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

Category: poetry

a compendium of what we ache for…

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some weeks feel like someone’s pulled the plug at the bottom of the bathtub and all the suds — and the baby, too — are shlurping down the drain. this was one of those weeks, when day after day some stumbling block or very steep incline got tossed on my trail through the woods.

i was just about giving up hope. and i realized i wasn’t alone. there was my friend whose kid is in rehab, and she got a middle-of-the-night call that he wanted to quit, was deadset on coming home. even if he had to hitchhike — and bottom out — to get there. from the far left coast. there was another friend whose kid was rushed to surgery with a failing kidney. there was, as always, the national news, which more days than not feels as if someone’s cranked the spigot to full toxic poison and left it to drip, drip, drip.

and there was my own personal trove of worry. packed in that box there’s one prayer in particular that i nearly gave up on. made me start to wonder if anyone was listening. do you ever wonder the same? start to think that maybe your line’s been cut, and the wires to heaven you’ve long depended on, they’ve been snipped and they’re dangling? all you hear is the buzz of a line gone dead?

some weeks i feel i’ve little to say here. think i’ve no right to take up your time or the oxygen in the room. that’s not uncommon among women who grew up like me, taught to be nice or be quiet. i plod on anyway, because i made a promise — to me and to you — that i’d be here on fridays, find something to say. maybe even one glimmering shard of hope to break through the murk.

it’s not often i turn to the world outside to find us all a bit of solace, of something like faith. or even of joy. but in the last 24 hours, the universe seems to be racing to our rescue. shimmering shards are suddenly falling, one after another, onto my path, our path.

turns out, it’s become something of a compendium of what i’ve been aching for: tales of resilience. words of breathtaking wonder.

some weeks, we need to lean on the ones all around us. this is one of those weeks.

here’s this, from the glorious folks at nike. once upon a time i thought nike built shoes. but now i know better. i know they build from the best of the human character. they remind us who we can be. they carry us across finish lines — the ones in our hearts, and the ones in the woods.

take a look. and a listen: witness the moment justin finds out he’s the first signed pro athlete with cerebral palsy.

and now, while you perhaps dry your tears (pass me the carton of kleenex), here’s a poem from one of the patron saints of the chair, our beloved blessed mary oliver:

In the Storm
Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing
hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,
five inches long
with beaks like wire,
flew in,
snowflakes on their backs,
and settled
in a row
behind the ducks —
whose backs were also
covered with snow —
so close
they were all but touching,
they were all but under
the roof of the duck’s tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,
for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away
out over the water
which was still raging.
But, somehow,
they came back
and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
let them
crouch there, and live.
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned —
if not enough else —
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness —
as now and again
some rare person has suggested —
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
~ Mary Oliver ~
(Thirst)
listen hard to those last few stanzas:
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned —
if not enough else —
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness —
as now and again
some rare person has suggested —
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
everyone wants a miracle. kindness is a miracle. go make a miracle. it’s the surest lifeline i know.
as if all that doesn’t have you buckling in, buckling down, revving your engines of hope, seeing straighter than you’ve seen in a while, how bout this from a blessing among us, a friend with stage 4 breast cancer, now metastasized to all the wrong places. she’s stopped treatment, she is living with her heart and her arms and her soul wide open. here’s a line from a poem she wrote, her litany of happinesses. she has one beautiful son. she moved to california while he studied at stanford. he is her everything, and she is his. she wrote this:

My dearest, most tender
boy. To describe him … is to
try to name those unnameable colors
and why bother. It’s all love.

Nothing matters here but life.
Nothing is in my thoughts but life.
I sit feet from the ocean and am bathed in this lucky life.*

go out and gather your shimmering shards, your miracles, and joys. and please report back….
what miracles fell on your path this week?
*poem and love from the incomparable robbie k….

smoky mountain runaway…

smoky mountain stroll

long ago, and far away. strolling in the smoky mountains. my big brother and me, when i was three and he was four, and we called knoxville home….

dispatch from 37383, specifically a roomy porch in the nooks of the smoky mountains, looking out over the undulations of sewanee, tennessee…. 

i’ve run away to the smoky mountains. for a few days. to absorb the rhythms of poetry and southern-steeped prose at the sewanee writers’ conference, where the likes of alice mcDermott, marilyn nelson, and bobbie ann mason bring their writing wares. and where plain folk like me wave our paper fans to stave off the summer’s steamy heat, and drink in undiluted verse.

my dear friend katie (thelma to my louise) picked me up while the stars and moon still blinked, at four bells the other morning, peeling through the city, and down the interstate before too many truckers even roused from their big-rig bunks.

i climbed aboard with visions of a wide front porch, and mountain sounds lulling the night away. i climbed aboard because when nestled alongside an old dear friend, endless conversation melts away the miles. before we’d ticked even halfway through the list of things that must be explored, dissected, analyzed, and plain old pondered, we’d hit the nashville city limits, and not long after, the sign for sewanee, 93 miles, and up, up, up, along the winding mountain road….

