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Category: love of words

from the middle ages to me: my voracious appetite for the not-so-edible “salad of many herbs”

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florilegium, or “gathering of flowers,” they’re called. or were called in medieval times.

quaint.

one wealthy 15th-century italian wool merchant declared his zibaldone, or book of hodgepodgery, “the salad of many herbs.” a snip here, a pungent bit there.

it was his self-inscribed anthology of esoterica and knowledge, the pages into which he stuffed everything from recipes to tables of weights and measures to the latest smart something he’d heard rumbling on the florentine sidewalks. decidedly, it was not a journal, no catch-all for memoir, nothing like a diary. nary a rambling of the soul found here, this was strictly the province of accumulated knowledge — and things not to forget.

more commonly known as commonplace books, i’ve just discovered i’ve been keeping one — or four or five, more like it — for years and years. (“commonplace,” you should know, is a translation of the latin term locus communis (from greek tópos koinós), or “common place,” and, according to our friends at harvard university’s library, suggests a storehouse, or clearinghouse — in ink, on paper — of ideas and arguments, easily located for ready application. say, when engaged in verbal jousting at the medieval village pub.)

and i just thought i was a hoarder of the literary kind, demonstrating my rodent-like tendencies for squirreling away little bits and snips of enchantment. of the poetic species.

they live in assuming places, my commonplace books, my cache for what tickles my imagination, delights my word-ly fancy, catches my breath. for years, one lived on my laptop’s desktop, but it grew to be so long, so unwieldy, so likely to bring down my hard drive, i only recently birthed its second generation, both titled, “words and lines worth saving,” iterations I and II.

two more, the kind made of cardboard and paper pressed between covers, they live atop my desk, my actual old pine desk, one to my right and one to my left. as i flip through them now, i see i’ve stuffed inside a post-it note with a german address (in case i visit, i suppose), an advent calendar from 2012, a rosary (still in plastic) from the basilica of holy hill. and as i flip through the left-hand book, one i’ve titled, “notes of wonder,” i see that it’s bulging with snipped-out pages from the new york times book review, notes i scribbled on the back of someone’s eighth-grade essay, and assorted ponderings, including this: “God’s first language, which is silence.”

the one i count among my life’s truest treasures, though, is the unwieldy one on my desktop. there, if you scroll along, you’ll find among its 9,938 words unfurled across 35 pages, the turkish word for “moonlight on water” (gumusservi), the definition of epistemology (after stumbling across the line, “the epistemology of loss,” in a john berryman poem), or this from galway kinnell: “to me,” he said, “poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

it’s my digital memory box, the place where i commit the things that take my breath away, stir my soul, make my heart beat double-time. it’s my independent study in the literary arts, and poetry in particular.

little did i know that no less than jonathan swift prescribes one thusly:

“A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories:’ and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.”
—from “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet”

apparently, the practice, with its roots in antiquity, has been unbroken since the middle ages, with a particular up-bump in renaissance times. the idea — brought on with a bang not long after the invention of the gothenburg press, “largely because literate people were discombobulated by the flood of information the printing press had unleashed upon them,” according to alan jacobs, writing in the atlantic — was that particularly pithy or otherwise catchy little thoughts were to be hand-copied and tucked into one’s commonplace book. in arranging topically, it was thought, the literate raconteur would have, at fingertips’ reach, a ready arsenal of neatly tucked-away poetry and argument. need a zippy rejoinder? oh, just wait, it’s right here, on page 23 of my florilegium (the latin name pinned onto the practice by the medievals, who found them particularly handy for stockpiling thought of theological and religious theme. for what little it’s worth, i much prefer to think of mine as that “salad of many herbs”).

why, thomas jefferson was a prodigious keeper of the commonplace (writing in english, latin and greek, of course). as were henry david thoreau and ralph waldo emerson. the british library’s renaissance project boasts a collection of some 50, many penned inside the iron bars of prison cells and locked towers (sir walter raleigh, so imprisoned from 1606 to 1608, filled his penitent hours with library lists, poetry and an illustrated guide to the middle east). in fact, clear through the early 20th century, students and scholars were long required to keep them. and so, if you tiptoe into the bowels of any of the western world’s great libraries, just ask to see the commonplace collections, and you’ll soon stumble on the jottings of john milton, victor hugo, sarah orne jewett, samuel clemens, and john quincy adams, to name but a smattering.

i found out i was such a keeper of the commonplace only by accident. because i happened to ask a dear friend of mine, one who unfurls great lines of poetry at the drop of a hat, how it was that she had such a stockpile at the ready. here’s how my poetic friend, dear amy, replied:

“Yes, I have books and journals filled with favorite quotes, as well a hefty computer file with snippets of words I want to remember. I’ve been a nut about quotes and have collected them all my life, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the squirreling away of meaningful quotes is called keeping a commonplace book, a practice that hearkens back to the likes of Marcus Aurelius and Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson. I just LOVE words of beauty and wisdom, and like a magpie, I love to feather my nest with them, as it were!”

it is the dearest thing to encounter a fellow magpie, both of us flitting through the air with words dangling from our beaks. i’ve long said that if my house began to burn, one of the few things i’d tuck to my bosom would be my long-kept compendium of beauty and breath-taking.

for that, in the end, is what animates so much of my imagination. and puts flight to the task of typing so many hours of my lifetime. there is something deeply holy about tripping upon depths of meaning in thoughts thought before you, in words committed to paper long ago, or just the other afternoon.

i can’t imagine my world without knowing that, at the click of a computer key, i could unlock these lines, copied and pasted long ago, breath-catching beauties from dear virginia woolf:

from “Mrs. Dalloway”: “…she was like a bird sheltering under the thin hollow of a leaf, who blinks at the sun when the leaf moves; starts at the crack of a dry twig.”

on sewing: “…her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt.”

describing grand houses of London: “….halls laid in black and white lozenges…”

“turning one’s nerves to fiddle strings….”

“long streamers of sunlight…”

on “the compensation of growing old”: “the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, turning it round, slowly, in the light.”

