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Tag: books for the soul

my line of defense in the Age of Pugilism

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you might have noticed. it’s hard to miss. over the airwaves, on the streets, even at your neighborhood checkout aisle: pugilism is rising to intolerable levels. i blame the bully in chief. have spent months now in my head composing the letter i would like to carry to washington, read on the capitol steps. just little old pewter-haired me, politely hollering at the top of my lungs: stop all the insidious idiocy. stop all the name-calling, the bullying, the devilish tricks. cease with the stomping down hallways and stairs, slinging god-awful descriptors on decent and honorable human beings. stop pummeling this one blessed earth. leave all the children alone, nestled by the sides of their mothers and fathers, where they belong. practice decency. exude kindness. invoke gentle tenderness. start behaving like there might be a tomorrow. imagine your deathbed: these are the moments  you’ll at last call to mind. are you wincing? are these the ways you want to be remembered? a toxic trail in your wake?

it’s toxic, all right. a drip, drip, drip of toxicity. some days, more of a deluge.

my ever practical, commonsensical mother has five words of advice: turn off the damn tv!

i do, more than i used to. first few years of this siege, i admit i was glued to the loud little box. couldn’t take my eyes or my ears off the madness, praying it would end. just kept hoping against hope we could all go back to our quiet neighborly ways. might welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed the hungry. maybe even pick up the trash that litters the woods and the waterways.

nowadays, worn down to the marrow, i find myself building what amounts to a fort, a tall wall of defense. literally. my house is piled with books. they rise up in teetering towers all over the place: kitchen counter, window seat that looks out on the trees, floor and chair and desk in the itty-bitty room where i write.

i read to escape. but not in the way of bodice-ripped beach reads. i read to remind myself that the way of this world, of this moment, is not the only option. i read the masters: thoreau and merton and hildegard of bingen. rilke and c.s. lewis. i read newfound saints and poetesses: jane hirshfield, margaret renkl, timothy egan. i carry them wherever i go. they are my talismans, my shields against attacks of the soul.

i read lines like these, from anita barrows’ preface to rilke’s book of hours: love poems to God:

…suddenly it occurred to me that God created the world because he was lonely. He needed it — needed the ripeness of autumn, the bright air, the sunlight making patterns on the sidewalk through linden leaves that were yet unfallen. God had created all this, and us as well, to keep him company.

or this, from minnesota’s poet laureate, joyce sutphen, from her brilliant collection carrying water to the field: new and selected poems:

Some Glad Morning

One day, something very old
happened again. The green
came back to the branches,
settling like leafy birds
on the highest twigs;
the ground broke open
dark as coffee beans.

The clouds took up their
positions in the deep stadium
of the sky, gloving the
bright orb of the sun
before they pitched it
over the horizon.

It was as good as ever:
the air was filled
with the scent of lilacs
and cherry blossoms
sounded their long
whistle down the track.
It was some glad morning.

or this, the very first sentences from c.s. lewis’ a grief observed:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

or, finally, this from my brilliant friend mark burrows’ (and jon sweeney’s) meister eckhart’s book of secrets: meditations on letting go and finding freedom:

What do you think?

That God has abandoned you,
especially now?
What person sees a friend
in sorrow, pain, or loneliness
without encouraging,
without being near, present?
Don’t be foolish, my friend,
God is here.

how do you build your wall of defense? what are the bricks in your wall?

(p.s. in part, i included the bit on grief because friends here at this very table are suffering terrible griefs, loves lost and achingly so. please, remember them in your incantations. the whole of c.s. lewis’ classic, grief observed, by the way, is one that goes a very long way toward healing a brokenness, or as lewis’ stepson writes in the introduction, “it will help us to face our grief, and to ‘misunderstand a little less completely.'”)

let the page turn begin…

summer read

the summer porch is back in business, the sacred art of staring through screens into the first light of dawn and the lingering hours of twilight into starlight and moonlight. there’s a big old wicker chair in there, once dragged in from the hand-me-down bin, one pointed straight into the white pine and the little bird house on a pole where all day long the sparrows or chickadees flit and dart and chatter. i’ve taken up my position therein, and as many hours as the day will allow, that’s where you’re most likely to find me.

even this weekend. by day’s end, long after nightfall, both boys i birthed will be asleep in this old house (thunderstorms, don’t dare fudge our flight paths). the older one is flying home late tonight to be here when the not-so-little-anymore one walks across the graduation stage on sunday. it’s a weekend that’ll be packed with as much high-altitude soaring as we — and a host of jubilant high-schoolers — can possibly pack in, but just as emphatically i plan on planting myself for a few long hours of soulful conversation out there in the room on the verge of the garden. there’s a whole lot of catch-up to catch up on, the sort best done when knees rub against knees, when the folds of skin on someone’s face are squinched or softened in real time, right before your eyes.

i admittedly won’t be doing much turning of pages this weekend — not the literal kind, anyway. in the midst of a real-life page turn, bound pages are usually put aside. so while i dash off to fill the fridge, pin up the welcome home and happy graduation signs, and pick up the rented white dinner jacket (it’s new trier, and that’s the way they’ve done graduation since at least 1936), i am leaving you with the summer reading roundup i wrote for the chicago tribune.

it apparently ran in the paper a couple weeks ago (saturday, may 18), but for the life of me i can’t find it, so here tis, in its original form. my lovely editor asked me to pick three books i’d want to slow read this summer, three that might especially stir the soul, so i went with three whose glorious magnificent writers are no longer among us. mary oliver and w.s. merwin both died within the past few months — mary O. in january, merwin in march. brian doyle died just two years ago; he was only 60.

i promise you a sumptuous summer — at least in the reading corner — should you crack open any one of these…

Pause to reflect on three greatssoul books summer

By Barbara Mahany

There are those for whom summer reading is synonymous with plot-thick page-turners, guzzled beachside or poolside, covers splattered with sunscreen. For others, the indolent season takes an opposite tack: it’s all about catch-up, savoring deep dives into the life lists of authors who’ve long been our polestars. Especially when death brings the coda, in the wake of a beloved author’s last penned utterance. It’s in the spirit of relishing these now-extinguished luminaries’ earlier works, titles forgotten or celebrated, that these three collections constitute a summer’s holy trinity…

The Essential W.S. Merwin

By W.S. Merwin, edited by Michael Wiegers, Copper Canyon, 200 pages, $18

The fittingest way to fill the silence that followed the death in March of W.S. Merwin, the late great Poet Laureate of the United States, who had received every major literary accolade, including two Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Award, is to crack open the collection of his poems and prose deemed “Essential.” 

