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Tag: anne lamott

extra special edition: glorious books for the soul

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this is the second of two posts today because, silly me, when i posted season of stillness earlier this morning i didn’t realize the latest edition of my chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul — really fine books for the soul — was already posted online. egad. 

so here tis, a double dose for this friday snuggled in the depths of hanukkah and advent and  however you mark the deepening of winter to come….

if you put just one book on your wish list, or your giving list, i’m thinking i’d pick one of these. see if you can guess which would be my number one? 

Christian Wiman’s memoir reflects on years as editor of Chicago-based Poetry magazine, plus Anne Lamott, Elaine Pagels

Barbara Mahany

“He Held Radical Light” by Christian Wiman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pages, $23

The epigraph, perhaps, whispers the secret of what’s to come in the pages of poet Christian Wiman’s latest soul-searing memoir, “He Held Radical Light.” The epigraph, from Juan Ramon Jimenez, reads: “The world does not need to come from a god. For better or worse, the world is here. But it does need to go to one (where is he?), and that is why the poet exists.”

So begins Wiman’s wrestling with art and faith, faith and art, driven by the question, “What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?”

The book follows Wiman’s earlier, brilliant memoir, “My Bright Abyss,” composed in the wake of his 2011 bone marrow transplant. In this latest work, Wiman — who teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School — offers a volume that is part memoir (his years as the Chicago-based editor of Poetry magazine), part anthology (a compendium of poems lucidly critiqued), and, delightfully, a recounting of close encounters of the most curious kind with a Who’s Who of Poetry. He recalls Mary Oliver stuffing half a dead pigeon in her pocket, Seamus Heaney leaning in at a crowded dinner table and beginning an intimate conversation about faith, and A.R. Ammons refusing to read in front of an audience.

Early on in this book that reads like an unfiltered tete-a-tete, Wiman writes that when he left college, he set out to be a poet who would write “a poem that would live forever.” He has done that with this magnificent, radiant memoir.

“Almost Everything” by Anne Lamott, Riverhead, 208 pages, $20

Before you’ve turned even two pages in Anne Lamott’s newest, “Almost Everything,” you might hear yourself thinking aloud that, surely, she’s been peeking in through our windows, diagnosing the terrible straits of our souls. And, thus, she’s dive-bombed this balm straight down the chimney, just in the nick of sweet time. How’d she know how hopeless it’s felt? How bottomless? How’d she know these were the words we so needed?

Over the decades, through her 10 earlier nonfiction books, plenty of us have grown to trust Lamott’s spiritual compass. We settle in quickly here, knowing just around the next sentence she might pry open our heart, and pack in truths we will mull long after we’ve put down her pages.

“It is hard here,” she writes, with bracing honesty, and by “here,” she means this moment on planet Earth. Her subject is hope; she offers it in lines like this: “our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day.” Again and again, Lamott steers us in and out of the canyons and potholes of despair.

“We have all we need to come through,” she assures. “Against all odds, no matter what we’ve lost, no matter how many messes we’ve made over time, no matter how dark the night, we offer and are offered kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness, which create hope, sufficient unto the day.”

“Why Religion?” by Elaine Pagels, Ecco, 256 pages, $27.99

Elaine Pagels, one of the great voices in American theology, plunges her reader into an abyss of grief before even the midpoint of her latest work, “Why Religion? A Personal Story.” But fear not.

As Pagels masterfully interweaves her personal story with her profound insight honed through by a career in academia, she offers her reader a lifeline toward hope, toward light after darkness. Along the way, she answers her titular question — Why religion? — by illuminating an ancient truth of human experience: religion, a construct of cultural beliefs and traditions, holds at its core the power to “heal the heart.”

In “Why Religion,” Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Princeton University, departs from the scholarly writing that propelled her earlier works, “The Gnostic Gospels” and “Beyond Belief,” to critical and popular acclaim. Here, in a memoir that wrenchingly recounts the slow death of her 6-year-old son, Mark, and a year later the mountain-hiking accident that killed her physicist husband, Heinz, she bares her incomprehensible, nearly unbearable grief.