“thunderclaps of fear”

i copy to remember. i paste to never forget. as mr. swift so finely put it: it’s my “supplemental memory,” my “record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation.”

excuse me while i amble off to imbibe on my salad of many, many herbs.

do you keep a salad of many herbs, a gathering of flowers, a book of hodgepodgery, otherwise known simply as a commonplace book? and do you not think the practice a wholly invigorating one? a holy one, too?

and, most deliciously, what would be among the herbs you’ve snipped from your literary garden?

finally, happy blessed launch of spring on this day of equal light and darkness, the vernal equinox, when, as my beautiful brother david says, “you can hear the earth breathing.” but only if you listen, of course…..

maybe i should pretend….

picture of dad, taken from back cover of his book.......

i’m typing this a day before i usually type. because tomorrow, friday, at this lovely hour, i’ll be feeling my heart plunk though my chest. i’ll pretty much be wishing i was anywhere besides where i’ll be: sitting in a grand dining room, with white-jacketed waiters scurrying like flocks of plate-bearing birds. knives and forks will be tinkling. i’ll be wishing that every wine goblet at every place was sloshing and swiftly being drained. i’ll wish for delirium to sweep across the room, and everyone in it to drift into ether-land. i’ll wish, quite frankly, to be knocked out myself.

it might extinguish the angst.

as the clock ticks toward 40 minutes after 12, i’ll be calling on angels and saints to lift me and carry me through the next 35 minutes.

you see, i’m slotted to get up, before a crowded dining room, in an old-guard chicago club, and unspool a few wisdoms.

which — if you know me even a wee little bit, this should come as no surprise — scares the behoozies right out of me. oh, i’ve been practicing a good bit of late. it’s what comes after you spend a few years sitting alone in a room, typing your heart out. all of the sudden, they (those faraway someones in the towers of publishing) glue all that typing together, put a pretty cover on it (in my case, a vase of what my little one calls “the dead flowers”), and then they make you get up and talk about those words. out loud.

which, pretty much, is my definition of living-breathing fear. it’s so far outside my comfort zone, i find myself dreaming of rocks i could hide under. examining closets for the extent of their “hide-ability.” my recurring nightmare, just before i wake up on the dawns of the days when i’m slotted to “book talk”: it’s me being toppled by tidal wave after tidal wave. complete with slimy sea shimmerers.

but then, each and every time i stand up — certain my knees will give out, especially if i’m teetering on the skinny little “kitten heels” my fairy godmother in book touring told me i needed to buy (“everyone looks at your feet while you’re reading; you need something excellent for them to look at,” she instructed, in no-fooling terms) — each and every time (so far), i’ve been overtaken by the intoxicant that swirls through the room. the one called love, pure and simple. i look out into a crowd peopled with faces i love, even faces i’ve never seen before, and suddenly i am soaring. no longer the terrified typer, but suddenly afrolic, to make up a word, one that for these purposes we’ll define as in the midst of frolicking. frolicking in waves and waves of laughter and tears and words tumbling on words.

but here’s the problem: i can tell, by the toxins that build by the hour in the hours and days leading up to every one of these podium moments, that i have clearly not inherited the microphone gene, the one double-dosed in my father, that jolly fellow above, the one who looks as if the mike is a plug that literally fills him with high-voltage current.

my papa never met a podium he didn’t love. heck, he traveled the world seeking out podiums. told us umpteen thousand times his fine little podium trick: just look out and picture everyone in their skivvies (that’s vintage 1920s talk for undies).

frankly, it’s never worked for me. i’m too scared to picture anything, let alone fruits-of-the-loom, and tattered stretchy sports bras (if my undies drawer stands as template for this).

so it came as something of a surprise — perhaps a hand reaching down from the heavens — when, a few hours ago, hard at work rinsing gunk from the kitchen sink, i suddenly was struck with a novel idea. one that in alllllllllll my years of being allergic to podiums and microphones has never before leapt into my braincells.

what if i pretend my papa is sitting there? smack dab in the very front row, all pink cheeks and twinkling gray-blues, drumming his fingers in that way that he did, that way i still can hear in my head.

what if i channel that jolly old soul who lived to tell a great tale, who wrung every drop of guffaw out of a punch line, who couldn’t care less how corny it was, long as it erupted the room in knee-slapping, tear-swiping, catch-your-breath laughter?

my papa lived to make people laugh. my papa lived to delight the ear with the tricks of his tongue and his tale-telling superpowers.

i’m a dialed-down version of my papa. what i’m aiming for, first and foremost, is to make it through alive. or at least not collapse in a heap, my little black dress and kitten heels the only discernible survivors. oh, i love a good laugh. i swell to it, like any living-breathing soul of irish descent.

but when i feel heaven and earth intermingling is when it’s so very quiet you can hear breath flowing in, flowing out. when you look into faces, rapt. maybe a tear, maybe streams of tears, messily making their way down cheek after cheek.

that’s the magic that propels me out of my seat. that’s the one and only reason i’m mustering whatever it takes to stand up and teeter on wobbly knees, wobbly ankles, curled-up toes: i’m aiming for the pulsing heart inside each and every one of us. i want our hearts — for as long as we can stretch it out — to beat in the blessed unison, the deep-down understanding that we all, every one of us, are searching for the sacred stitch that draws us together, that animates the whole of us, and lifts us to a plane of higher purpose.

and, maybe, if i pretend my papa is there, in the very front row, all dapper in his brooks brothers suit, the one with the buttoned-up vest, the one he wore on the most special occasions. maybe if i pretend he walked across chicago’s loop from the glistening tower where he typed for all those years — maybe, just maybe, the god-awful worry will melt away.

and i can pretend, tomorrow, that me and my dad are sitting alone in a very big dining room, and i am looking at him, straight into his heart, telling my very best stories, and unspooling a wee bit of wisdom.

miss you, sweet papa. see you tomorrow….

how do you talk yourself through the things that scare you to jitters?

reporter’s notebook: on poetry and peepers and what’s hierophany?

reporter notebook faith and writing

because it’s sunday night, and late at that, and because i promised to ferry home a satchel filled with poetry and wisdoms to mull for a week or a day or a lifetime, i’ll cut straight to the cuttings from my notebooks, the two i filled front and back, draining three fine pens of all their ink.

i will say — because it’s impossible not to — that besides the breathless whirl of words and words and kindness and words that sometimes lifted me from the hard pew on which i was sitting, or the hilarity of anne lamott that made me marvel — and love her rare brand of kooky brilliance — all over again, the most mystical moment came late two evenings, as i walked alone toward the far end of the vast asphalt acre that was the calvin college parking lot.