Apt title, indeed, as this definitive distillation traces a poetic legacy that’s been said to have “changed the landscape of American letters,” a compilation spanning seven decades of Merwin’s often spare unpunctuated poetry, translations, and lesser-known prose narratives. 

Merwin was, is, and always will be essential. 

“Through daily practice and attention, [Merwin] has created an incredible model for a way of existing on earth,” writes Michael Wiegers, editor-in-chief of Copper Canyon Press, who was tasked with culling nearly 50 books of Merwin poetry and another eight books of his prose. “His poems have defined for future generations what is possible in poetry and in life.”

That truth resonates through these breathtaking pages, be it Merwin’s urgent pleas to attend to this imperiled planet, or his heart-piercing excavations of the unconscious, as in his miracle of a three-line poem, “Separation,” exposing the raw edge of grief. It’s poetry turned saving grace: “Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color.” 

Poring slowly over these pages—essential as they are—just might be the wisest prescriptive, balm for the soul, in the wake of the poet’s final absence. 

Long Life: Essays and Other Writings

By Mary Oliver, DaCapo, 120 pages, $16

The January death of Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, high priestess of seeing the sacred in the natural landscape—be it weeds poking through asphalt, or a goosefish stranded at low tide—prompted a great reprise of her most memorized lines, among them, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

But her 2004 “Long Life: Essays and Other Writings,” a slim and lesser-referenced volume, holds a cache more than worthy of slow reading, pen in hand for all the underlining and asterisk-ing that begs to be inked. Poems, Oliver calls her “little alleluias,” a “way of offering praise to the world.” Prose, she explains, is more cautious, flowing forward “bravely and, often, serenely, only slowly exposing emotion.” 

You’ll find those alleluias sprinkled throughout “Long Life”—and they will take your breath away, even if only a single line, such as this untitled dab: “All the eighth notes Mozart didn’t have time to use before he entered the cloudburst, he gave to the wren.”

But it’s the essays, slowly unspooling, that might hold you in rapt attention, even on a lazy summer’s afternoon. Take, for instance, her introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great New England Transcendentalist, whom Oliver refers to as “a failed churchman,” as she extols his genius, and reminds us “the heart’s spiritual awakening is the true work of our lives.”

Traversing the few-square-mile landscape of her Cape Cod environs, Oliver finds beauty—and wisdom and prayer—in the quotidian: the town dump, the rain, her mud-caked dog. She never fails to see the sacred. And she declares, almost as anthem: “I walk in the world to love it.”

A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary

By Brian Doyle, Sorin Books, 192 pages, $14.95

This might be the book to reach for on the rainiest, gloomiest of summer days. For it will soon have you humming. It’s joy, it’s whimsy, it’s bursting-at-the-seams blessing upon blessing. 

Tucked in this gem of a pocket-sized book, you’ll find a centenary of prayers for cashiers and checkout-counter folk, in celebration of the wicked hot shower, for little brown birds in lavender bushes, for folks who all day long “hold up STOP signs at construction sites & never appear to shriek in despair or exhaustion,” for opossums, “you poor ugly disdained perfect creatures.” And—take a breath!—in thanks for “hoes & scythes & spatulas & toothbrushes & binoculars & the myriad other tools & instruments that fit our hands so gracefully & allow us to work with a semblance of deftitude.”

And that’s just the start of it. 

No wonder Mary Oliver (see high priestess of poetry, above) praised his “passion for the human, touchable, daily life.” And Cynthia Ozick declared that “to read Brian Doyle is to apprehend, all at once, the force that drives Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and James Joyce and Emily Dickinson and Francis of Assisi and Jonah under his gourd.” 

Doyle, a poet, writer, and longtime editor of the esteemed Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, died in May, 2017, of complications from brain cancer. He’d won three Pushcart Prizes, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. 

If you wake up and the day happens to be sunny, not rainy, turn to page 66, where you’ll find that Doyle—the prayerful poet for all occasions—has penned a very fine prayer of thanks for suntan lotion. “Which smells good; which smells like relaxed; which smells like giggling children in peculiar and hilarious bathing suits; which smells like not-working; which evokes summer…”

You might be tempted to pen Prayer No. 101: Prayer of lamentation for the inimitable, irreplaceable Brian Doyle. And so, amen.

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

what’s on your summer reading list?

off to the woods

st. mary lake

i’m off to the woods, soon as i pack the wagon, stash the little library next to the umbrella, make sure i don’t leave behind the binder with the pages and pages of notes and thoughts and scribbles.

i’m doing something i’ve not done before, not for this many days and nights anyway. and i’m doing it in a sacred splotch of woods, a place so quiet you can hear the cardinal talking to the blue jay, and you can hear the bullfrog leaping off a log so wrapped in odd-planed fungi it looks extraterrestrial. i’ve walked these woods before, and the miles and miles of trails that snake around the lake, st. mary lake. it’s all on the grounds of an old seminary, and if you listen closely you can hear the murmurs of years and years — whole decades, a century and three quarters, actually — of prayers unreeled in all these woods.

last time i was there, i was one of the ones who’d gone to be quiet. it was a two-day mostly silent retreat. this time, i’m the one who needs to talk. who needs to weave and wend the soulful into morning, noon, and night. or try, anyway.

i don’t know anyone who will be there. not yet anyway. i’m told 16 soulful women have signed up, packed their bags, and will be looking to me for sustenance of the spiritual kind. oh, lordy. help me. (it’s why i’ve spent weeks reading, thinking, writing, scribbling all those notes.)

i keep wishing it was a chair sisters’ retreat. that all of us were finding our way to the woods, gathering in the kitchen to cook ourselves a feast, kindling logs in the fireplace, taking moon walks under heaven’s star-stitched dome. i wish we were all bringing pages we found soulful. or worthy of deeper study, thoughtful consideration.