the first sound i uttered — upon racing to the promised porch and drinking in the strata-upon-strata of leafy-knotted mountainsides and tops fading in the far-off faraway — was wordless: nothing but the sound of breath rushing in, the sound of drinking what you’ve thirsted for — for so so long you can barely remember a time when you weren’t so parched.

since then, it’s all been as gentle an unspooling as any day — or string of days — can offer.

that porch, equipped with wicker rocking chairs and ceiling fans whose paddles stir air as thick as meringue in the making (at midday, anyway), is Runaway Headquarters, the post from which all stirrings stir.

long stanzas of pure silence — save for birdsong in the morning, and crickets in the thick of night — punctuate the hours. the orb of moon over the mountains, the only speck of light for miles and miles and miles, grows fuller by the night.

dawn begins with softening of inky night. haze settles in the cleaves of mountainside. it’s all soft, slow, seamless, from start to finish, from first fluttering of eyelid to that uncharted moment when at last the sleep surrounds. and there’s no finer first breakfast course than just-brewed coffee and a prayer cast wide across the precipice.

mid-morning, we motor down the winding half-mile gravel drive to the many winding miles of road that deliver us to “the domain,” 13,000 acres of leafy campus, the pride of Sewanee, The University of the South, a literary mountaintop mecca. one that just happens to be the sole beneficiary of Tennessee Williams’ literary estate, and, since his only sister’s death in 1996 (long institutionalized, she was the one on whom williams modeled his character laura in “the glass menagerie”), Sewanee is the holder of the copyright to every play, screenplay, poem, letter, and story the twice-Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ever penned. curiously, his papers went to harvard and columbia universities, but Sewanee got all the dough and this: his patio furniture, his breakfast plates, a working toaster, and a small bronze nude, tucked away in the archives.

it’s a place dotted with an architecture my favorite critic dubbed “Appalachia Ox-bridge,” modeled after the oh-so-erudite Oxford University (as in the one in England), only here it’s Tennessee limestone in shades of khaki and caramel. oxonian bell towers, complete with parapets, ring out on the quarter hour. rose windows shimmer in the late afternoon light. and nearly every walk leads through or to some medieval surprise — a cloister, a fountained courtyard, a spiral stair to who knows where.

four times a day, all the good folk of the writerly conference plus townies like us gather in a quaint old hall, where oddly dying hydrangea bushes (whole bushes, potted, not stems blithely plunked in a vase) flank the podium. writers, poets, teachers rise and read, recite, preach the holy word of literary craft. i’m not alone in madly scribbling notes, and looking starry-eyed toward the rafters. trying my darnedest to seize a certain turn of phrase, or some truth just lobbed our way, one that begs for at least a moment’s pause.

our collective breath was taken away just yesterday when a southern gentleman in straw hat, seersucker jacket, and French sailor’s striped T, a fellow by the name of allan gurganus (author of “oldest living confederate widow tells all”), rose to read his latest genius in the making, a chapter from a novel he says is titled, “the erotic history of a country baptist church.” while we all rose to a rare (i’m told) standing ovation, i leaned in and whispered to katie, “that alone was worth the 800-mile drive.”

canned-ham camper cafe

you needn’t much else amid such sustenance, but we couldn’t resist the roadside stand, and lunched on perhaps the finest sandwich summer offers: sliced heirloom tomato, piled thick atop oatmeal bread, bare except for shake of salt and a grind or three of pepper. and last night’s porch supper was perhaps the finest tennessee gazpacho ever poured from a roadside canned-ham-camper-turned-cafe.

i’ve never been a natural wanderer; my nesting inclinations, hard to bend. i left a boy back home who filled me up with far more hugs than usual the day before i left; he told me plenty times that day that he’d miss me — words not often spoken by a kid a year away from packing up for college.

but sometimes a mama needs sustenance, needs silence, and poetry and birdsong to fill in all the cracks. i found it here in the mountains, here on the broad front porch from which i count the shining stitches in the night sky.

it’s been a long long time since i was home in the smokies. but, oh, sweet reunion it surely is.

thank you, beloved katie, for plucking me from the summer’s long dry stretch, and quenching me with mountain air and sewanee magic. and for this rare and wondrous chance to pull up a wicker rocking chair this week…xox and, emphatically, to katie’s sister beth, who so generously shares her slice of smoky mountain heaven….

where’s your summer runaway or retreat? and what unfolds once you’re there?

a gift from the mountains….(from maurice manning, Pulitzer-finalist poet, born and bred in Kentucky, and who had me on the edge of my seat at Thursday night’s reading.)

An Orchard at the Bottom of a Hill

by Maurice Manning

Why don’t you try just being quiet?