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

and now, from my notebooks:

notes from the festival of faith & writing:

reading list*:

william spencer, the poet’s poet according to keats.
brian young, one of the more powerful poets writing today, according to poet geoffrey nutter. died last week. “recollection.”
theodore roethke opened up nature and poetry for poet and scholar kimberly johnson.
before the door of god, religious poetry through history, by jay hopler and kimberly johnson.
“man killed by pheasant,” john t. price. short story.
loren eiseley, “the star thrower.” 16-page essay.
chenjerai hove, zimbabwean author, poet, playwright and human rights activist (outspoken critic of robert mugabe) who lived in exile in norway, wrote the novel bones, and inspired okey ndibe.
jessica mitford, great memoirist, the american way of death.
patricia hampl: “if i could tell you stories.”
“the whaling chapters” of moby dick.
“the inheritance of tools,” essay by scott russell sanders.
lia purpura, “rough likeness.” a book of essays.
john fowles, “the tree.” essay.

* these are the titles i scribbled every time one of the truly enlightened speakers tossed out an exhortation, “you must read…” a reading list in progress (in perpetuity, actually)….

words to fall in love with:

pullulating: means “sprouting.” or breeding or spreading.
hierophany: places where sacred and secular meet. The term “hierophany” (from the Greek roots “ἱερός” (hieros), meaning “sacred” or “holy,” and “φαίνειν” (phainein) meaning “to reveal” or “to bring to light”) signifies a manifestation of the sacred.
petrichor: word for the smell of rain on dry rock. petra, rock; ichor, blood that flows through vein (in greek mythology, the ethereal golden fluid that is the blood of the gods and/or immortals). in modern usage, it’s a glorious word for a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. (who knew there was a word for that most delicious spring perfume?)
adiaphora: “meaningless things.”

a few fine lines, and the lively minds who put breath to them:
notes scribbled from my notebook (in order of appearance over the three-day festival)…

uwem akpan, nigerian catholic priest (formerly a jesuit), author of say you’re one of them, collection of five short stories telling of african horrors, each told through the voice of a child:

“if you’re afraid to fail, then don’t try. sit in your room. don’t marry. don’t give birth.”

“for those who want to be writers, be brave, act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly before your god.”

most poignant moment, after his talk when a young blogger walked up to him and said she’d been writing from darkness all month, in the eclipsed days since feb. 13 when her 29-year-old husband died, after a years-long battle with cancer, leaving her alone with a not-yet one-year-old. akpan, a priest since 2003, magnificently ministered to her with his gift of words. i cried, and through tears, i scribbled some of what he said after folding her into his embrace: “get into rhythm. don’t shy away from anger. the prayers may not come. go to the psalms, let them fall off your tongue. when God sends you on a trip, he arrives there before you.

“right now you’re alone in that body of water, rowing toward the shore.”

geoffrey nutter, poet, author of four poetry collections, most recently, the rose of january. teaches poetry at princeton:

it’s been said that his writing gestures toward what t.s. eliot called, “frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.”

“comprehension is unnecessary in reading a poem. apprehending is instantaneous response: what poetry does best. to poets, the image creates the powerful image more so than ideas. images are more intelligent in the poet, do more work. unfold into resonance. it’s where the soul work is done. poems resonate with mystery.”

“the moment when empathy was born: when jesus, scribbling in the sand, said, ‘don’t judge lest you wish to be judged.’”

calls 17th-century poet henry vaughan “one of my best friends.” adds: “words written in the 17th century in a moment of passion, like a note slipped under the door to us.”

“certainty leaves no room for imagination. if uncertainty can wake up our imagination, our imagination is the beginning of empathy.”

eliza griswold, guggenheim fellow, journalist and poet, author of the tenth parallel: dispatches from the fault line between christianity and islam, and a new collection of poetry, i am the beggar of the world: landays of contemporary afghanistan

“heirophany, places where sacred and secular meet. one of the most fundamental places in my life, this space where the horizontal, secular, meets the ultimate; literally, the shape of the cross. that’s poetry, everyday time is punctured by the sacred….my calling is there, the place where sacred and secular meet.”

mary szybist, poet, 2013 national book award winner for poetry for incarnadine:

szybist, a reviewer wrote, has “an appetite for the luminous; reaches for the heavens without bypassing earth.”

“hard for me to believe faith is possible without doubt. or reverence without irreverence.”

kimberly johnson, poet, translator, literary critic, professor of renaissance literature and creative writing:

“writing a poem is like walking around all day with someone pecking on your forehead. something just beneath the surface is waiting to be let out.”

“i want to live my life in epiphany. i want all my pores open. it’s easier for me when language and culture and stripped away. it’s unmediated experience. my antennae is tuned to stuff that exists beyond the social sphere.” (it’s why she loves nature).

from john t. price, essayist, nature writer, professor of english:

quoting mary oliver: “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.”

okey ndibe, nigerian writer, poet, journalist, author of arrows of rain and foreign gods, inc.:

referring to some not-so-cheery bloke: “no milk of human kindness in him….” (an expression that found me muffling my out-loud sigh of verbal wonder)

“a story that must be told never forgives silence.”

thomas troeger, professor at yale divinity school, hymnist, ordained episcopal and presbyterian minister, who has been quoted as saying (not in this festival, but i couldn’t resist):

“I am trying to map the landscape of the heart that still rejoices in God yet lives in a world that is often oblivious to the spirit.  I believe to live gracefully with this tension is the mark of wisdom.  Such an understanding may baffle the dogmatic mind, but it does not lie beyond the capacity of the poetic imagination.  The imagination often holds together realities that are logically inconsistent yet dynamically coherent.”

reading from his essay, “season of lament”:
“we are living in a season of sorrow for the human community, and part of our role as musicians is to help the human heart relieve its tears so that we might sense anew the resilience of hope that we will never know if we have never wept.”

might i mention that he was a textbook portrait of old-school yankee sartorial splendor, with taut bow tie, tweed jacket, and crisply-creased khakis. all topped off with a mop of professorial white curls.

anne lamott (who was brilliant through and through, and hilarious to boot. oh, and who had just turned 60 the day before her friday night keynote).

