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Category: poetry

enwrapped, still, with mary O

winter-woods-1418741454w4l

it’s a tundra out there. i’ve just crunched across the hard crust of snow, coffee can of fat black seed in tow. if ever the birds depend on me, the pewter-haired one who clangs around as if the keeper of the flocks, it’s on a dawn like this. even the wind is shivering.

inside this toasty-warm old house, we’re dwelling in the rarest of quiet pauses. the soon-to-be college kid has turned in his last exam, and might sleep till dusk. it’s the first day in eons that there’s not a single essay or snatch of homework for me to pester him about. he has literally zippo, zilch in the to-do pile, which means i, too, am off whatever hook we mothers impale ourselves.

i’m going nowhere on a day as cold as this. and, till nightfall, have every intention of plunking myself right here, at the old maple table, where i keep watch on flash of scarlet at the feeder, in the boughs. i’ve got all i need within reach: a mug that’s warm and filled with morning brew, a stack of books so tall it sometimes teeters.

img_1249all week, i’ve been deep in the pages of mary oliver. one by one, i’ve pulled her books off my shelves, and pored over line after line. i’ve been drawn especially to her prose, the long sentences as stitched with poetry as any of her verse. i inhaled upstream: selected essays, and a poetry handbook, her 1994 master class in the making of a poem.

reminded me — as i scribbled notes on sound (did you know our alphabet is divided into families of sound? and that besides good old vowels and consonants, there are semivowels and mutes? a mute, it seems is most important in the realm of poetry; a mute, mary tells us, “is a consonant that cannot be sounded at all without a vowel, and” — here’s the interesting part, where the little bitty alphabet letter seems to take on menacing character — “suddenly stops the breath.” the mutes are k, p, t, as in ak, ap, at.) — and as i was saying before i interrupted myself, being inside the pages of mary oliver’s masterclass reminded me of the glorious semester i spent studying poetry with helen vendler, the great literary critic and mastermind of poetry, who every monday and wednesday at 1 o’clock on the dot, marched into harvard’s emerson hall, plonked her satchel on the desk and dove in. with nary a hello. we had 60 minutes to squeeze in all there was to know about lyric poetry — from ancient to modern — and she would shave off not a second for distractions such as long-winded greetings. helen vendler was one of those treasures, a lioness of american poetry, whose every poetic utterance you knew was met with full-stop attention far beyond the cambridge city limits, and had she not been such a gentle-souled professor in her sensible shoes, dabbing tissues at her nose in between recitations of pound and eliot and coleridge, you might have shuddered in her presence. but in fact we all sat hushed, even the snotty little harvard first years who hush for almost no one. (i was already pewter-haired, as this was amid our nieman year, our year of living sumptuously, when we all went off to college at the ripe old age of 55.)

and, yes, it’s something of a magic trick, a measure of her writerly powers, that mary oliver could make the pages of a book feel as alive as a living, breathing, whole-semester class.

it was in the fresh wake of her death — just a week ago — that this reading felt almost sacramental. it was a reverential rite, absorbing her wisdoms with a measure of urgency, a sense of hurry-before-she-slips-too-far-away. read against the sharp edge of the final bracket of her life, her words and wisdom felt infused with the prophet’s cry. and, certainly, in her returning over and over to themes of the eternal cycle, life to death to life in newly configured form, there was a peace that rose from the pages, from the knowing. if anyone who’d walked among us was welcoming that last great surrender, it was mary O who all along had seen the glistening beauties in the mystery of death, who lived and breathed the truth of life’s brevity, who asked again and again, how will you live this one wild and precious life?

because i’m reading mary O with an eye toward a talk on thomas merton and the Book of Nature, i took notes, lots and lots of notes.

here are just a few that insisted they make their way into my notebooks — and now, perhaps, yours too:

“Beauty has its purposes, which, all our lives and at every season, it is our opportunity, and our joy, to divine.” So writes Mary O in Upstream, and then she goes on to witness the dawn of day across a 20-acre field in winter: “The sun has not yet risen but is sending its first showers over the mountains, a kind of rehearsal, a slant light with even a golden cast. I do not exaggerate. The light touches every blade of frozen grass….The still-upright weeds have become wands, encased in a temporary shirt of ice and light….It is the performance of this hour only, the dawning of the day, fresh and ever new. This is to say nothing against afternoons, evenings, or even midnight. Each has its portion of the spectacular.” (“Poe claimed he could hear the night darkness as it poured, in the evening, into the world….I will hear some sound of the morning as it settles upward.”)

Later, she writes: “For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water….To the young these materials are still celestial; for every child the garden is re-created. Then the occlusions begin.”

A bird, she writes, “was, of course, a piece of the sky.” “…This is not fact; this is the other part of knowing, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief.”

Of a great-horned owl, swooping through the forest, she writes: “When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of mystery….”

Knowledge, she writes, entertained her, shaped her, and ultimately failed her. “Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worthy of my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my spiritual state.”

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family….we are at risk together. We are each other’s destiny.