Pagels’ fluency and nimble excavation of the wisdom found in the Gnostic Christian texts is what gives her — and her readers — a certain glimpse of a redemptive truth, and an exit route from the griefs that are sure to come to us all.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

baselines of hope

baselines of hope

these times, they are shaky.

that’s one way to put it, waking up, catching the first snow fall on my nose as i lope outside with coffee can and birdseed in tow, on a mission to make my first act of the day one of tender caring, even if the caring comes in the form of feather balls who float on the wind, who fill the air with chirps and cheeps and fluttering wings. and then, while that peace-filled breath is sinking deep in my lungs, in my soul, i lope back inside, click this lit-up clamshell that brings me the news — oh, the news — of the world, and just now told me of atrocities in melbourne, australia. australia, a nook and cranny of the world we like to think of as too far from the madness, somehow immune, inoculated. if only there was a vaccine against having our hearts blown to shreds.

every day now, it seems to come. to find its way in. to shake us, rattle us, frazzle our hope and sometimes our faith, deep to our core. australia. thousand oaks. tree of life. kentucky kroger grocery store. pipe bombs across america. (and that’s just the shorthand of horrors for the last 30 days.)

but i stumbled into a lifeline this week. or a little something that might just help.

by the grace of God, i have this crazy wild job that puts me in the front line of books for the soul — i read them, lots of them, and pluck out the ones especially worth passing along — and every once in a while that means i get an early crack at a book that just might save us — or at least give us a place to eddy our hearts for awhile. that’s how it happened that anne lamott’s newest, “almost everything: notes on hope,” came to be following me everywhere i go.

because she’s the master of embedding rocket blasts of wisdom unsuspectingly into the middle or ends of a sentence (p. 45: “help is the sunny side of control”), distilling knock-your-socks truths into words or combinations of words you’d never before known could work in that way (p. 47: life is “like free theater in the park — glorious and tedious; full of wonder and often hard to understand, but right before our very eyes, and capable of rousing us…”), lamott is someone to read with pen and post-its at the ready. you’ll want to scribble in the margins, and up and down the end papers, too. (best not to play this game with a library book, so i’d urge you to buy your own copy so you can play along without racking up ginormous library fines.)

one of the tripwire lines she’d buried deep in one of her sentences was one that — as plotted, i’m certain — stopped me in my tracks and got me to thinking. (the very best books for the soul can take a very long time to read start to finish because they are filled with cul-de-sacs and ridge trails that force you to plop down on the side of the mountain and look out over the valley, far and wide and clearer than you’ve ever before noticed.)

she was writing about how even when life seems to be humming along, “the cosmic banana peel awaits.” in other words, stuff happens. bad stuff. stuff that makes us feel like our heart’s been blown to bits. banana peel stuff. “without this reality,” lamott writes, “there would be no great art or comedy.” and then she goes on to remind us to “savor what works when things are sort of harmonious.” the million and one things that don’t steer us into the ditch, don’t trigger the air bags.

it’s these little-counted miracles — the toe that wasn’t stubbed when you nearly walked into the bathroom door in the night, the pink dot by your eye that didn’t turn into a sty, the vote tally that did fall in your favorite faraway candidate’s favor — these “fleeting, lovely satisfactions” that lamott writes give us “a baseline hope.”

baseline hope.

it was as if she’d twisted the kaleidoscope just enough for me to see from a whole new angle. it was white-on-black instead of the usual black-on-white. take one minute (or be radical and take maybe five, or 10), consider the census of everyday barely-noticed things that do go the way you’d want them to go if you were the one in charge of your plot line. the things you barely pause to realize have saved you from falling into the rat’s nest, the ant hill, the gutter.

the baselines of hope.

i’ll go first: there might be a recount in florida. the furnace is humming, not sputtering. my slippers are fuzzy and warm. my hopefully-college-bound kid got his essays written on time. the computer did not crash as he was submitting said essays to college. the kid i love who’s in law school, he put down the books long enough to go to the symphony last night (a sign he’s learning to live like a human, and not just a caffeine-fueled freak of high-stakes angst).