“it doesn’t help that when you sit down to write, all your unresolved psychiatric issues choose to come visit you that day.”

(and as she sat down let sunday morning to type a facebook post about turning 60) “all the psychiatric issues sat on the bed with me — and they’d had a lot of coffee. they wanted me to know how they thought it was going — not very good.”

“laughter is carbonated holiness.”

“because we’re religious people we’re not going to spackle our hearts closed to block out the hurt.”

panel with peter marty (pastor/writer), christine byl (seasonal laborer, clearing trails in alaska, where she lives in a yurt with her husband and a band of retired sled dogs, author dirt work: an education in the woods), john t. price (nature writer)

quoting henry james: “a writer is someone to whom nothing is lost.”

quoting patricia hampl: “we don’t write what we know; we write to discover. to go off on an adventure.”

christine byl: “i write about what i don’t know about what i know. that’s where i enter. i enter the familiar with an eye toward the undiscovered.”

fred bahnson, writer, farmer, former peacemaker among mayan coffee farmers, author of soil and sacrament: a spiritual memoir of food and faith

“our job is not so much to make a point but to evoke something. invocation is one of the oldest forms of communication. it’s a priestly urge. the act of focusing your attention on something. creating a shared empathy. they’re not beating them over the head, you’re simply saying, ‘look, attend.’”

mycelium (vegetative part of fungus): “perfect metaphor for prayer.”

amen and amen. and good night.

it’ll be two more years till this festival convenes again. i’ve plenty to read till then, and more than enough to think about….(and in the meantime, big giant thanks to my dear old friend and latter-day pathfinder, bruce buursma, the tribune’s longtime religion writer — later baseball writer — who pointed me to the festival in the first place…what a mensch. and great wise soul.)

anything above strike your poetic fancy? who would you add to an essential reading list of poets and thinkers and brilliant essayists (oh, by the way, some fine soul reminded me this weekend that the word essay, with french roots, means “to try, to attempt.” is that not all we can ever do, weaving words into thoughts into rocket blasts from our heart)? what words would be among the most delicious on your plate? 

all in a penultimate week’s delight: pulitzer poet, mama’s milk and t-t-tina brown!

sharonoldsat graylag

dispatch from 02139 (in which we offer up a sampling from a string of days in may, as the year of thinking sumptuously hits its crescendo of pinch-me moment upon pinch-me joy, and conversations begin to be doused with impending dates of departure…)

monday (field trip): if you’ve been merrily playing along here at “the chair” all year, you might recall that long ago and faraway in nieman time, a big old bus pulled up to the curb outside the white clapboard clubhouse where niemans romp. and a field trip’s flock of fellows, each clutching a paper sack of road food, climbed aboard and rode into the wilds of new hampshire, to visit poet laureate donald hall.

donald hall

it was a poetic launch to our nieman year of thinking sumptuously. and it unfolded amid the crisp autumn days of october, when the calendar ahead was ripe with promise.

at the start of this, the penultimate week chock full of nieman adventures, we circled back to that same curb and yet another big old bus that ferried a smaller flock of us again to new hampshire, this time to the stoop of yet another poet, the recently crowned pulitzer prize winner, sharon olds.

while i held my breath and prayed the lumbering bus would not teeter over the edge of the skinny dirt road that cut a path through boulders and woods, sharon olds was putting out platters of donuts and pitchers of lemonade, and pulling back her long gray locks into a rubber band.

she’d opened wide the door of the cabin just up the hill from wild goose pond, tucked into the granite crevices of pittsfield, new hampshire. she’d set a pile of poems on a cedar table in the broad screened porch, set out a ring of creaky wooden rocking chairs, and ushered us in, one wide-eyed nieman at a time.

she loosed her mane from the tight-bound harness, and began to talk about how for so many years she was dismissed by “the academy,” those highbrows who deemed her poems too quotidian. all those years, more than 40, she paid no mind. and kept writing anyway.

“i did have the sense of ordinary stories of parents of young children having the capacity to be art,” said she.

“i felt a little pissed off that people felt it wasn’t worthy of art,” she opined, letting rip a smidge of the saltiness that propelled her all those years (and stirring a silent “whoop!” from me).

she talked about how she’d never had “excessive conscious confidence,” but let on that there must have been a germ of it deep in her bedrock, “because i was writing.”

writing bracingly, and achingly, with an intimacy that might make you blush. or one that might make you sit up and see the artfulness in the everyday — its tragedy or, rarer still, its triumph.

here’s a taste: the poem, “the last hour,” from this year’s pulitzer-prize-winning tome, “stag’s leap,” about the shattering of her 32-year marriage. in 20 lines, she mines the heartbreak of a single frame in space and time.

Suddenly, the last hour/before he took me to the airport, he stood up/bumping the table, and took a step/toward me, and like a figure in an early/science fiction movie he leaned/forward and down, and opened an arm,/knocking my breast, and he tried to take some/hold of me, I stood and we stumbled,/and then we stood, around our core, his/hoarse cry of awe, at the center,/at the end, of our life. Quickly, then,/the worst was over, I could comfort him,/holding his heart in place from the back/and smoothing it from the front, his own/life continuing, and what had/bound him, around his heart — and bound him/to me — now lying on and around us,/ sea-water, rust, light, shards,/the little curls of eros/beaten out straight.

***

katie hinde at nieman

wednesday (seminar): that’s not all this blessed week held. come wednesday twilight, we all pooled at the foot of evolutionary biologist katie hinde, who set off fireworks for some of us, especially those of us who’ve spent good long years of our lives contemplating the liquid gold that is mama’s milk.

yup, katie hinde is one of the world’s foremost scientists on the unique mammalian capacity to “express a fluid for their young that enables them to survive and thrive.”

she is, in fact, harvard’s high priestess and professor of breast milk, proclaiming it, “the most complex biological fluid.”

