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Category: power of reading

undulations of the everyday

IMG_0985and, zap!, like that we’re back to the real world. the everyday. cinderella sweeping the hearth after the ball. our sparkly slippers are somewhere left behind, though the sparkliest shoe i’ve ever slipped on was the mary jane i polished with a glob of vaseline back back when i was about to see my grandmama (she who would notice such things, who would remark on a gloss-less mary jane).

one kid pulled out of the station 12 days ago, is nestled back by his keyboard in connecticut, churning out words as a foreman in detroit once churned out carburetors and mufflers. only my kid’s business is complex legal puzzles, ones i stretch to comprehend. the other kid, the one still kid enough to let me make him one last batch of his favorite mac-n-cheese, he’s in countdown mode, leaving just the other side of this wallop of a storm hurling our way.

the tree, my sumptuously fat fraser fir of a tree, it’s missing from the corner it’s lit up these past three festive weeks. it’s stripped naked and currently residing on its prickly limbs, toppled by the winds that are hurling forth that storm. for now, it’s just outside the kitchen door, my way-station of sorts, a mid-point when i can’t quite bear to haul it shamelessly to the alley.

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socrates: 469–399 B.C.E.

i’m back to my business of books: reading them, writing about them, maybe even writing one or two in the year (or years) to come. somehow i seem to have made it my business to read with a ferocity that teeters toward insatiable. one big thinker leads to another and another, as if i’m the freshman in college and my curriculum is as old as the ages. this week, somehow, it was socrates under whose trance i fell. i can’t stop thinking about the bug-eyed thinker whose devotion to big ideas, to the why behind it all, got him a big ol’ spoonful of hemlock, and it makes me wonder why it is we as a human race are so quick to expunge the ones who think outside the box, the ones who try in vain to correct the course of human decency and depth.

because it’s the new year, i tackled my wild herd of books unread. i lined them up in little piles, marked certain ones with a sticker of urgency. i galloped through a few of those: mary oliver, first up; thomas berry, next. david whyte’s essentials, a wee slip of a book proving what comes in smallest packages might well pack the biggest wallop. it’s a collection of his poems from a span of 35 years (collected by his wife, which adds a note of devotion that melts me), and each one comes with a whisper, whyte’s from-the-wings tale of how and why the poem came to be. whyte is a poet-philosopher with a degree in marine biology, making him exquisitely trained to look and look closely. this line from the flap jacket gets at my devotion to him and his work: “this collection…forms a testament to whyte’s most closely-held understanding — that life cannot be apportioned as one thing or another; rather it is best lived as the way between, made beautiful by darkness as well as light, at its essence both deeply solitary and profoundly communal.”

and this first poem, perhaps, holds necessary wisdom for the new year. it’s titled, start close in, and here are two stanzas (never mind, here’s the whole thing):

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way to begin
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

To hear
another’s voice,
follow
your own voice,
wait until
that voice

becomes an
intimate
private ear
that can
really listen
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

–david whyte: essentials

whyte writes in the poem’s afterword that it was inspired by dante’s commedia, and “it reflects the difficult act we all experience, of trying to make a home in the world again when everything has been taken away; the necessity of stepping bravely again, into what looks like a dark wood, when the outer world as we know it has disappeared…”

david whyte, it seems, is a very fine way to enter into the undulations of the everyday, the ones that follow, one after another, after another…

bless you in this new chance to quietly, certainly, begin again. may your journey be intentional….

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who will be your guideposts through this new and fresh terrain? 

that one brave thing (an update)…

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illustration by Antony Huchette, for the New York Times Book Review

just a quick middle-of-the-week update from the courage department…

not so very long ago, i wrote here about trying very, very hard to be brave.

these are some of the words that tumbled straight from my truth-telling heart:

i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

…i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

here’s what happened the day i took a deep breath, and mustered all my courage:

Boyhood on a Shelf, April 9, 2017, New York Times Book Review, page 13.

thank you, and thank you, dear mother courage.

i’ll be back, as always, friday morning. it’ll be hushed because, for me, it’s Good Friday, that day of sacred silence from noon till three bells, the hours of the Crucifixion.

delighted to hear if your courage took you to any heights of which you’d only dreamed….