maybe this is just the first step. a trial run. to see how i fare across three days, two nights.

i imagine there will be moments of blessing. once i chase away the butterflies. i worry i won’t be “churchy” enough. hope my turning to mary oliver, and celtic poets, to ralph waldo emerson and good ol’ thoreau — my pantheon of poets and shimmering souls — is enough to sate the thirsty.

the idea here — or at least the thread that weaves this all together — is rooted in that old Book of Nature i’m so intent on reading closely. the eruptions and raptures of springtime, this season that explodes right before our eyes (while typing here i spied my first goldfinch of the season, and this morning the redbud that reaches across my backyard is twice as swollen and pink as when the sun set last night) it’s a season rife with lessons and wisdoms and wonder, and we’ll be walking the woods in search of all of it. (snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, but i’m going to pretend i didn’t see that.)

we’ll weave in thoughts about the spiritual practice of paying attention, and carving out hours of stillness. and really, truth be told, these are all ideas i could spend a lifetime considering. my deepest attentions are drawn toward the liminal, the thin places and craggy edges where secular and sacred intersect. shimmer radiantly. come unexpected. i like it slant, as dear emily (dickinson) might prescribe.

so i bring my slanted theology to the woods today. and i pray my heart meets each and every one who finds me there. in between the five titled talks, simple shared conversation — over meals, during walks, curled in armchairs in the library — will be where souls are sparked.

and as always, the bookshelf offers hope. here, in the spirit of soulful edification, is the litany of books i’ve gathered and packed and will soon be tossing in the old red wagon.

BOOKS:

Carmen Acevedo Butcher:
Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church: A Spiritual Reader
The Cloud of Unknowing

Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Modern Library); edited by Brooks Atkinson

James Finley:
The Contemplative Heart

Richard Higgins:
Thoreau and the Language of Trees

Pico Iyer:
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere

Gina Marie Mammano:
Camino Divina: Walking the Divine Way

Thomas Merton:
Literary Essays of Thomas Merton

Mary Oliver:
Devotions
Upstream
Long Life

Christine Valters Paintner:
The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred
Dreaming of Stones: Poems

Jan Richardson:
Sacred Journeys: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayer
Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season

Joan Sauro, CSJ:
Whole Earth Meditation: Ecology for the Spirit

David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell, introduction by Kathleen Norris:
Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day
gratefulness.org

Simone Weil:
Waiting for God (essays: “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with View to the Love of God;” “The Love of God and Affliction”)

may your weekend, wherever it is, and however you spend it, be something of a soulful retreat.

what books might you pack for a string of days and nights of soul stirring?

off to the woods

if you look closely enough……

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you might have to get down on your knees. or bend like an origami human. you definitely might need your magnifying glass, but if you look closely enough — say, at the tips of the twigs you’ve hauled into your house, the ones that “force” the vernal tide — you might, just maybe, see the first droplets of spring.

the earth is turning. really it is. even on the days we don’t notice.

hildegard of bingen, one of the wise women whose words i’ve been deep in all week (simone weil is the other), calls it “viriditas,” the green energy of the divine pulsing through the entire universe, the animating force, the goodness that charges the world with life, beauty, and renewal — literally with “greenness.” you might call it “hope,” pure and certain.

the surest time to catch a glimpse, i’d wager, is now, in the dregs of early march, when the world is grey-on-grey-on-grey tableau. and any shock of pigment — a dab of green, the cardinal’s red, shock-of-shocks forsythia yellow — is enough to set off alarm bells inside. the ones that let you know you’re almost at the goal post. the goal being nothing short of survival — winter survival. (for those who need booster shots of assurance, here in the middle west, and most of the u.s., this weekend brings time change — aka “daylight savings time” — in which we spring forward our clocks, and gain an hour of sunlight at twilight.)

as i type this, flakes are tumbling from the sky. i might need snow boots to go find me some viriditas. but, to my thirsty little heart, i find it astonishing in the highest order that just when we’re flagging, just when we start scrounging around for the oxygen tanks, the ones that will keep us from gasping, the arbors and twigs leap into action. sap starts running. birds chime their love songs. holy mackerel. it’s as if all the universe is conspiring, whispering in our deepest inner ear: “have hope, have hope, resurgence will come.”

the eternal cycles. the rhythms as ancient as time. viriditas. ebb and flow. the turning wheel of the seasons. winter thawing to spring. grey exploding in green. to some it’s little more than sunlight + chlorophyll. to the rest of us, it’s something akin to surround-sound proof that we’re deep in the clutch of heaven on earth. and so blessed to be here.

what wisps of hope have you stumbled upon in these grey days of march?

ct-1550008015-2yfsw8e0l5-snap-imagemy roundup of books for the soul for the tribune is now my one soulful book you might want to read. budget cuts keep chipping away at newspapers, and the latest cuts cut away two of my three soulful reads in my monthly (or so) roundup. here’s the first of the one-book-at-a-time reviews, a fascinating read from mary gordon who takes on a literary critique of the writer-monk of gethsemani, thomas merton.

Mary Gordon illuminates the literary works of Thomas Merton

Barbara Mahany

Mary Gordon — novelist, memoirist, professor of English at Barnard College — has long proved herself to be a Catholic voice engaged in deep and nuanced dialogue with the Church. She is fluent in its rhythms, its mysteries, its illuminations — and its darkness. She is a truth-teller, one not afraid to name her church’s sins, nor unwilling to see through its complexities to its radiant core.

Gordon’s capacity to dwell in duality, to circle her subject from all perspectives, to call it as she sees it, positions her squarely as a critic — both literary and cultural — robustly qualified to take on Thomas Merton, the celebrated mid-20th-century monk and writer with a worldwide ecumenical following. In her new slim but soulful volume, “On Thomas Merton,” Gordon plants herself on her firmest footing: “I am a writer. I wanted to write about him, writer to writer.”

She opens her exploration by pinpointing the tension at the heart of Merton: “(I)n becoming a Trappist,” she writes, “he entered an order devoted to silence, and yet his vocation was based on words.”