“mother’s milk is food; mother’s milk is medicine; and mother’s milk is signal,” says hinde, who goes on to explain that there are “thousands of constituents in milk that have an impact on the infant.”

yet we haven’t begun to unlock the secrets — or the power — of all that flows therein, she says, before counting stem cells, immune triggers and fatty-acid brain-builders in the table of contents of what she terms “the magic potion.”

beloved by her students, hinde is a scientist whose passion for her work is downright contagious. her blog, “mammals suck…milk!” is a treasure trove for anyone intent on knowing even just a drop of all there is to know about mama’s milk. her knowledge astounds. her research blows my mind.

take a listen here to see why she sent at least one of us to the moon:

katie hinde: “why mammals suck” @ harvard thinks big 

***

tina brown

friday (shoptalk): still, the week wasn’t tapped to capacity. come friday afternoon, all fellows and co-vivants were huddled in our last shoptalk of the year. and perhaps the great minds and calendar-fillers at nieman saved the most sumptuous for last.

on tap: none other than tina brown — the inimitable, brilliant former editor of vanity fair, the new yorker and newsweek, and currently founder and editor-in-chief of the daily beast.

turns out the whole conversation was off-the-record, that journalistic cone of silence that allows for no-holds-barred opining, thinking aloud and occasional bloviating.

alas, i can’t spill verbatim quotes from the oh-so-smart-and-sassy brit. but i can tell you she wasn’t nearly so daunting as i would have guessed, after all these years of seeing her name and her razor-sharp wit in big bright lights.

i believe it’s safe to mention — without giving broad swaths away — that she endorsed my deeply held conviction that the whole culture of the internet is far too sneering and snarky, a “blood bath,” she termed much of it.

too too many, she said, “mistake snark for wit.”

and it all “creates drive-by shootings” of verbal bullets. “i love wit and wisdom,” she said, making the distinction that both of those are “generous of heart.” whereas snark — a wholly ungenerous stance — seems to have staked a claim as the universal cyber default mode.

all in all, twas a grand second-to-last action-packed week of nieman-ness.

next up, a class trip to the berkshires, and then the day we’ve all been loathing: graduation day, or rather commencement.

when we begin anew, forever changed.

and how, pray tell, was your week?

photo way above: sharon olds at graylag, her 140-acre compound of woods and cabins on wild goose pond in pittsfield, new hampshire.

thumbprint a few inches below sharon: the poet laureate donald hall. next down: katie hinde, she of “mammals suck” blogging fame, and finally, in the wee bottom frame, ms. tina brown in brown leather armchair at lippmann house. 

reading night

reading night

dispatch from 02139 (in which we all circle round, and fellows and co-vivantes engage in a nieman rite of spring, one that prompts us to pull from our pockets one choice passage — scribed this year, and picked just for tonight — that, one-by-one, we will read to the gathered masses. it is a nieman literary tradition, and it has one of us shaking in her reading clogs….thus the rosary beads above…)

long ago, in the leafy shade of my writing room back home, i remember sitting at my old pine table typing a promise to all the beloved “chairs.” i promised to bring you along on this year of thinking sumptuously, and i’ve tried mightily to do that.

sometimes, of course, these dispatches have been placeless, as they’ve captured musings i might have mused wherever i was in the world — a mama’s musings, a mama’s heartaches, moments not tied to any ZIP code. sometimes they’ve been particular to the curious case of going back to college when you’re pewter-haired.

i’ve carried you on a field trip to a poet’s farm in new hampshire, and let you peek in at the volumes piled high on my desk. i’ve tiptoed into the monastery, with you right on my shoulder, and i’ve brought you here to the kitchen when i got to stir a cauldron of chili for a boatful of hungry rowers.

this perfect april’s afternoon — with the just-warming breeze whooshing through the screen door, and the merry finches nibbling from the kitchen-window feeder — i am about to bring you along with me to a big moment on the nieman calendar: reading night.

nothing fancy about the name, nothing fancy about the format.

the framework is this: each fellow and co-vivante (a.k.a. the tagalongs who traipse beside their duly-plucked fellows) is encouraged to sign up to step before the crowd and read one written work they’ve created during their time here in niemanland. twenty-one of the pool of 40 (that would be the 24 fellows plus this year’s 16 co-vivantes) have been slotted to read; i am one.

now, you might not know this about me but i turn to wobbles when called upon to stand up and read aloud. perhaps it dates back to some moment in, say, fourth grade, when i was daydreaming out the window, and sister leonora mary called on me to read, but i had no clue where we were, so the giggles around me rose to a roar, and there erupted a flurry of pointing fingers as deskmates right and left tried to foist me back on track — before sister leonora mary’s rubber-tipped stick thwopped me on the knuckles.

and, while i adore my fellow fellows and each and every co-vivante, this is no crowd for shrinking violets. we’ve got editors from the new york times, a pulitzer winner or two, the founder of the daily beast, a writer from the international herald tribune who regales us with her tales of traipsing in and out of tents of taliban poobahs, where she scores globe-gripping stories. and on and on and, oh my goodness, on.

this exercise in verbal undressing — that’s sure as heck how it’ll feel to me, one of a mere three co-vivantes who’ve signed up to read along — commences at seven bells, just as the sun sets in the western massachusetts sky, and that glorious full moon rises to spill its milky glow on all the cobbled lanes.

the piece i’m reading is one i wrote for a class that might have changed my writing life, the longform narrative writing class, in which i discovered once and for all just how darned hard it is to cobble one majestic sentence, let alone one 10,000-word deeply-reported tale.

this particular assignment was one in which we had to narrate a dramatic moment in our life, and exercise the sublime art of dialing back the descriptives so the power of the moment pulsed through, unweighted by a chain of over-wrought modifiers. it’s all about the verb, we learned and learned again.

“verbs act. verbs move. verbs do. verbs strike, soothe, grin, cry, exasperate, decline, fly, hurt, and heal,” writes poet laureate donald hall in his essential text, “writing well” [9th edition, 2007, pearson longman]. “verbs make writing go, and they matter more to our language than any other part of speech.