“For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”

and this, the closing lines of poetry handbook, is the one i’ll leave with you to ponder for the day:

 “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.” 

—Mary Oliver, “A Poetry Handbook” 

may our own occlusions be swept away by wonder and the telltale tingle of the spine that reminds us we’re in the presence of the holy, the infinite, the ever….

which line above from mary O most stirs you? or which did you unearth this week?

polestar now illuminates the heavens: mary oliver (1935-2019)

Mary Oliver cover closeup

Mary Oliver spoon-feeding tiny feathered friend, close-up from the cover of Oliver’s 2017 “Devotions,” a collection of poems spanning five decades. photo by Molly Malone Cook, Mary’s life partner

Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world, drew a wide following while dividing critics, died on Thursday at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. She was 83.

so begins the New York Times obituary for Mary O, polestar of poetry as prayer for some of us, for many of us. for me, most certainly.

as with most every death that shakes you at the marrow, my first response was cloudy, was confused. why, out of the blue yesterday, was a dear friend sending me lines from Mary O poems in the middle of an ordinary afternoon? then i looked again, closely, at the subject line and saw the dates spanned by hyphen, 1935 – 2019, our vernacular shorthand for “death has come.” it sank in slowly, as if my brain cells refused to register.

it’s not everyday that a death in the news so dizzies me, jerks me into momentary disbelief before settling with a thud, one that opens into sorrow. but mary O had long ago burrowed deep inside my soul; i’d made a whole room for her in wherever is that place that holds our heaven-sent synapses and soarings.

mary O had the gift of belonging to each and every one of us who read her, who memorized her lines, who traced our fingertips across the page, all but absorbing the unspoken, the shimmering sacred, she infused between the words, the images. to read a mary oliver poem is, often, to feel “the telltale tingle of the spine,” as nabokov so unforgettably put it. it’s as much what mary oliver doesn’t say, the unspoken, that catapults off the page, that reverberates, that catches in your chest, your throat, your mind, and lies there pulsing while you absorb the holy inference, the Truth.

mary oliver takes us by the hand, and down the trodden path into the woods, along the marsh, the tide pool, the ocean’s noisy shore. we sit beside her on the sodden log. keep watch with her as she keeps watch on the box turtle slithering into the pond. we hear the cry of the owl, the heron, the kingfisher, the red bird, the stirring in the trees. we are right beside her, footsteps behind her, always, when we enter into her poetry.

she was for me — and maybe for you, too — my polestar of prayerful poetry, the poetry of astonishment, the poetry of the Book of Nature. she was my doorway into all those poets — w.s. merwin, david whyte, wendell berry, terry tempest williams (i’ll think of more) — whose critical attention teaches us to see the divine — feel the divine, know the divine — in the stirrings of the earth and sky, those poets who remind us that the holy is all around, and it’s ours to enter any time. all it asks is that we open — even just a crack — the doorways of our soul.

mary O opened those doorways every time.

i met her once. sat in the same room, breathed the same air. shared words, shared silence. listened. laughed. it was heavenly, but i’d dreamed of more. had hoped to trek to cape cod when she was there, and i was in cambridge. hoped to comb the beach with her. walk the woods. then, when she up and moved to florida, i rearranged my dreams. imagined sending her a letter, asking if perhaps she’d meet with one of her disciples. i fully imagined sitting beside her on that log, listening, absorbing. learning.

she was, though, famously, intensely private. and it’s that thin-shelled soul, the porous, almost fragile cell wall of self that i recognize. that i honor with my distance. i’d not dare disturb.

i did though send her a letter. i had to once. i wanted to begin my first book, slowing time, with a mary oliver epigraph, her poem “praying;” these lines especially…

just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

so i wrote her, asked if i could please have permission. her assistant wrote me back. but the letter came from mary O’s writing place, and that was close enough for me. (that and a letter from wendell berry are among the two treasures in the narrow drawer of my writing table.)

i never met her. but she knew me — or so it felt as her words slipped over me, put voice to my heart’s beat, my breath, my prayer, my hope, my faith. and that’s what made her my patron saint of poetry. delicate as the little bird she spoon feeds up above, a close-up from the cover of her last collection, her life’s work, bound. 455 pages.

img_1224devotions, indeed.

Her poems, which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a pedagogical, almost homiletic quality. 

so says the new york times, which goes on to say:

For her abiding communion with nature, Ms. Oliver was often compared to Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. For her quiet, measured observations, and for her fiercely private personal mien (she gave many readings but few interviews, saying she wanted her work to speak for itself), she was likened to Emily Dickinson.

Ms. Oliver often described her vocation as the observation of life, and it is clear from her texts that she considered the vocation a quasi-religious one. Her poems — those about nature as well as those on other subjects — are suffused with a pulsating, almost mystical spirituality, as in the work of the American Transcendentalists or English poets like William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

i say, simply, thank you, mary O. thank you, thank you, thank you.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

bless you, mary O. may astonishment be yours eternally.

what’s your holiest line or poem from mary oliver?

 

a compendium of what we ache for…

Video-Justin-Finding-Out-Great-News

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

IMG_7469

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