If you can find some silence, maybe

you can listen to it. How it works

is interesting. I really can’t

explain it, but you know it when

it’s happening. You realize

you’re marveling at apple blossoms

and how they’re clustered on the tree

and you see the bees meticulously

attending every blossom there,

and you think the tree is kind of sighing.

Such careful beauty in the making.

And then you think, it’s really quiet,

but I am not alone in this world.

That’s how you know it’s happening,

there’s something solemn and wonderful

in the quiet, a slow and steady ease.

Whether the tree is actually sighing

is beside the point. It’s better to wonder,

you needn’t be precise with quiet,

it just becomes another thing.

It isn’t a science, it’s an art,

like love, or a dog who’s pretty good,

asleep in the grass beneath the tree.

xox

p.s. i’ll add postcard-worthy pics to this post once home. for the life of me, i can’t add from afar….

sewanee kindness

once again, of poetry and peepers

packed to the gills

dispatch from 49546…

well, i didn’t strap quite that much onto the old red wagon that carried me across three states to land here, at my biennial infusion of poetry, incandescence, and spring peepers (that frog song that rises up from a pond deep in the woods at the end of an endless parking lot), otherwise known as the festival of faith & writing. where i gorge on writers and poets and wander the hills of michigan in a state of bliss that likely has twinkly little stars whirling from my eyes.

over the course of 48 hours, i’ll inhale the likes of poets marie howe, pádraig Ó tuama, and scott cairns, the writers joy williams, edwidge danticat, kwame alexander, and bill mcKibben, big thinker parker palmer, journalist barbara bradley haggerty, and essayist dinty w. moore, among the many. i’ll feast on flannery o’conner’s prayer journal, and thomas merton’s record collection.

and in between it all, there will be those frogs belting out their vernal love tunes from the murky pond i’ve not yet found.

at night, once heaven’s dome is star-stitched with twice the skylights seen back in sweet chicago, i hole up inside an old, old house, where the floors creak, and the blankets smell of lavender. the folks who run the bed & breakfast, they make you feel right at home, invite you clear into the kitchen while they stir the eggs, or scoop the melon into high-stemmed bowls.

it’s the closest i come to a spell at any spa. in my book, i’ll take poets over thermal mud baths any day.

i’ll try to circle back to this old table and weave in a few of the lines i’ll be scribbling in the margins of my big, fat program guide. i know, sure as i know how to spell grand rapids, that there will be lines and exchanges and snippets of magnificence that take my breath away, set me soaring on the vernal updraft of incandescent poetry.

in the meantime, i’ve been delighting in the joys of making what’s known in the world of literary marketing as “shareables,” lines lifted from the pages of my little bitty book, the blessings of motherprayer, pasted atop all sorts of lovely pictures. they’re meant to share. so feel free to click and drag onto your desktop, and print them out. you could stick them to your fridge, or scribble your grocery list on the back. use as a bookmark, or line your drawers with a whole swatch of them.

i’ll pick just a handful for now, but i’ll keep adding, so please come back to watch them multiply…..

hours that mattermothering verbbirthing roomsloop of prayerby little

what’s your idea of a spa for the soul? 

(p.s. feel free to tell me which one of the shareables you might like best. i need you all to be my in-house market research committee….) xoxox

pilgrimage to the land of poets – and spring peepers, while we’re at it

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a short interlude of my poetry bookshelf (alphabetical by poet, of course)

i’m told tales of folks who slip their finery off their boudoir shelves, who tuck silks and satins into trunks and valises. i’m told they jet off to faraway places, wiggle their toes in pure white sands. sip intoxicants adorned with wee paper parasols and wedges of papaya. then, i’m told, they manage to find their way home, whole again.

i’d not know from such exotica. and i doubt it’d do much besides break me out in patchy hives.

i, in sharp contrast, am yanking out a sweater or three, tucking them alongside my toothbrush. i’ll pack a stash of honeycrisp apples (an upgrade for the occasion) and piles of reporter’s notebooks, then slide behind the wheel of my old red wagon, and motor my way to grand rapids, smack dab in the palm of the mitten state just to the north and the east of my land of lincoln. i’ll hole up for three days of prayerful prose and poetry, and thinking way beyond the quotidian box.

it’s called the festival of faith and writing, and it’s a poet’s idea of heaven on earth. especially if you take your poetry infused with a dollop of holy. it’s an every-other-year consortium where the mystical meets iambic pentameter, or more likely the freest of free verse. it’s a forget-about-lunch, who-needs-sleep, dawn-till-midnight fill-your-lungs-with-real-life-bylines-who-make-you-swoon jamboree.