“verbs give energy, if we use them with energy.”

you’ll see when you read my humble exercise (just below), why it might feel a bit like i’m standing naked before my writerly fellows.

but, in the spirit of clearing my lumpy throat and trying to shake off the shakes, i offer you the trial run of the hastily-titled, “fading.” (it had no title; heck, it was just assignment #9, but the nieman curator insisted i title it, and the first word that popped in my head was “fading,” so fading it is….)

(the beauty of unspooling it here is you can’t see my wobbly knees, and my fingers aren’t yet ratcheted up into their hummingbird tremble)

FADING

by barbara mahany

The gel oozed onto the hard dome of my belly in cold coiled worms. I flinched but not nearly as much as I would have, had I not been distracted by the three-year-old — my doctor’s three-year-old — who’d climbed up beside me to get a better look.

Really, I thought, did she really need to be clambering around like this was some sort of a hospital tot lot? But then again, I reminded myself, it was a Sunday afternoon, and my doctor, already on call, had told me, just 45 minutes before, “Meet me in Labor and Delivery. Let’s see what’s going on in there.”

Click, someone flicked off the lights. The screen blinked, fuzzy at first, like a black-and-white TV, back in the ‘60s, when the thunderbolts in shades of gray squiggled across the screen before settling into, say, the opening credits of “Twilight Zone,” and my dad whispered, “Shh!”

No one whispered a thing in the murky underworld of the ultrasound room. The screen turned white and nobody — not the doctor, not my husband, not the three-year-old — moved. Least of all, me.

I blinked once, twice, then again. Hoping each time that if I squeezed my lids hard enough maybe the black whorl in the middle would come into focus. The black whorl with the fingers like seaweed, swishing open and closed.

Lub-dub-swoosh. Lub-dub-swoosh. It was the song of the embryonic heart, and, for 15 weeks now, it had soothed me.

This time, there was no song. There was no seaweed. Just an empty black hole. And the white, all around, didn’t move.

“I’m sorry,” my doctor said.

My husband, the father of that baby, withered onto me, his curls mopping my cheeks.

And then — maybe to make sure I’d been scraped of all hope, maybe because to a doctor it was just a curious thing — my doctor pointed to the blurred edge of the baby’s outline, at the crown of the head, down at the toes, where the white wasn’t so crisp anymore. Where the white was pocked with gray.

“See right there,” she said, pointing, “Baby died a few days ago. It’s starting to fade.”

That’s why, for the last couple mornings, the coffee didn’t make me wretch quite so much. That’s why, since Tuesday, I’d been holding my breath every time I walked in the bathroom, afraid to pull down my pants, for the streaks, then the splotches, of blood.

I’d been through this before. But never so late in the game. We were past the first trimester. I’d circled the date — September 22 — on the calendar. Drawn a red heart, actually.

But now I just lay there. Absorbing. Staring at the white part that glowed. I memorized the curve of the head, noticed the nose, how much it looked like the baby’s big brother. I tried not to look at the part of my baby that was already fading.

They sent me home, told me to wait. The baby didn’t wait long. Alone in the night, wailing some primal howl, I cupped my hands and caught my rosy-pink stringbean of a baby, that’s how tiny she was, to save her from swirling into the bowl of the toilet.

***

(this is a not-so-common thursday eve posting, as i’ll be trekking to frederick law olmsted’s stomping ground tomorrow early morn, when i tagalong yet again, this time on a field trip with sweet blair’s “history of landscape architecture” class.)

and, yes, we are all re-catching our breath after the horrors of last week. spring unfolds here in slow time, thanks to chill winds that hover near, and keep the blooms unfurled in suspended animation.

lastly, the rosary beads up above will be in my pocket whilst i read. a sure cure for the shakes, i’ve found over the years.

do you get wobbly when you do certain acts in public? if so, what brings on the wobblies, and what, pray tell, are your tried-and-true cures???

growing up in a word factory

word factory

dispatch from 02139 (in which every horizontal plane seems buried under sheafs and piles of papers upon papers…)

poor kids.

you wonder — or at least i do, most often when dillydallying before diving in to some writing project that demands utter and undiluted attention — just how it is to grow up in a house where the smoke spewing from chimneys is that of words on fire. where the factory floor is littered not with scraps of leather, shards of porcelain, or snippets of fine cloth (respectable trades, all, the cobbler, the potter, the tailor). but rather everywhere you try to amble, there’s an adjective tossed to the ground. there’s a verb deemed too wimpy cowering in a corner. and there are reams and reams of blah ideas heaved over someone’s hunched-over shoulders.

it’s a veritable word trap here where we dwell.

at this very moment, for instance, the dining room table is awash in a banquet of fist-high papers, with nary an inch for a spoon or a fork. the back office is barred with “do not disturb” tape. only the claw-footed tub might be spared the detritus of the writing biz, the one that seems to be the family obsession, er, occupation.

alas, tis tough having been born a double-byline (we have two), the progeny of two souls who could find nothing more admirable to do with their lives than string words onto clotheslines and call it a day’s toil.

the boys we spawned, that other writer fellow and i, they’ve lived and breathed keyboards since the days they were popped from the womb.

they’ve guzzled mama’s milk to the tip-tap-tap of keys. they’ve drifted off to nap time, lulled by the somnolent shooshing of fingers upon alphabet squares. heck, early on, one of the duo played make-believe with a toy telephone, put receiver to his ear, and promptly proceeded to push aside his mama with a curt, “i can’t talk to you now, i’m talking to my editor.”

he was two.

gulp.

talk about staring your sins in the face.

and so, as i’ve surveyed the landscape around this little aerie this week, i’ve the niggling sense that we might be drowning in words. one of us has hijacked the couch, the afghan, the dining table and all six of the chairs (the better to fan out those vertical files). the other has staked his polar-explorer flag in the icy back office, and, for warmer-upper reprieve, the cozy cove in the kitchen.

which, by my calculations, leaves the poor sixth-grade lad little choice but to hole up on his out-of-reach top bunk when he too decides to partake of the family biz, though in his case he much prefers inhaling to exhaling words. so that’s where we find him these days, when the smoke from the word chimney gets a tad too thick, when he retreats behind his curtainwall of great reads.