you catch the drift, i’m certain.

these days the world can and does bombard us. it’s incoming always. and it’s not often pretty. but underpinning our everyday, more often than not, the furnace is working, the gas tank is filled, someone we love remembers to call us.

baselines of hope.

what’s required is the root of all sacred practice: pay attention. pay close, close attention. harvest the joys and the wonders and the narrowly-missed calamities. those fine few things that keep the trap door from ripping right open, catching us, tumbling us down to the cobwebby cellar.

consider the miracle of most of the time….

what constitutes your baseline of hope?

soul pickings…

book pickings

pray tell, you might ask, what is she doing now? perhaps, given the tower of pages above, i’m devising a rube-goldbergian contraption for felling the wintertime ants that dare to cross my kitchen table. or, perhaps, it’s the latest in literary aerobics: hoist this pile off the tabletop and see how many jumping jacks i can count — before dropping the load on my poor baby toes, or tumbling under the weight of the heart-pumping challenge.

or, perhaps this: in the plummest assignment a girl could dream up, my old newspaper, the chicago tribune, has asked me to basically peruse the literary all-you-can-eat and fill my tray with the juiciest morsels — month after month after month. now, you’ll not find me weighing the caloric wonders nor the narrative arc of sultry page turners. and i won’t be digesting the latest in graphic novels, or avant-garde fiction. my little assignment, which runs on the pages of the tribune’s literary supplement, printers row journal (special subscription only), is called “round up: books for the soul.” and i’ll be lassoing soul-stirrers every four to six weeks.

and, in case you hadn’t already guessed, my definition of soul is a broad one, a deep one, so watch out bookshelves, i’m coming right at you. i’ve been asked to mine the lists of just-published pages to pluck out the ones that stir me — and maybe you — the most deeply. in my book, that means children’s picture books are near the top of the pile. and so too is the 8.4-pound, 4,448-page, two-volume whopper, the norton anthology of world religions, a collection i could — and i will — spend the rest of my days inhaling. it means poetry and essay, and even a book of black-and-white images with very few words, if that finds a way to the depth of the place that stirs us, inspires us, sets us wanting to right the world’s wrongs (or at least to course-correct the fumblings that hold us back from all whom we were meant to be).

at the moment, i’m whittling my latest short list down to the final three, and i’ll be defending my picks in short pithy blurbs — all to be handed over to my editor by monday morn. while i can’t let on here what’s next on the docket, i can pass along the trinity of titles that were picked for the perch of the new year, the first installation in what promises to be a perpetual devotion.

a marvelous and hilarious side note on the list just below. when dear, marvelous, and often quite wacky anne lamott spied the review online (i had no idea it had even been edited, yet alone posted) she went bonkers with joy, and declared it “the single best review anyone has ever gotten in the history of publishing,” which made me chuckle on an otherwise gloomy new-year’s-eve day, and slam-dunked my certainty that hyperbole is a jocular, life-giving art. when last i checked, a mere 24,362 of annie’s beloved friends had “liked” the review on facebook, and i for one was simply tickled that ms. lamott felt the love, as it were. (may we all know the joy of being loved out loud, over and over and over again….)

here, with no further ado, is my first round of round ups: books for the soul. i cannot emphasize emphatically enough how wonderful each title is. nor how very much i love this assignment that has me back in the news pages i love. (i’ll post the link, but i don’t think it will work if you don’t already have a tribune subscription. just in case, though, click here.)

Round Up: Books for the Soul 
By Barbara Mahany

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace
By Anne Lamott, Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $22.95

Anne Lamott is practically a household word in the peeling-back-the-soul department. She’s utterly disarming. She’s hysterically funny. One minute, you’re falling off your chair laughing, and the next, you’re gasping for air, because Lamott has just unfurled a sentence that cuts straight to the heart of what you really needed to know. She’s been doing that for so many books now (this is her ninth nonfiction title), I keep thinking she’ll run out of ways to take my breath away.