this year it’s where tobias wolff and george saunders (professor and protege, respectively, long ago at syracuse university) will put heads together for a public tete-a-tete. where dani shapiro, memoirist and essayist, will “insist that sorrow not be meaningless.” and where poet scott cairns will mine eastern orthodox liturgy to “clear a pathway through the slings and arrows of modern life.” ashley bryan, the 92-year-old children’s book author and illustrator, will illuminate the art-making behind his collections of black american spirituals for children. and, before the first day’s dinner hour, i’ll sit down in a small room to listen to christian wiman, guggenheim fellow, former editor of poetry magazine, now senior lecturer in divinity and literature at yale’s divinity school, read poems from every riven thing, or passages from my bright abyss: meditation of a modern believer, which the new republic called “an apologia and a prayer, an invitation and a fellow traveler for any who suffer and all who believe.” before i nod off, i’ll whirl in the incantatory vapors of zadie smith who will ponder the question, “why write?”

yes, by day, i’ll binge on words and thoughts that stir the soul, and, often, put goosebumps to the flesh (the surest sign i know that God’s in the neighborhood). and then at night, i’ll make my escape to a historic inn, where a room under the eaves will be my hideaway. and where i’ll forego dreams for the sheer joy of turning pages upon pages, all while plopped atop my featherbed. or perhaps i’ll shrivel like a prune in the depths of my victorian claw-footed tub.

and it just might be the surest cure for my tattered soul.

as i did two years ago, i’ll be taking copious notes, and promise to report back next week, with all the snippets and moments that make me woozy.

but, of all the poetry the days will bring, the one i’m most awaiting is wholly otherworldly, and not propelled to sound waves by human breath. it’s amphibian, as a matter of fact: the wee spring peepers, whose dissonant and deafening nightsong, rising from a blur of woods, stopped me more than anything i’d heard two years ago april.

back then, i described the soul-perking moment thusly:

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.

listen in to the peepers for now, and i’ll be back next week, to pour forth the very best i tuck into my writerly notebooks.

and a bit of poetic amuse-bouche till then:

A Word
BY SCOTT CAIRNS

For A.B.

She said God. He seems to be there
when I call on Him but calling
has been difficult too. Painful.

And as she quieted to find
another word, I was delivered
once more to my own long grappling

with that very angel here — still
here — at the base of the ancient
ladder of ascent, in foul dust

languishing yet at the very
bottom rung, letting go my grip
long before the blessing.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2013).

if you imagined a getaway for the soul, a stretch of days to soothe and restore, where would you go? what would you ink into your itinerary? 

and, p.s., happy blessed birthday to my mother-of-heart, ginny, the most loyal reader of the chair that ever there was. and happy one day late to my little ellabellabeautiful! 

quiet season

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it’s quiet season in my house. in my soul, actually.

it’s odd then, when i tiptoe outside in the dawn and hear the world achatter. the winged choristers — robin and sparrow and cardinal — are having at it, calling out from limb to bough to bush. staking turf. declaring the early hours of starting all over again, survival of the species, the No. 1 task on the vernal to-do list. it’s what happens when the globe tips toward the sun, the angle draws nearer, draws shorter; the light longer, not so thin anymore.

it happens to all of us, one season or another. we’re out of sync with the world beyond our window sill. i’m still deep in the burrows of winter. but the world wants to shake off its slumber, awaken.

i’m not ready yet.

i will be. i have no doubt.

but not yet.

now, i am curled under blankets, turning pages, soaking up the words of other quiet souls. and so, when i cracked open a book of poems the other day, i nearly dissolved into tears, into the mystery of grace, of feeling tapped on the wall of my heart, with sacred whisper.

i was turning slowly through the pages of mary oliver, my patron saint of poetry. i was inhaling her latest infusion of wisdom distilled, of heaven on earth, of sacred scripture rising up from out of the dawn, out of the trail through the woods where the poet keeps pace.

i read, among other words, these:

there are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.

like, telling someone you love them.

or giving your money away, all of it.

 

your heart is beating, isn’t it?

you’re not in chains, are you?

 

there is nothing more pathetic than caution

when headlong might save a life,

even, possibly, your own. 

 

then i turned a few pages, and stumbled on this:

 

God, or the gods, are invisible, quiteIMG_7208

understandable. But holiness is visible,

entirely.

i pulled out my pen. the sound of ink scratching along sheaf of paper, the only perceptible noise interrupting the season of silence.

and now i’ve shared my silence with you.

may your week be blessed. silent or not.

mary oliver’s latest slim volume of prayer poem is titled, felicity (penguin press, 2015). the words above, first, from the poem, “moments,” and finally, a few lines from “leaves and blossoms along the way.” 

she asked for a poem

mary oliver poem

she asked for a poem, my beautiful friend did. she asked for words. she asked for my voice.

she asked so that “at certain times,” in the dark dark hours that come when you are lying in your bed, or curled on your couch, when the knife-to-the-gut of cancer won’t stop, when you tremble deep down inside, when all you want is to wail but you can’t, she asked “to be soothed” by the sound of the human voice rising and falling and wrapping around letters and lines and syllables and silence and words, each word a vessel of hope, a finger to grasp, the next best thing to morphine. or, maybe, better.