is it any wonder the boy is deep-breathing literary wonders at a clip never before clocked in his lifetime? in six short weeks, the once reluctant reader tore through the harry potters (all), then page-turned his way through “the hobbit,” and just this monday and tuesday zoomed through a brilliant tale aptly called “wonder.” (it’s by r.j. palacio, and it’s about a wise-beyond-his-years boy born with a severe facial deformity and his parents’ decision that it’s time to stop homeschooling and, in fifth grade, send him bravely and with much trepidation to ‘mainstream school.’ it’s a book that no less than the wall street journal described as “a beautiful, funny and sometimes sob-making story of quiet transformation”).

which is why one of my best to-do’s of the week was to be the reader lad’s fetcher, to mosey down the lane to the cambridge public library, sidle up to one of the world’s yummiest children’s librarians (and aren’t they all among the yummiest?), pick her brain, and waddle home loaded down with a menu of new word-fattened morsels. (see above.)

in theory, these weeks through here are the january thaw for the brain; in college parlance it’s the stretch known as january term, J term, or inter-term.

only mr. wordsmith and i have decided there’s no time for time-off in our one swift year, so we’re digging in deeper. he is toiling on a book, and writing yet another one in preparation for a class he’ll be teaching for the next two weeks. i am doing what looks like shuffling papers, but really it’s a wee bit more ambitious than that — and a thousand times harder.

so everywhere you go, there are alphabet keys and — shhhhh! — expletives flying. there are pages jamming the printer. and paragraphs clogging the brain.

it’s dense enough around here that i sat down this morning to ask the young lad, the one shoveling oatmeal into his mouth, just how it was to grow up in a house where the family business is words.

said he, “it’s kinda weird.” but then, deeply-versed in the editing process, he asked me to strike that first sentence so he could begin again.

“it’s kind of like everybody’s always picking up the phone cuz they’re on deadline. or running out the door to an interview. or they’re in their office writing like a madman.” [editor’s note: please do note the use of the masculine, madman, not madwoman, proving once and for all that i am not the only off-kilter member of this writing tag team.]

since the lad was on a roll, and had been asked to unfurl a few deep-held words on the matter, he went on with one more complaint before the clock chimed, “STOP, time to chase the school bus.”

that complaint was this: “there’s way too much attention to words. i’m always getting my grammar corrected.”

and so it is, young lad, when you grow up in a house of words, when you’d best not flub your me & him’s, nor your “i choosed the chocolates.” it’s a family sin, and one you’ll not escape unedited.

so sorry you were not born to cobblers. just think, you’d have holey shoes to show for it. instead you’ve nouns and verbs and subjective infinitives pouring from your ears.

poor child.

poor, poor double-byline.

love, your wordy mama

what were the occupational hazards of growing up in the house where you grew up?? 

donald hall’s farm

dispatch from 02139, en route to 03287 (in which a flock of fellows and co-vivantes board buses and roll along route 4 into new hampshire, for an audience with a high priest of american poetry)…

back in the faraway house that hums without me now, back in the heat of summer, when the fog was lifting on this year of thinking sumptuously, when i first got a peek at the calendar of what the days and weeks and months would bring, my eye was drawn sharply and swiftly to a little rectangle tucked at the top of the month of october.

it read: field trip to new hampshire farm of poet donald hall.

be still, my hurried heart.

i promise you i am not indulging in the great irish art of embellishment when i tell you i nearly slumped from my chair. i slapped the pine ledge of my writing desk, slapped hard, flat palm against the knotty plank of old french pine. i gasped. i am certain, if memory serves me, i felt a quiver in my arms.

one doesn’t stumble across an invitation to might-as-well-be mecca, the holy place and farmstead of an american poet laureate, just any old friday.

like so many things in my life, i’d come late to donald hall.

but when i did — stumbling across him in an essay in the new yorker last january, one titled, “out the window,” one you can find here — i sat transfixed by the power of his words.

hall, now 84, was named u.s. poet laureate in 2006, the 14th such poet potentate of the library of congress.

billy collins, himself the poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, once wrote that hall “has long been placed in the frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet.”

he has written some 22 books of poetry, at least four biographies, 11 children’s books (most notably, “ox-cart man”), six memoirs, three plays, and more. but it wasn’t till page 40 of the january 23, 2012, new yorker, that i sat up and took hard notice.

he wrote there, straight through to the bottom of page 43, about aging, about growing old in a particular place, his family’s 150-year-old  new hampshire farm, a place he’d long ago committed to memory. knew by heart, by season, by length of light and shadow. knew by fluttering of birds and drifting of snow on the old barn roof.

he wrote words that rocket-launched into my heart, ricocheted around in there, and left me gasping, quite frankly, for air.

take a listen (i’ll offer snippets, a swatch from here and there, all from that one glorious four-page essay)…

“twenty years later,” hall writes on page 41, “my circles narrow. each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes i fall…my fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons…

“new poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. i feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven (when his wife, the poet jane kenyon, died) or fifty-two (the age of his father when he died). when i lament and darken over my diminishments, i accomplish nothing. it’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. it is a pleasure to write about what i do.

“generation after generation, my family’s old people sat at this window to watch the year. there are beds in this house where babies were born, where the same babies died eighty years later….

“after a life of loving the old, by natural law i turned old myself. decades followed each other….however alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. it is alien, and old people are a separate form of life…if we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.”

i could go on. but, you, please, read for yourself.

check out books from your library. i did. some 17 in all. only just the other day, i checked out two more. and bought one, “life work,” a slender volume i’ll tuck inside my backpack, pull out if i get brave, hand to mr. hall, and ask, shyly, if he’d put pen to a page that is his, but lives on my shelves now.

and since i promised you, long ago, that we would share the glories of this year, i wanted you to have a head start. to spend a swatch of time whirling and swirling inside the poetry of donald hall, while i poke around the clapboard farmhouse, with the narrow porch where the birdfeeder hangs. where, if i’m lucky, i’ll press my nose to the window, deep and wide, where he looks out, keeps watch, as autumn turns to winter, turns to spring, and back to summer.

i’ll drink in the gnarly branches of the maple and the oak, and the “bluing air of afternoon.”  i’ll tiptoe into the cow barn, built in 1865, and scan the hayfields that are the crossbeams and the vaults of a lifetime of pure poetry, born and raised and resurrected in a little town nestled in the mid-hills of new hampshire.