Merton, author most famously of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” belonged, Gordon writes, to the post-World War I period “when Catholicism was intellectually and aesthetically chic.” He was one of a heady crop of distinguished literary converts, along with G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

Before he entered the monastery as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani, the abbey outside Louisville, Kentucky, Merton had been engaged in urgent conversation with the modern world. It’s a conversation that never ceased, not until the hour of his death in a Thai cottage, some 20 miles outside Bangkok, in 1968. He’d been granted special permission to leave his hermitage to address a world interfaith conference, in a talk titled “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.”

While Gordon begins her examination of Merton’s works on a sympathetic note, fully understanding “the conflict between being an artist in solitude and being a human in the world,” further adding that his is “a spiritual test that combines the ascetic and the aesthetic,” she cuts the writer-monk little critical slack. In her scope is a litany that includes Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” his 1941 novel, “My Argument with the Gestapo,” and finally his seven-volume, 2,500-plus-page Journals — “longer than the whole of Proust,” Gordon notes.

It’s her bracing honesty along the way that makes her final coda so penetrating. Wrapping up her assessment of “My Argument with the Gestapo,” she writes, “more than likely he would have been marginalized or disappeared,” had he not gone on to publish “The Seven Storey Mountain.” No wonder the reader startles to attention when, one page later, Gordon declares the journals “Merton’s best writing.” She explains: “I detect a much greater sense of spiritual vitality in his journal passages than I do in his books that are self-consciously ‘spiritual.’…(F)rom the very first pages of the journals, everything he describes using sensory language shimmers and resonates.”

Studded with excerpts, Gordon’s meticulous probing of literary Merton points the curious reader toward the richest veins — in effect mapping the Merton catalogue, pointing out the places to begin, or, for a reader already well-versed, sharpening the prism through which he’s understood.

Because she’s regarded Merton with the necessary distance of critic, Gordon’s closing passages — in which she throws down her guard — rivets our attention. “I close the volumes of the journal, and I weep.”

She places him alongside those other martyrs of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The greatness of Merton, she writes, lies in his “life lived in all its imperfectability, reaching toward it in exaltation, pulling back in fear, in anguish, but insisting on the primacy of his praise as a man of God.”

It’s an intimate literary portrait, stitched through with Merton’s own threads. Ultimately, it’s a prayerful one. And the prayer echoes far beyond its final page.

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

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

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

telling our truest true stories

writing school

for years now, it’s been an annual rite of november — and i don’t mean the rite that stars the plucked and very plump bird. i mean the one where i pile up my books on writing, pore over the pages i find richest and wisest, scribble then type pages of notes, and shlep off to the high school, to try to impart a thing or three about the fine art of writing from the heart, searching for epiphany, making your story reach across the abyss that exists between us, between strangers, and sometimes even bedfellows, to cinch the space, the hollow, to fill it in with the communion of sparked connection. the one that comes when we dare to tell our truest true stories. when our truest true stories are heard, in that way that mysteriously, miraculously, defiantly opens — and channels — two hearts.

it’s litFest at the high school where my sweet boy is now counting down the days toward Triumphant Escape. he’s a senior. and litFest is only for seniors, so later this morning when i plug in my laptop, and fire up my modern-day slide show, i will more than likely be looking out at a sea of faces i’ve known since long before any one of them could read, let alone hold a pencil or squeeze out anything resembling a paragraph. (i’m told that a whole flock of my sweet boy’s best chums — the ones who know me only as the silver-haired marm who long drove the carpool, flipped the french toast, cheered from the side of the soccer field — they are coming to witness the fact that i have a life beyond the care and feeding of two growing boys. and they’re hoping i’ll tell a tale or two about their chum who’s long been my very best muse.)

i’ll be asking each one of them to write one true sentence about themselves. then i’ll ask them to write four more true sentences. and to circle the sentence that would be hardest to write about. to draw a rectangle around the one that most begs to be written about. and to scribble some form of a star next to the one that’s most uniquely their own story to tell, but also most likely to intersect with a story others know as their own. i’ll ask them to think a bit about what keeps them from plucking the sentence that’s circled or rectangled or starred, and plumbing its depths. then i’ll leave them alone with their thoughts while i talk to them about epiphany, and how the one fine thing that lifts a personal essay out of the belly of navel-gazing and into the realm of revelation, of the connectedness that comes between reader and writer, is the courage to tell the truth, to be willing to be vulnerable as you sift through the tangles for some glimmering shard of understanding, a deeper knowledge of what it means to be human — in all our foible and wobble and sorrow, and, yes, our occasional triumph and glory.

or, as the writer vivian gornick puts it: the narrator in personal narrative is “the instrument of illumination,” the “truth speaker.” the writer, she tells us, “is on a voyage of discovery,” comprised of almost equal parts narration, commentary, and analysis.

what makes personal narrative serve the reader, gornick says, is that “[w]e are in the presence…of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows — moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge.”

put simply: the writer is leaning into question, searching for the why that propels the story, the self; not knowing quite what truth might be unearthed, but unearthing anyway. or as e. l. doctorow once explained: “it’s like driving a car at night; you can only see as far ahead as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way.”

i will remind these young writers that we’re using the tens of thousands of words in the dictionary just as the symphony uses its strings and its timpani, and as the painter dips her brush into infinite blendings of color. we are, as john cheever once wrote, trying to reach toward this narrative bar: “a page of good prose is where one hears the rain and the noise of battle. it has the power to give grief or universality that lends it a youthful beauty.”

or, as eudora welty once said: “no blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose.”

and then i will look out to the sea of seniors in high school, this classroom filled with kids who are spending the day immersed in spoken or written word, and i will ask them to put their fingers to keyboard, or pen to paper. i will ask them to pick one of their five sentences — including the one that might be the hardest to write about — and i will ask them to write without stopping — not for pause or punctuation, just push the truth out to the screen or the page — for the next 10 minutes. and then, without revealing a word out loud, i will ask them to look at their words and see if they’ve stumbled on one bit of self-understanding they’d not before known.

if one single one of them ever again remembers to reach for epiphany, or considers the power of telling true stories when the truth is your own, well then i’ll have taught the lesson i set out to learn.

what’s the one true story you’ve found the courage to tell? or for which you might some day muster said courage?

thurman books

** and while we’re at it, here’s the latest chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul, published nov. 1:

Powerful collection from MLK’s pastor — fitting for our current political moment — leads roundup review of spiritual books

“Sermons on the Parables” by Howard Thurman, edited with an introduction by David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen, Orbis, 208 pages, $25

Howard Thurman, pastor to Martin Luther King Jr. and long considered one of the great spiritual thinkers and most powerful preachers of recent times, died in 1981, so his voice no longer shakes the sanctuary walls. But a new collection, “Sermons on the Parables,” is the surest dose of what’s needed in these fraught times: a clear, compelling voice that rises up from the page, illuminating a sacred way toward all that’s good and just.