 

reading for work

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some days, my workday unfolds like this: i wander over to the books in my stack that teeters as it rises toward the ceiling. i pull out the one that tempts the most. i pour a guzzle of coffee. i reach for a pen, for i don’t know how to read without one (making me a potentially reckless patron of the local library). i cozy my bum on the chair. i study the cover, read the flaps at the front and the back, then i turn to page one. i await the first sentence. first sentences signal plenty: do i want to read on to the second? or is this going to be an obligational exercise? (because i’m an occupational reader, i can’t give up after just one paltry sentence, nor even one that clanks when what i’m after is take-your-breath-away.)

i hum the loudest when i find myself tumbling into the text, when whole chunks of an hour go by, and i am as busy with my scribbling as i am with my inhaling of words, of ideas, of penetrating thoughts.

my job is to read books for the soul. i still can’t quite believe that counts as work, and that — rather than collecting garbage cans, or chopping carrots for vats of soup — i’ve somehow found my way to reading for work. reading soulful books for work.

and by my definition the soul is a broad-canvased endeavor. the soul is without boundaries, stretching from star-stitched night sky to the meadow where queen anne’s lace nods in the breath of morning’s breeze. by my definition the soul is that thing that catches the beauties, the depths, the light and the shadow of life and life beyond our feeble capacities.

in my book, the soul — that thing that i’m reading to stir — is the catch basin of all that is sacred, of all that is dispatched from God. it’s our job, us little people with our creaky knees and our hair that won’t do the right thing, it’s our job — or so i believe — to rumble through life on full-alert, on the lookout for those barely perceptible moments when the shimmer of light on a leaf, or the way the dawn ignites the horizon, signal to us that God is near. no, God is here. and if we listen, say put our ear to the wind, or to the chest of someone we love, or if we simply sit quietly and all alone, we might hear the still small voice that whispers of love, of courage, of bold and emphatic action, of whatever is the holiest thing you needed to hear. because God does that. God wants us to bump up against wonder. God wants us to feel the walls of our heart stretched and stretching. God wants us to rustle under the newness of a thought, or an inkling, that’s never struck us before. or the God i love does, anyway.

as i was reading away this week, reading mary oliver’s newest book, a collection of essays titled, “upstream: selected essays,” as i was reading lines like this one — “I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field.” —  or — “Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” —  or — ” I can hear that child’s voice…its presence rises, in memory, from the steamy river of dreams….It is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.” — as i was reading those lines, i thought about how, for me, religion seeps in most deeply when it seeps in softly, tricklingly, when it’s not klonked over my head, with a two-by-four of this-is-what-you-should-know.

i let that softness, that newness sink in. my God comes at me gently, with a subtle tap to the noggin. or the barest wisp of breath against the nape of my neck.

and then during another part of another workday, when i was gathering notes for a lovely circle i am entering this evening, a circle filled with doctors and nurses and health care workers who believe in, and practice, narrative medicine, the art of gathering the stories of those whose lives will be entrusted to their care, their compassion and their steely intellect, i turned to two of the great thinkers in my lexicon, vladimir nabokov and rebecca solnit. i read, again, their instructions for reading and for writing. and i realized, they too, rooted and root their life’s work in soulful tomes.

nabokov instructs us in how to read: “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. it is there that occurs the telltale tingle…”

solnit, author of countless brilliant prose passages, instructs us in how to write: “listen to what makes your hair stand on end, your heart melt, and your eyes go wide, what stops you in your tracks and makes you want to live, wherever it comes from, and hope that your writing can do all those things for other people.”

and so i go, as instructed, to read, to try to write, to capture those fleeting sparks of the divine, to catch them with my soul, and clutch them dearly to my heart.

not so shabby, for a long day’s work.

where do you find the soulful words in your life? and how do you imagine the soul, and its capacities for catching all the passing sparks of the Divine? 

once my latest roundup of soulful books runs in the chicago tribune, where it’s now found on the thursday books page every six weeks or so, i will post it here, of course.

and a note, for anyone who’s curious, about book selection: i’ve chosen to only write about books i find rich or enriching, and i don’t get to write about nearly enough of those, limited to only three per roundup. knowing the courage it takes — the self-exposure — to put any words to the page, i’ve made it my policy that i will not write about a book that i find short on what i’m after. i know how much it hurts to be criticized, and i will not subject another soul to that. life’s too short. and there are too many gloriously good books to read and write about. wonders to behold, indeed.

four score and so many tears

it wasn’t on our way. but we steered there anyway.

a red-lined triangle on the roadmap was all that it took. that and what turned into a few hours’ drive through the mountains, in the rain, with no shoulder to the right, and big trucks barreling by on the left.

