Nature reveals the sobering immanence of God as the Source and Substance of all reality.” —Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of Judaism Without Tribalism
“Lovely and smart reflections—the perfect book to slip into a rucksack on a day you’re planning a wander through the larger world!” —Bill McKibben, author The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon
and that, dear friends, is that. page proofs are due tuesday, so i’ll be back–perhaps–to more regular chairs, less gazette (though it’s been deliciously fun to assemble morsels every week) and more single-subject essay.
but in the meantime, spill your thoughts about autumn sunlight, storytellers, or words that’ve stirred you this week as we move into golden time….the season of the light that just might save you….
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.
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.
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.
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?
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….
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.
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:
is the clarification
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.
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
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.”
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…
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.
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.
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.
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, TheGuardian 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!)