Which is why I didn’t expect to see her latest collection of essays tumble into my short list of soulful treasures. I was wrong, so wrong. Lamott is one in a million. Who else would make this leap, writing of a moment that’s so serene and holy, “I was sure I was going to end up dating the Dalai Lama.” Or: “I thought such awful thoughts I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Hers is an inimitable mix of irreverence and deep-down holy wisdom. Her wit is so sharp, her synapses fire so quickly, she deftly connects the dots and vaults across the spiritual landscape like nobody else. Never suspecting we’re about to come around some light-drenched bend, we practically sputter when she steers us head-on into one of her wild-eyed illuminations.

Lamott grounds the holy in the messy, hilarious, madcap adventure that is her life. And she sees the truth so piercingly perceptibly, we’re left slack-jawed and wiser in her wake.

Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden
By Karen Maezen Miller, New World Library, 192 pages, $15.95

This little slip of a book, like the best of all soulful books, slips deep in your soul practically unnoticed. Suddenly, you’re sitting bolt upright, because you’ve been reading quietly along and you realize you’ve just inhaled a sentence that packs a spiritual wallop.

As in: “We live stupefied by our own deep terror, our unmet fears. Out of fear, we crush our own spirits, break our own hearts and — if we don’t stop — rot our own flesh,” writes Miller, a Zen priest and teacher, in an essay about crossing the threshold of fear. “All that is ever required of us is that we lift one foot and place it in front of the other.”

Miller’s plainspoken wisdom, the essence of her Zen Buddhist practice, is couched in the story of discovering and tending a long-neglected 100-year-old Japanese garden, the paradise in her own Southern California backyard. Amid a landscape of rocks and ponds and pines and orange trees heavy with fruit, Miller doles out Zen lessons on fearlessness, forgiveness, presence, acceptance and contentment.

“This book isn’t really about Zen, and it isn’t really about gardening,” writes Miller in the prologue. “It might seem like I’m talking to myself, but I’m talking to you. Now, about this paradise. You’re standing in it.”

Indeed, you needn’t be a gardener, nor inclined to long hours of meditation, nor a disciple of Zen. And you certainly needn’t travel to the nearest Japanese garden to unearth the truths Miller so generously lays at your mud-sodden soles.

The Lion and The Bird
By Marianne Dubuc, Enchanted Lion Books, 64 pages, $17.95

A so-called children’s book, a picture book, among the most soul-lifting books of the year? Why, yes. Emphatically yes.

Tripping upon this marvel of a book, by French Canadian designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc, is to tumble into a tale of unforgettable tenderness — the story of a lion who finds a wounded bird in his garden one autumn day and nurses it back to flight, a winter’s convalescence of warmth and friendship that banishes loneliness, for lion and bird. It’s one that tears at and stitches together again the heart.

Words here are spare, as are the pencil-shaded drawings, and thus the tempo is slow, the mood quiet. It’s the intimate details that draw in the reader, and thus the reader’s heart — the wounded bird pecking seed off a dinner plate, little bird dozing the night away curled inside lion’s bedside slipper, bird peeking out of lion’s winter cap as the two lumber off for a romp in the snow.

By spring, when bird is healed and its flock returns, a nod to the sky is all lion needs to know that it’s time for bird to leave, to put flight to his wings. And so, the summer is passed — lion alone. Come autumn, lion can’t help but wonder, can’t help but study the canvas of sky. And then, after two achingly empty pages, a musical note exalts on a page. There’s bird, perched on the limb of a tree. Lion’s heart leaps — and so does the reader’s.

It’s a lesson in unspoken, ineffable love. And it unspools in gentlest wisps. Sometimes, that’s all the soul needs.

Barbara Mahany is the author of Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, Oct. 2014). Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

and what books would you add to a list of those fine for the soul? even though i’m limited to just-published titles, you can add all-time favorites, classics, can’t-live-withouts to this ever-lengthening list…..(and i promise to keep posting once the round ups take their twirl in the tribune…)

the essential shelf

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

consider the word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

your turn, who’s jumping next?