and there was that boy in the back seat, after all, the boy who’d learned all the words, who’d traced the story of the president who’d ended slavery, and who somehow had decided that to settle his own hard-thumping heart, he’d needed to slip the soles of his shoes into the very same spot on the crest of the hill in the midst of the half-circles of square white stones, unmarked graves, state-by-state in the somberest of roll calls, where the words first were bellowed over the stretched-out limbs of the forever-sleeping soldiers.

it was the gettysburg address, three short paragraphs really, that he’d learned at school, read out loud in assembly, recited one night at dinner, delightfully reading “deducted” instead of “dedicated” each time he came to that particular mix of d’s and c’s and t’s that, after all, is so indistinguishable to an orator of a mere seven years.

and so, since we were driving to washington anyway, he figured, why not swing up into pennsylvania, that breadloaf-shaped chunk in the jigsaw puzzle, not far from the d,c, triangle, and drive to the little town where the great speech was etched into the national memory.

it wasn’t enough, on that chilly cold afternoon, to merely drive through the town, stand in some parking lot, marked visitor center, and rip out the sheet with the words.

oh, no.

we stopped for a map, and directions. we wiggled our way through farm fields once soaked in blood. we parked near the crest of a hill, walked past long stone fences, crossed a country road, and walked and walked until we couldn’t get closer to where ol’ abe’s shoes must have fallen, stood firm against the hard cold soils that had seen and heard too much, and now at last were being laid to rest and peace and the broadcloth of history.

the little boy, one who most of the time spouts numbers and news about ballfields and the players who play there, somehow had been transfixed by these words and this speech and this spot on the map.

there was no steering him elsewhere. no approximation of history.

he’d decided it had to be just as it was. had to be him reading the words out loud, to the cold winds, and the three grownups (his big brother, after all, is nearly a grownup) who love him so very much, who stood somewhat astonished at this whole insistence on honoring history.

he’d carried along a parchment, written in script, signed “Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863,” but he couldn’t make out the 19th-century swirls and dips and swoops of soot-black ink.

so, when we’d stopped for the map, he’d handily gotten the words typed-out, more to his liking, more like the pages of books he now reads by the hour, this boy who not long ago struggled with words in any old form.

so there we were at the top of the hill, just in front of the great marble monument, with the plaque marking the spot.

the boy, seven and change, settled in, maybe as lincoln had; pulled the words from his pocket, unfolded the ridges, began.

“four score,” he started, of course. and then carried on. the words coming in that familiar cadence and rhythm we all know, all of us who in some schoolroom somewhere pored over the civil war pages, tried our hand at memorizing, maybe for the very first time, with this particular passage.

somewhere, though, near the part where lincoln wrote that “we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground,” the words slowed to nearly a halt.

we looked in, each of us, zeroed our eyes on his face, trying to read the root of the slowed-down reading.

only then, as the next few words sputtered, did i see what i thought looked like a tear. and then another and another.

he was crying and reading, the boy who would not let the tears stop the cadence, the moment, not till the end when we all crushed him, a tangle of arms, cheeks, tears.

“sweetheart what is it?” i asked, not sure if it was that the hard words had netted his courage, swallowed his sense of the moment, or whether it was the sad truth of the story, the soldiers buried in half moons and lines all around.

“it’s the soldiers.” he managed to choke out in short few syllables, before burying his face in my sleeve.

we all stood in this knot for a minute or two. i knew that i, for one, was etching the moment into my mind, into my picture of this boy who i’d birthed, this boy who not often was thought of as the one with his pulse in sync with the poetry of a world marred by bloodshed and tombstones.

sometimes on a cold afternoon, at the crest of history, you discover the script that you’ve dotted and crossed in your head, the script of your very own child, it’s not what you thought it was.

and you stand there, wiping back tears, his and your own. and all of a sudden you understand a whole new chapter’s been written.

one you will never forget.

nothing earth-shattering here. just a page in the scrapbook, titled “our road trip to washington,” it’s been a long long time since we went away for spring break. all the cats in the ‘hood bore a bit of a shock since over the years we’ve evolved into the de facto cat sitters. as always, it’s splendid to be home and back at the keyboard (and washing machine, and the checkout line at the grocery), but, of all years, this was a fine one to brush against the white house gate. criss-crossing the country we listened to obama on tape, both books, and to hear the depth of the man–and the wisdom he piles into but one clause of one sentence, let alone 10 hours of books-on-tape–well, it made the 1,500-some miles whiz by in what seemed like mere minutes.
now, back to the laundry.