she asked me to pick out a poem, to read it, to record the sound of my voice. “not STAGE PERFORMANCE,” she wrote, just “ntural,”she typed, her fingers fumbling for keys, “poems red by my friends.”

it was a blanket of sound she was stitching together, my friend whose world has always been about sound. she’s gathered sound all around the globe, on nearly every continent. she’s woven sound into story, story that shattered hearts, peeled back truths, shone beacons of light. sound that reached out through the squat little box that sits on the kitchen counter, or the flat rectangular one that blinks red numbers just beside my bed. sound that could draw me to the ends of the earth, or into the depth of someone’s long lonely walk through a mountain pass, or down a dusty country road. it might be the sound of a katydid. or a jackhammer. or maybe the cry of a mother who’s just buried her child. it might be the whistle of wind she records. or the story in spanish of someone who’s been lost for too long.

her life has been a tapestry of sound, one that my friend has pieced together with fierce intelligence, unparalleled heart, and a light in her eyes that will never go out.

so, in her darkest hours, in the hours when the walls seem to be squeezing in from all sides, she asked for more sound. for the sound of the human voice, doing what it most sacredly does: putting breath to the balm that is love, that is tender and dripping with mercy, that heals, always heals, and that just might be the last earthly tie, one heart to another.

it’s no mystery why mamas sing lullabies to their babies. why mamas turn pages of storybooks. why mamas make “mmm” sounds and sigh to their wee little newborns. the human voice is breath + vibration + heart, is sound put to flight. the instrument of that flight might be a screech, or a whisper. it might be vicious and crack in half the heart of the one who hears it. or, in the case of my friend, it might be the best shot for soothing, for wrapping a blanket, a compress, of undying love.

and, yes, it might be a poem. the healing power of the hard-chosen word, words plucked from the star-stitched heavens, beauty and heartbreak distilled. that’s poetry. and, no, it won’t cure cancer, certainly not. but there are ails along the way that poetry — a poem read aloud by someone you love — will always be able to heal.

it will break through the canyon of fear and of emptiness. it will cradle the tired. and, as best as is possible, it just might dull the ragged edge of the pain, and, maybe just maybe, soften the suffering for as long as it takes for the poem to be read and maybe to linger.

i knew right away the poem and the poet to which i would put my breath and my heart: mary oliver. “praying.” it’s the poem i tucked on the very front page of my very first book. it’s a poem about paying attention, about patching together a few simple words, nothing elaborate. it’s about prayer not being a contest, but a doorway into thanks, and “a silence in which another voice may speak.” it’s about stitching together prayer, and it’s something my friend and i have talked about — many times, once while wandering about a wooded magic hedge.

i knew, too, right away, just where i wanted to read it, the poem about prayer — amid my late-summer garden, so the words of mary oliver would be enfolded, would be punctuated, with the sounds of this summer drawing to a close: the few cicada still buzz-sawing, the blue jay who squawks, even the wind rustling through the boughs of the willow.

i whispered a prayer, took a breath, and pushed the little red “record” button.

my friend asked for a poem. i sent her the pulse of my heart, and a sound-swatch of the late summer garden.

here’s how it sounded:

i wanted to quietly lay this on the table because i know that among the chairs circled here, there are hearts intent on finding ways to bring healing to the world, and i thought it the most beautiful quiet creation, the notion of my friend to weave together a patchwork of poems, all in the voices of friends, all for the purpose of soothing. it’s a simple gift, a pattern we can all trace and retrace, should the need arise. it might even be a baby gift, a gift at the launch of life, when you wrap not just a favorite picture book, but the sound of your very own voice reading it, turning the pages. the gift of your voice is one no one else could ever give. and it comes from the depth of your heart. priceless.

because i happen to know that mary oliver doesn’t want anyone printing her poems anywhere without permission (i asked for and received full permission for the epigraph of slowing time), i am honoring mary’s heart and will not print it here, although it is in the photo above. and you can read it yourself if you open the book to just past the dedication page. and, miracle of miracles, i figured out how to drop a line of poetry reading onto this latest meander. wonders never cease. 

so here’s the question: if someone you love asked you to read a passage or a poem, what one would you choose?