It’s the closest we might come to counting ourselves among the blessed in his pews. All that’s missing is the rustling of fellow worshippers, shifting in their seats, and the booming decibels of the gifted preacher who aimed in his sermons for nothing less than “the moment when God appeared in the head, heart, and soul of the worshiper.”

The treasure here is not only the 15 previously unpublished sermons on the parables of Jesus (brilliantly retold and examined by Thurman), but the rich commentary that rightly refocuses the spiritual world’s attention on this extraordinary 20th-century luminary. It’s a book born out of conversation between editors David B. Gowler, who holds a chair in religion at Emory University, and Kipton E. Jensen, associate professor of phi­losophy at Morehouse College.

Oh, to have rocked beneath the rafters with Thurman at the pulpit.

“A Lens of Love” by Jonathan L. Walton, Westminster John Knox, 216 pages, $16

How fitting that Jonathan Walton, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, opens this serious and heartfelt biblical study in the intimacy of his Cambridge dining room, logs crackling in the fireplace nearby, as an eclectic mix of dinner guests steer conversation awkwardly toward the intimidating 66 books that comprise the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Walton, who is beloved in the classroom and at the pulpit, writes that a “silence born of biblical insecurity” among his dinner guests is what stirred him to begin the monthly scriptural study that underpins “A Lens of Love.” And it’s that posture — a certain humility — and approach — a serious sociohistorical analysis (“no text without context”) — that makes Walton’s work so unshakeable.

He brings a critical voice — that of the progressive evangelical, counterpoint to the conservative strain of American Christian evangelicalism — to the table. And he is driven, first, to illuminate the ancient world in which the Bible was produced, to lay bare its timeless teachings, and ultimately to apply those moral imperatives to our own wrestling with “the big questions of contemporary life.” His inquiry is guided at every turn by both a critical mind and sensitive heart.

In these pages, under Walton’s tutelage, we find a God who “sides with those on the underside of power.” Walton never shies from the unbearable questions of how God allows suffering. And he takes head-on his disillusionment with so many public professions of Christian piety in the Age of Trump. In Walton’s hands, the Bible becomes — for all of us, skeptics to die-hards — a tome of fathomless instruction.

“Tiny, Perfect Things” by M.H. Clark, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper, Compendium, 40 pages, $16.95

For this experiment in soul stretching, you might yearn for a young human to plop on your lap, but that’s hardly necessary.

What we have here is a picture book with text penned by a poet fluent in the fine art of paying fine-grained attention. Poets often are the prophets, the seers, among us. The book’s bold, colored-pencil pages — drawn by Madeline Kloepper, a Canadian artist who employs equal parts sweetness and curiosity — will reach out and not let you go.

“Tiny, Perfect Things” wants to slow you — and your optional young reader — to a somnolent amble. Learn to look closely, seems the instruction. Practice here — in the luscious pages of the picture book extolling the wonders of the world all around — and you might learn to apply the technique to the rest of your life. The litany here, as a young girl and her grandfather head out for a walk as day turns to night, is simple enough: a spider’s web that’s caught the light, a snail that’s climbed a fence post, an invincible flower rising from a sidewalk crack, even the magic of shadowplay.

It’s the beholding of the oft-unnoticed that is the blessing. And this is a book that invites you to practice through the slow, simple turning of page after tiny, perfect page.

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

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

mark this day…

IMG_0545

there is something about the crisp edge of things — of a hem, of a book, of a season — that settles the soul of a sometimes frazzled someone. someone like me. it fills me with a sense of something noble — a job well done, completion. prompts me to bend my knee and bow. it’s gratitude and it’s awe.

take summer, for instance. it ends tomorrow, making today the last full dose of it. and before i chase it out the door, before i usher in the amber hours of the season i love best, before i haul in the wheelbarrows of pumpkins, the tins of cinnamon and clove, before i fling myself upon the forest floor, playing peek-a-boo through golden, crimson, and persimmon-shaded boughs, it’s summer’s due to say goodbye to sand and sun unfiltered. to bees that buzzed and blooms that cheered me with their moppy heads, their delicate tendrils, their sweet perfumes that made me sniff around the garden (a pretty picture — me with nose in air, and mud-stained knees — surely not).

the season of about-to-burst tomatoes, and cicada song at night, the months of curtains flapping in the window’s invisible current, the sweater-less months, they draw to a close tomorrow eve at 8:54 p.m. (central time). that’s the equinox hour, when the sun slides into absolute right angle to blessed planet earth, when its beams fall straight onto the equator, that cinch-waist strap around the middle.

and so this last full blast before the season ends, it begs occasion. begs a moment’s pause. a plea to savor just a swatch of time — time filled with the summeriest wonders you can imagine.

my summery moment might be this: a fat tomato (the last one in my wooden bowl) sliced and salted, laid reverentially on whole-grain bread, and ferried to my summer porch, along with a fat book that begs to be begun. bare toes wriggling in the fading shaft of mid-afternoon sun. a moment’s pause to contemplate the butterfly wafting by. a whispered prayer of thanks — for the somnolence of summer. for the deep warmth and gentle breeze. for all that ripened and spilled with juice. for days that slowed, and hours that nearly burst with sumptuous sweet.

thank you, summer, once again…

***

because i’ve once again stumbled in my duties to bring my soulful literary roundups to this page, here’s the “books for the soul” that ran a month ago. oops. three fine picks. i especially loved the first, “learning to speak God from scratch ,” a linguistic exploration, richly written, and sure to make you think….

may your autumn days be filled with good reads…

How to talk about God, and more, addressed in this week’s spiritual book roundup

By Barbara Mahany

“Learning to Speak God from Scratch” by Jonathan Merritt, Convergent, 256 pages, $15.99

Here’s a subject not often found on the religion bookshelf: linguistics. As in “sacred language” or “Godspeak,” the ways we put words to what’s holy and so often ineffable. It’s a language that’s frankly been hijacked by politicians, blasphemed by holier-than-thou hypocritical preachers, and muted by the masses who dare not utter a word construed to be “church-y.”