i’ll stand deeply still. inhale and pray. words of thanks, first, for this rare gift. and begging words just after, that whatever’s in the air, the earth, the floorboards, seeps into me, and teaches me to see, out the window, in the ways that mr. hall so clearly sees.

and now, as promised, a few assigned readings:

let’s start with ox cart man, a book that might be tucked on every child’s library shelf.

or this, short one, “the things”

The Things

by Donald Hall

When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—
that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,
tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,
a dead dog’s toy—valueless, unforgettable
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother’s souvenirs of trips
with my dead father, Kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.

and lastly, though, please don’t stop here…

a poetry corner, where you can curl up, on this fine october day, and drink in the sounds of donald hall in his many forms. please do click on “letter with no address,” written to jane kenyon, his wife who died of leukemia in 1995. you will hear your heart crack.

i promise to post dispatch, post field trip, once we’re back from eagle pond farm, up new hampshire way. if you could visit any poet in the world, who might it be, and why? and feel free to leave a line of poetry here as proof. 

p.s. i realize that if you don’t have a subscription to the new yorker the link above won’t get you directly into the essay, but rather to a bit about the essay. i wish i could get around that, but i can’t. your library will have a back issue of the new yorker, i do believe. if you’re stuck, i will xerox and snail mail. you can send me your address via email. 

the essential shelf

once upon a time, it seemed the end of the week might be a fine time to pull up a chair and ponder the almighty word. relax. get comfy. kick off your workday shoes, plunk your naked toes on table’s edge.

consider the word.

in any form. alone. strung together into something akin to thinking aloud. broken, roughly, into stanza. pressed between the covers of a blessed book. a book you’d grab first thing, should you ever need to dial 9-1-1.

by now, whether you are a regular or a once-in-a-while puller-up of chair, it might have rumbled through your head that, save for clicking on a button, the only real price of admission here is a simple, unadulterated passion for what the linguists call the morpheme. again, standing all alone, a single uttered sound; or strung together, syllable on syllable, root on one of the –fix fraternal twins, pre-fix or suf-fix; or bearing apostrophe or hyphen, the cement of linguists’ possessive and compounding tools.

a word, no matter how you cut it, slice it, tape it back together.

here at the table, words are pretty much our salt and pepper, the very spice, the essence of who we are.

words, it would be safe to say, are the surgeon’s tools with which we poke around deep beneath the skin, pulling back, retracting, examining the places often hidden from ordinary view. words, too, as we’ve suggested in the past, are jungle gym and slide and, yes, the swing set upon which we pump our little legs and point tootsies toward the sky.

i come by love of words quite naturally. words, as much as irish eyes and soulful soul, come to me genetically. from both sides, my papa who typed them for a living, my mama who as often as i can recall was holed away in secluded places, barricaded behind pages of a book that made her laugh out loud, or, sometimes, cry. she claims, though none of us has ever seen, to have a lifelong stash of poetry. free verse. so free it’s captive, under lock and key.

not sated, i married into words. the man to whom i wed my life—son of newspaper editor who, to this day, reads six or seven papers, front page to obituaries, stacks so high i fear the house might soon cave in, and teacher mother who, for 52 years and counting, has championed children struggling to decode long parades of alphabet, turning squiggles into sense, triumphantly ingesting every written line—word by word, we fell in love.

in olden days, before the days of email, we sent surreptitious blurbs of words back and forth across a newsroom. he took my breath away through certain verbs (and, no, not racy ones), left me heart-thumped at the way he furled a sentence. he went on, my wordmate for life, to take home what our 5-year-old at the time called the polish surprise, for the way he cobbled words into thought. thought that at times has left me in tears, the power of its message, the pure poetry of his rock-solid prose.

my life, it seems, is strung together by the syllable.

and some times, oops, i get carried away on winds of words, and ramble on and on, dizzied by the pure delight of watching strings of letters turn to words turn to joy, or, sometimes, crumble into sorrow, right here upon my screen.

my wordly destination today, the place i intended to meander to this morning, is really rather risky. before i even mention where, i must issue a disclaimer: this is fairly off the cuff. you cannot hold me unshakingly to my claims. not forever anyway.

i am proposing that as a gaggle at the table we put forth what we consider the most essential bookshelf. ten authors, ten books, your choice. mix it up. if you only care to offer one or two, that’s fine. we will all set forth with list in hand, and check out the nearest library. we might read and then concur. or we might strongly shout in protest.

i’ll go first. sort of like being the one dared, and dreading, leaping off the dock, into icy waters of the spring-fed lake just before the dawn.

in utterly no order—all right, let’s go with alphabetical—i would stack my shelf with these: dillard, annie; fisher, m.f.k.; heschel, abraham joshua; lamott, annie; maclachlan, patricia; merton, thomas; thoreau, henry david; webster, daniel; and certainly not least, the whites, e.b. and katharine.

dillard for “pilgrim at tinker creek,” and a sentence such as this: “a schedule defends from chaos and whim. it is a net for catching days. it is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”

fisher, for making food writing the most essential recipe for life.

heschel for being my guide into the deep rich soul of judaism, and expanding the envelope of what it means to be filled with spirit in any religion.

lamott for making me laugh out loud, laugh ’til my side hurts, and then taking away my breath with a profound irreverent sense of god alive in the darkest hours of our struggling, nearly-broken soul.

maclachlan for “what you know first,” the purest child’s poem–a “grapes of wrath” for tender hearts–that i have ever known.

merton for taking me to the mountaintop, for laying out the poetry of what a catholic soul can sound like, even and especially from inside the silent confines of a monastery named gethsemani.

thoreau, for taking me into the woods like no one else, and for all i’ve yet to learn at the foot of this great teacher.

webster, for being my dearest comrade in the aim to get it right, and for the pure delight of traipsing through his lingual play yard.

the whites, he for charlotte and stuart and just about any canvas to which he brought his richly colored pens; katharine for her views of the garden, for her new england (and new yorker) wit and wisdom, and for being the one who stole the heart of elwyn brooks.

your turn, who’s jumping next?