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…..

an invitation

an invitation

the invitation is broader and deeper than simply offering you a date and a time and a place. yes, there is that (details below). but the invitation i’m gently laying here at the table, it’s a doorway, an entering in….

the invitation is to slow time, to savor, to pay attention, to carve out quietude in the rush and the whirl of your every day.

we’ve been circling around those notions for years now, here at the chair. and somehow, in a mystical, magical, marvelous way, those quiet ideas have tucked themselves into the pages of a book, a book that might plop onto my front stoop any hour now. while i’ve not yet lifted it out from a box, haven’t felt its weight hard against my palms nor flipped through its pages, haven’t marveled forward and back that words typed here in the murky first light of so many mornings have found their way off the screen and onto the page. spelled out in ink — a newsgirl’s primary intoxicant.

but i’ve seen proof that those pages are finally off the printing press. they’re bound, slipped between covers.

any hour now, i’ll christen those pages with my freshly spilled tears.

so it’s time for the invitation.

for starters, consider the book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, Oct. 7, 2014), a portable iteration of this old chair. why, you can take it wherever you go. you can bring it to bed, tuck it under your pillow. you can spill it with crumbs (and not have to worry that your keyboard gets jammed with a bit of a cracker). you can climb into a tree, and turn its pages. you can even slink in the bathtub (and not have to worry about glug-glugging your screen under the bubbly suds). it’s the chair unleashed. the chair on the loose. we’ve snipped the cords and numbered the pages.

ah, but there’s something even more enticing than the fact that Slowing Time, the book, can follow you anywhere, can go where’er you go.

and that’s where the invitation begins: my prayer all along has been that what’s tucked in the pages of Slowing Time is simply a field guide into the depths of your holiest hours. my hope is that it might become your whispered companion. a place to begin to contemplate how your life might look and feel and radiate if we dial down the noise, hit pause, and sift through the mess for the shards of the Sacred.

it’s a sketch pad, really, in which the flickers of half-baked ideas clothe themselves in words. and those words become the stepping path into the woods, into the depths. or at least point you in intriguing direction.

professor elisa new, beloved poetry scholar at harvard, talks about how a poem is a “communal resource, a convening space — written in a language we all understand.” it’s a place, she says, “where one human being has tried to make meaning, using a tool — the language we all share — that belongs to all of us. and so, by entering into inquiry, discussion, and interpretation of that poem, we can fully engage in that activity so central to the humanities, that activity of human conversation about what it is really to be human.”

and so, too, with the words you find spilled on the pages of Slowing Time, it’s an invitation to “shared inquiry.” and its words are, at heart, prayer unfurled in plainspoken prose. one someone’s prayer searching, searching for companion — be that gentle journeyer God, or the soulmate you find along your stumbling way, or sitting just inches across from you.

after all, the geometry of the old maple table, and the chairs that are tucked up against it, is the circle. heart linked to heart, hands within squeezing range, eyes close enough together that we can catch the sparkle on a joy-filled day, or the empty hollows in the hours when sadness or grief has eclipsed the light.

it is in those circles of our life — the circles we create out of love, or even when carved by accident of geography — that we find communion. and our own plumbing of the depths becomes shared inquiry, scaffolded exploration. a safe zone, where even our rawest tender spots can be laid before us, with no fear of harm or scorn or raised eyebrow.

still, though, it is in solitude, and in the sanctuaries of time we’ve hollowed out of the day, that the deepest paying attention begins.

as with so many spirit-filled vespers, slowing time — here at the table over the years, most lately every friday morning — has become a practice. practice, as in trying over and over and over to hew closer to the anointed edge at our most blessed core. practice, as in a ritual that surrenders to a rhythm. and, as with all holy acts, the holiness is found burrowing into the nooks and the crannies of a place — an interior, our interior — at once familiar and still to be explored.

it is the nautilus of prayer.

and it is the invitation that pulses at the heart of Slowing Time: use these words, little more than one pilgrim’s prayer, to lead you deeper into your own heart’s vault. settle in. deep breathe. catch the light. embrace the shadow.

and, once you’ve breathed Holiness in and in and in again, lift your eyes, and discover the light of the circle around you, within you. there is Holiness abounding, and it’s ours, radiant with grace.

and here’s the date-time-and-place invitation:

Slowing Time begins here: Reading, Conversation and Book Signing 

Wednesday, September 17 (feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen, the great medieval mystic, composer, writer, visionary)

7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Francis Xavier Warde School at Old St. Patrick’s Church

120 South DesPlaines Avenue, Chicago

(leave it to Old St. Pat’s to prompt the heavens to rain down books before the publication date…)

 

yet another reading, after the actual publication date of Oct. 7, is now inked onto the calendar of a marvelous magical bookshop in Evanston:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation

Bookends & Beginnings bookstore, a magical bookshop tucked in an alley that feels as if it’s popped off the pages of Harry Potter. Co-hosted by Evanston Public Library. To reserve a seat, please contact Bookends and Beginnings at 224-999-7722.

Thursday, Oct. 9

6 to 7:30 p.m.

1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #1, Evanston

bookendsandbeginnings.com

and yet another marvel:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation and Autumnal Joys

Women & Children First, a Chicago literary landmark in magnificent Andersonville, is hosting a reading, conversation and celebration of autumn, Season of Awe.

Wednesday, Oct. 29

7:30 p.m.