And it’s into this battle-scarred landscape that “Learning to Speak God from Scratch” bravely proceeds. A few years back, Jonathan Merritt, a religion and culture contributor to The Atlantic, left behind the Bible Belt for New York City and found himself thunderstruck by the stark disconnect (and discomfort) in God talk there in Gotham.

Something of a spelunker in the realm of sacred linguistics, he robustly constructs his argument — one rife with hard data from the sociocultural realm and rich in personal narrative. It’s one that solidly convinces that sacred words are in crisis, and that any lost language leaves a gaping hole in human understanding. He makes the point that when the language at stake is the one that ties us to all that’s divine, it’s our souls that stand to wither.

He opens his case with this assessment: “The way certain groups of people use sacred words gives the rest of us the holy heebie-jeebies.” From there, Merritt takes off, swashbuckling his way through ironclad analysis, poking into curious linguistic and Biblical corners, making us see in a whole new light why it matters to reimagine and reclaim sacred language.

In the book’s second half, Merritt takes on, one by one, a lexicon of 19 words worth learning all over again, from confession to sin to grace. Because Merritt is an elegant and deeply literate writer, he makes his subject one of which we can’t get enough.

“The Way of Kindness,” edited by Michael Leach, James T. Keane, Doris Goodnough, Orbis, 224 pages, $18

It’s the end of summer, and the reading is supposed to be easy. Never hurts when it’s rich too. “The Way of Kindness” is everything you might want when you stretch out in your recliner, long tall refreshment within quick reach. It’s as if your favorite librarian is sitting beside you, whispering, “Read this. And this. And this, too, while you’re at it.”

The roster here is a greatest hits of American writers, not all of whom are regular travelers in the religious or spiritual domain. And that, perhaps, is what makes this a notch above the usual such gathering. To read Jack Kerouac: “Practice kindness all day to everybody/ and you will realize you’re already/ in heaven now.” Or George Saunders implore, “err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.”

Dorothy Day quotes the Carmelite nun who told her, “It is the crushed heart which is the soft heart, the tender heart.” Even Aldous Huxley chimes in, telling us, “(I)t’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with human problems all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’ ”

While this is a book for quick dips or longer dallies, the curators of this collection — three fine souls in the world of spiritual publishing — have put their collective heft into what unfolds here. Your summer’s day will be all the gentler for having spent time among these literary and spiritual masters.

“Love Without Limits” by Jacqueline A. Bussie, Fortress, 195 pages, $24.99

File this one under “Standing By Your Story.”

Jacqueline A. Bussie, theologian, beloved professor of religion at Minnesota’s Concordia College and award-winning author of “Outlaw Christian,” her 2016 exhortation to find authentic faith by breaking a roster of too-rigid rules, sat down to pen “Love Without Limits,” a deeply personal how-to-guide for no-holds-barred loving. Because her stories arose from the depths of her heart, and the truth of how she lives her life — she calls this latest book “my life’s love letter” — she included chapters on both her Muslim and her LGBT friendships. Then, she turned in her manuscript to the Christian publishing house with whom she’d signed a contract, a book whose subject all along had been exploring God’s radical love.

The publishing house balked, deemed the two chapters “offensive” and “theologically out of bounds,” and ordered Bussie to cut them or they’d cancel her contract (and make her pay back every penny of her advance). Bussie refused, dead-set against being censored. Certainly not in a book about how people of faith — all faiths — “are called to love with no exceptions, asterisks, or limits.”

Mighty fine thing that Fortress Press, a Minneapolis-based Christian publisher with a more progressive bent, saw fit to snatch up Bussie’s much-needed message. In a world as balkanized as the one in which we find ourselves, Bussie’s words light the way toward practicing “a love so deep it subverts the social order, so radical it scandalizes the powerful, so vast that it excludes no one.” A love, it turns out, that couldn’t be censored.

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

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

how will you mark the last full blast of summer? 

piles and piles of books…

soulbooksstack

books around here are slip-sliding into puddles. books are piled on bedside tables, and teetering at the edge of my old pine writing desk. books shove me out of chairs. and books sometimes line the stairs. books come into this old house all on their own. and sometimes, because i shlep them. my little book-lined writing room is becoming my book-stacked obstacle course. can you hop the pile? can you slither through the gulch, the one between two (or three or four) gravity-defying stacks?

i came home from the smoky mountains with but one genre of souvenir: books, and more books. books that all week have called me to the wicker chairs out back. books whose stories hold me from one reading interlude to the next. and then, of course, there are the books for work. lots and lots of books for work. some, i discard right away (voodoo dolls and crystal balls on covers). some i wade a few chapters in before gently laying aside. but every month, on assignment, i find three who shimmy to the top. they’re the ones i round up and claim satisfying soulful reads.

before we get to the latest round of tribune-anointed books, here are a few that might be among the best i’ve read in years:

donald hall’s a carnival of losses: notes nearing ninety.

hall, once the poet laureate of this fine nation, died a few weeks back, but not before his last — perhaps best — collection of essays was published. every single one of these is a gem, a specimen worth study. as the impeccable ann patchett puts it: “donald hall writes about love and loss and art and home in a manner so essential and direct it’s as if he’s put the full force of his life on the page. there are very few perfect books, and a carnival of losses is one of them.”

once upon a time, i sat in donald hall’s living room, at his farm in new hampshire. those hours grow more and more radiant across the distance.

eveningland: stories, by michael knight.

michael knight, a southern writer whose native and literary landscape is mobile, alabama, and who has been likened to o. henry and called “the anton chekhov of mobile bay,” is a writer i’d not known before i took a seat in the old hall at sewanee. from the first sentence, i was glued. reading an untitled story about a father and his son (one i had reason to think might be autobiographical) he couldn’t make it through without pausing to brush away and apologize for tears. that’s enough to make me love a writer. and when we bumped into him the next afternoon (along a leafy shaded path en route to the bookstore), he apologized again, though we insisted it made his reading all the more beautiful. his eveningland traces a few characters who weave in and out of stories, across the arc of life. each one is achingly wrought. and unforgettable.

and, here, because i forgot to post it a few weeks ago when it ran, is the latest roundup of books for the soul, as published in the chicago tribune.