North Clark Street, Chicago, IL

womenandchildrenfirst.com

more readings to come…..stay tuned.

and now a question: how do you slow time? (oh, and what will be your crumb of choice to spill onto the pages and clutter the book binding gulley?)

slowing time cover

pausing, because that’s what you do when a great light floats into the starry night

maya angelou

if you could rub your palms across the planks of this old kitchen table, if we could all hear the scccrrch of the legs of the chairs scuffing across the floor boards of this old kitchen, if i could pour you all whatever it is you sip, there in the heavy chipped mugs that fit flush against your palms, well surely this morning we’d all be pausing, paying attention to the great light of the poet, the one with the gravelly cadence that made us wish she was our grandmama, or the wise lady who lived down the lane, or the prophet who knew our name.

maya angelou died this week, on wednesday at 86, which you certainly know by now. so we are left to sift through her pages, her words, her rhythms, her heart as she’s sprinkled it across sentences, across years.

a poet’s ashes, holy ashes, are the words she or he leaves behind, words pressed to the page. and we hold the poet to the light by sifting, poring over those everlasting traces of who the poet was, and how she saw the world, how the world filtered through her irreplaceable lens and settled on her soul.

and what you do when someone passes into the heavens is you stop what you were doing, you draw in the deepest breath you possibly can, and, sometimes, you don’t want to let that breath go, afraid to let go of the air that once co-mingled with the air of the someone who’s gone. i remember that breath when my papa died, and for a flash of an instant i wondered if i could hold it forever, not wanting the breath of a world in which he’d dwelled to escape — ever — from the depths of my chest.

but this is about maya, maya angelou, a poet and heart song who made me feel safe, safe in this bone-rattling, rockabye world.

now i can’t say i’m any sort of scholar of maya. only that she’s among the ones — women, many of them — whose words i often read in triplicate, because the words are so breathtaking on the first whirl, my eyes and my heart simply go back to the start of the sentence to read it again. to breathe it again. to catch the updraft and make me go soaring. to delve into the construction, the word choice, to figure it out, to see how she does it. like watching, i suppose, a brilliant hand surgeon reweave the tendons of a woodworker’s thumb. or sitting off to the side of a painter as she daubs her brush in the palette of oily whites and yellows and blues and greens, and puts them just so on the canvas, and suddenly sunlight is dappled where before there was only a montage of paint dabs.

so this dappled morning at the table, we sift through what maya has left us….

here, a few sentences worth reading in triplicate (these from angelou’s 1969 memoir, “i know why the caged bird sings,” which many know as the poem. this, though, is from the less familiar prose):

“Late one day, as we were attending to the pigs, I heard a horse in the front yard (it really should have been called a driveway, except that there was nothing to drive into it), and ran to find out who had come riding up on a Thursday evening…

The used-to-be sheriff sat rakishly astraddle his horse. His nonchalance was meant to convey his authority and power over even dumb animals. How much more capable he would be with Negroes. It went without saying.

His twang jogged in the brittle air. From the side of the store, Bailey and I heard him say to Momma, ‘Annie, tell Willie he better lay low tonight. A crazy nigger messed with a white lady today. Some of the boys’ll be coming over here later.’ Even after the slow drag of years, I remember the sense of fear which filled my mouth with hot, dry air and made my body light.” 

and here, because my mama ran to the library to get it, is the start of maya’s 2008 “letter to my daughter”:

Dear Daughter,

This letter has taken an extraordinary time getting itself together. I have all along known that I wanted to tell you directly of some lessons I have learned and under what conditions I have learned them.

My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring, still.

There have been people in my life who meant me well, taught me valuable lessons, and others who have meant me ill, and have given me ample notification that my world is not meant to be all peaches and cream.

I have made many mistakes and no doubt will make more before I die. When I have seen pain, when I have found that my ineptness has caused displeasure, I have learned to accept my re- sponsibility and to forgive myself first, then to apologize to anyone injured by my misreckoning. Since I cannot un-live history, and repentance is all I can offer God, I have hopes that my sincere apologies were accepted.

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.

Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood.

Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.

I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all.

and finally, we close with this, from 1995’s “a brave and startling truth,” the poem maya wrote for the 50th anniversary of the united nations (it’s more than worth reading every last word of the entire poem, but here’s the last stanza):

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

should you choose to read a bit more about maya, the poetry foundation puts it poetically here.

and, now for the best part of our pause, what lines from maya do you bring to the table?

p.s. i hope she wouldn’t mind my calling her maya instead of the more stately ms. angelou. either one would do, and i beg her pardon — or yours — if the familiarity of using her first name suggests anything other than the deepest of dignified respect.

dear mama, for all of this…

grammy tedd chess

day after tomorrow, it’s the day when the globe pauses in its spinning so toast can be sprung from the toaster, violets can be clutched by little hands, and college kids can shoot a quick text: “luv u mom.”