“Faith” by Jimmy Carter, Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $25.99

As the early pages of Jimmy Carter’s “Faith: A Journey for All” unspool, it doesn’t take long to get lulled into the front-porch-rocking-chair rhythms and cadences of small-town Southern gentility that is Plains, Ga., circa 1930. It’s easy to forget that you’re not just reading the reflections of a gentleman farmer with his mules and peanut crops, but in fact the remembrances of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president of the United States.

Carter begins this bedrock retracing of a life of faith by recounting, in down-to-earth vernacular, a boyhood steeped in Sunday school and church suppers, in farm work and field play with the African-American farm kids next door. Yet in the next sentence, the 39th American president is reaching for his mainstay philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, then quoting activist, preacher and friend William Sloane Coffin, just as seamlessly as he draws from the writings of theologian and Nazi-resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

But it’s in quoting Carter’s own works — a 1978 speech to his fellow Southern Baptists, for instance — that the former president inspires most unforgettably (and his words, against the backdrop of the summer of 2018, rise up piercingly):

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

Carter’s book is necessary tonic — and prescriptive — for these fraught times.

“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” by Yossi Klein Halevi, Harper, 224 pages, $24.99

The inside flap of the book jacket states that “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is “lyrical and evocative,” claiming it’s “one Israeli’s powerful attempt to reach beyond the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians.” It is that, all that; and for that, there is little argument.

The argument of critics, though, is that the series of 10 letters addressed to an imagined Palestinian, all written by Yossi Klein Halevi — a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative — boils down to a one-sided correspondence.

That’s the pushback from left-leaning rabbis and thinkers who argue that writing to an unknown, unnamed neighbor, with no give and take, no wrestling of ideas and perspectives, is to leave out the essential other voice in a much-needed debate. (Halevi offers the book in Arabic translation for free download and openly invites Palestinian response; he calls this book the sequel to his earlier “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” a search for holiness — and understanding — among Palestinian Muslims and Christians.)

Halevi, an American-born emigre to Israel, writes with a profound and palpable empathy. “We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home,” he laments. His keen observations — deeply human in scale — ache with a longing to reach across “the wall between us,” to make peace, to find a two-state solution.

This epistolary approach evokes a measure of intimacy and illuminates the undeniable complexities of the Israeli history, across the millennia. With one half of the conversation laid out for all to read, the lingering hope is that there comes from Palestine the voice not heard in these pages.

“On the Brink of Everything” by Parker J. Palmer, Berrett-Koehler, 240 pages, $19.95

Parker J. Palmer — writer, speaker, activist, community organizer, and one who claims “Quakerish tendencies” — has long earned the title of trusted spiritual guide. Now 79, he takes on the mantle of cherished elder.

His newest book, “On the Brink of Everything,” might be called a meditation on aging, but it’s more than that. In his first sentence, Palmer writes, “We grow old and die in the same way we’ve lived.” This is in fact a meditation on living, as we move toward “the brink of everything,” the precipice at the far end of our lives, “a window into heaven,” as he puts it.

Through two dozen essays, a dozen poems and three songs (sung by Parker’s great friend, the soulful folk singer Carrie Newcomer and available for free download at NewcomerPalmer.com), Palmer reminds us not only that aging shouldn’t be feared, but rather that it stands to clarify our vision and deepens our capacity for knowing. Quoting one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters in “Player Piano,” he reminds, “out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

Palmer, then, places us squarely on that edge and points us toward all those truths we’d be wise to see — and to make our own.

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

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

armchairbooks

what are you reading this summer?

trying to stay sane in the summer of 2018

front page NYT

well, there’s a bold proclamation, trying to stay sane in an unrelenting summer.

sanity, defined: teetering on that knife’s-blade edge between despair and shards of hope, listing away from full-on darkness, into the atmosphere where breath comes in full-enough cycles, where dreams have not lost all their air, where the few fine words you choose to speak are ones that rise up from the holier parts inside.

and how to get there, in a summer that each day brings onslaught of ugly news, the latest being the riddling of a newsroom with bullets, and yet another crop of americans now shattered for the rest of their days? that’s a question that animates so many of the soulful moments, soulful conversations i’ve been having.

what i ache to do is just plain fix it. that’s my auto-pilot. in some corners of my life, when things are broken, i leap into action. stay up all night till i get the glue to set just right, trace my way to the ends of the earth (or the internet) till i track down replacement for whatever object has gone missing.

in this particular instance the things i want to do — lock up the bullies, throw away the keys; turn back time to just before the bullets flew; wrap my arms around the little children, look them in the eye, and promise them i’ll find them their mamas and their papas and the ones who keep them safe — i can’t. my superpowers seem to have expired. they were never more than make-believe anyway.

am i fooling my sorry little self to think the most i can do is keep the circle within which i live a sphere where the light keeps burning, where the words stay gentle, where i check myself and aim to turn the other cheek, not spout the sharp retort, steer away from hornets’ nests of hate, or just plain grumbly folk? where i ought to try even harder to make this old house a respite, a hive of rooms where kids are free to romp, where i don’t nag about the silly things — the clothes in heaps, the stinky soccer bag, the chores undone? where my most important job might be to be the peace-filled center, the one who models “this is how we love”?

as i so often do when things need to get done — and here, the task is hewing toward some measure of sanity — i’m making a list. these few things have brought some semblance of serenity, some anchor in the roiling seas.