otherwise known as children-remember-your-mom day, a wholly artificial slow-down in the whirl so cinnamon-raisin crumbs can be hansel-and-greteled between the bedsheets, violets can suffer strangulation, and mothers can get bleary-eyed at being remembered. or not.

sometimes, though, the day affords much more. it allows us to dig down to where our memories lie, and pull a few good ones out by the roots. that’s the notion at the heart of a breathtaking essay written by a friend i met a few weeks back. my friend is laura lynn brown, and before i met her at a crowded noisy dinner table, i’d read her essay, the one the iowa review printed in its esteemed pages, and the one slated to run on slate, the uber cool website, today.

her essay, “fifty things about my mother,” started out as an experiment in crafting pure-gold sentences, one at a time, in no particular order.

laura, then and now a daily newspaper editor in little rock, arkansas, was getting close to 50, the age at which her mama had died, and she found herself aswirl in rememberings. around that very time, twitter, that 140-character writer’s challenge, was gliding onto the horizon. rather than scoff at such syllabary confines, laura was intrigued by the notion of power-packing a sentence.

you’ll read, as you scroll through her sentences, how magnificently she mastered that challenge. and why no less than susan orlean picked the whole lot of them to win the 2013 iowa review nonfiction award.

what happened next was that laura’s essay caught an editor’s eye, and, lo and behold, a book was born, everything that makes you mom: a bouquet of memories. only five of the original 50 sentences are tucked in the book, and rather than making it a book in which you’d read only laura’s memories of laura’s heavenly-sounding mom, she’s made it a book that tickles the reader’s heart and uproots some of your own most delicious mama memories.

laura brown book

laura wondered if maybe a gaggle of her writerly friends might open the pages of the book and see what happened. i got to page 108, and found my assignment, under the heading “essay question”: “remember when Mom taught you how to write a thank-you note (promptly, saying thank you, naming the gift given, and telling how you will use it or why you appreciate it or why it was a just-right choice)? write your mother a thank-you note now.”

here at the chair, i’ve written over the years what amount to thank-you notes to my mama. the original mother nature is one, and so is grammy tuesday.

but borrowing from my writerly friend laura, i’ll take a crack at crafting a few thank-you sentences to my very own mama, who, at 83.5 and ticking strong, still parks her sleek silver SUV at the curb of our old house every tuesday, ambles up the walk with her blue-plastic cooler of whatever groceries she needs to cook and lay on the table one of her ever-revolving repertoire of the dinners i grew up with: chicken rice grammy, 3-4-5 stew, meatloaf crusted with catsup, and bags and bags of frozen carrots and peas.

dear mama,

for tucking me by your side on the hardwood stairs the summer’s afternoon the hive of yellow jackets shimmied up my skinny little legs, trapped inside my jeans, and stung me mercilessly straight up to my bum. for making like julie andrews and singing into my ear, “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when i’m feeling sad, i simply remember my favorite things, and then i don’t feel so bad,” the tune from “the sound of music” that still clicks on auto-play when i find myself inside-out, upside-down or just plain afraid.

for flipping open my bedroom window shades on especially sunlit mornings with robert browning’s song from pippa passes, “the lark’s on the wing/the snail’s on the thorn/God’s in His heaven/all’s right with the world!”

for the image of you in the rainy cemetery i’ll never forget: you with your sturdy sole to the cusp of the garden shovel, slicing into the oozy earth, at the mound of your beloved’s — my papa’s — grave — right above his heart, you whispered to me — digging the hole for the mahogany jewelry box that held our stringbean-sized baby girl, the one stillborn in the hollow of night, the one you helped us lay to rest, tucked snug against her grandpa’s stilled heart “where they’ll both always be safe,” you promised me.

for the 1,048 grammy tuesdays since boy 1 was born, and the 572 grammy thursdays you tacked on once boy 2 arrived. for forging connections to those two boys that are at the bedrock of who they are and always will be. for knowing the instant you met my “old shoe” of a newsroom friend, the one with the holes in his penny loafers and the hanging-down hem on his seersucker shorts, that despite the fact that i was a lifelong catholic and he was a devoted jew, i’d met my soul’s desire. 

an abbreviated list of what you taught me: love like there’s no tomorrow; don’t ever stop; poetry is prayer; 101 things to do with frozen peas; and if you want julie andrews, plop her on the record player.

for all of this, and so very much more, dear mama, thank you and thank you and happy blessed mama’s day. please come for 3-4-5 stew, washed down with slippery buttery baby frozen peas.

what would you write in your thank you note to your mama?

photo above is my mama playing chess just this past tuesday with boy 2, aka teddy. and here is one more thing she taught me to love…

viburnum

korean spice viburnum, blooming just this morning outside my kitchen door, a bouquet for my mama..

and for all my beautiful friends whose mamas are no longer here, a bundle of extra deep hugs. it’s a bottomless loss, stirred all the more painfully on this day when it seems everyone else is bathing in the very thing that brings you heartache.