  1. i’ve found a little chapel, a sacred space with a carved-wood door at the end of a stone walk that meanders through a shady garden. inside the vaulting rooms, at the foot of the gilded altar, i listen to the words of oxford-educated men and women — yes, women here are priests — and i am emboldened, reminded of what matters, and called to action, holy action. as a lifelong believer in a hundred roads to God, i pay no mind to what the signpost names the church, all i know is what’s inside is stirring me to tears, and, sunday after sunday, taking my whole breath away. better yet, it gives me words so delicious, so must-be-remembered, i’m wont to surreptitiously reach for and scribble in the blank little book i keep tucked in my backpack, and this holy, wholly animating place sends me home with thoughts to percolate all week.
  2. i’ve somehow been pulled into the mists of history, my ancestral history. i can spend hours tracing family roots, poring over news pages from long long ago. i’ve read of a great uncle struck and killed by lightning, when he ran for cover in his tobacco barn during a summer storm of biblical proportion. i’ve read of my grandpa’s first wife (and the mother of their four young children) dying in childbirth on christmas day. and another uncle — the one who tried to resuscitate his lightning-struck brother — dying years later of cirrhosis of the liver. i’ve absorbed the truth that life is hard and, when we’re blessed, we survive — banged up, dented, hobbling along, but somehow we gather up just enough to watch the sun rise and sink again.
  3. i spend a lot of time with my toes in the dirt, out in my garden fully armed with felcro pruners, and trowel, and twine. there is sustenance to be had in nursing limp leaves back to full salute, in chasing down a runaway clematis vine or a tomato plant that’s reaching for the clouds. it’s quiet out there, save for the chatter of the birds, and the occasional butterfly who flutters by me so unassuming he barely moves the breeze.
  4. i read. and read some more. my job for work, as i’ve said here some dozen times, is to read for soulfulness. that’s my assignment: find books that stir the soul. and the occupational by-product is that my soul gets stirred before i pass along the revelation. this week, ol’ jimmy carter, 39th president and peanut farmer, did some stirring. before i go, i’ll leave you with this one passage that reminds me good will come again. it’s our job to seek out those few fine souls whose moral compass never wavers, whose goodness is so good our knees go weak just watching. here’s what our cardigan-wearing, energy-saving president spoke in a 1978 address to his fellow southern baptists:

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

how do you strain to stay sane in this soul-testing summer?

soulful pages to be turned

books feb 18

in weeks like this, when what’s churned up on the national stage leaves you raw or hollowed or simply enraged, it’s not so easy to find solace. the balms for the soul are running thin. in weeks like this, i’m grateful for small measures of kindness. each and every one is magnified in the halo of now. last night i watched my sweet boy stir brownies for a friend with a broken heart. the night before, my dear friend from down the alley came by, offering the makings of dinner, clear down to dinner rolls. we will forge on, all of us who live and breathe on the lookout for mercy, all of us who shrivel at the shrill cry of evil and hate, we will forge on, fueled by the indefatigable goodness of those hearts and souls that surround us, the ones that won’t surrender. the ones that insist there is tender to be found, and gentle is the implement of choice, the one that unfurls the petals of the heart, and breaks open the world into some kind of beautiful.

and in the meantime, i’m grateful for pages to turn, and blessed thoughts and ideas and snippets of poetry to bury my nose in….

here, then, is the latest batch of books for the soul, brought to you courtesy of the chicago tribune. perhaps you’ll find balm in the pages…

To Hear the Forest Sing: Some Musings on the Divine
By Margaret Dulaney, Listen Well, 252 pages, $15

A fine way to encounter the musings in this first collection from Margaret Dulaney, a playwright who started the spiritual spoken-word website, Listen Well, back in 2010, would be to read them aloud. They are words meant to be heard, yes, but they’re words that work their magic whether absorbed by listening, or in the silence of reading.

“To Hear the Forest Sing,” is a gathering of essays from 25 years of Dulaney’s morning walks in the woods of Bucks County, Pa., with her frolicsome dogs. She trains her thoughts, her fine-grained poetic thoughts, on an “open faith,” a faith she alternately describes as “Christian-Buddhist-transcendentalist,” and “Everythingist”—“that is, one who is in love with all of the great faiths.”

A storyteller at heart, Dulaney writes with grace, and it doesn’t take many page-turnings to feel you’re in conversation with a true and honest friend, one who tells you she was long ago labeled “learning disabled,” and unflinchingly bares her stumbles. Nor does it take too many pages to discover you’re in the presence of a lively mind, one filled with the epiphanies of an awakening soul. She writes: “I have given up looking for the thunderous, and look only for those quiet, tiptoeing revelations that I have learned to recognize.”

Many essays later, she writes this about faith and doubt, and following some holy code: “We are dragging ourselves out of our sleep-drenched beds every morning in order to learn a little bit more about God. The fog will clear someday, the weather brighten. Trust this, and keep on showing up.”

My Friend Fear: Finding Magic in the Unknown
By Meera Lee Patel, Tarcher Perigee, 176 pages, $18

If your idea of church is plonking down in front of the big screen and tuning into SuperSoul Sunday, “My Friend Fear” might be your prayer card. A luminous, watercolor-splashed prayer card, it’s a meditation on fear, and a short-course tutorial on working your way to the other side. It’s the latest from Meera Lee Patel, a self-taught artist and author, whose bestselling “Start Where You Are,” an interactive journal of creativity, mindfulness, and self-motivation, earned an emphatic “must-read” from Oprah.com.

It begins with a deeply confessional exploration of fear, one Patel enters into by exposing the “irrational beasts” of her youth, her fear of being seen as odd because her immigrant parents kept to their old-country ways, the bodily shame she felt because of a 17-inch scar that runs up the back of her leg, one she says looks like a “poorly placed zipper.”

Because she dares to take head-on this subject that many dodge, and because she writes with a child-like open-heartedness, a porousness that unwittingly draws in the reader, she serves her subject well. If you’re willing to put down your own defenses, “My Friend Fear” has the power to move you.

Besides her insistence that your fears might illuminate your deepest vulnerabilities, make plain those things you so emphatically wish for, Patel offers this bold plea: Find the things that scare you, and do them anyway. Tackle your fears, one after one. Find yourself more alive than you’d ever imagined, penned inside the fear-filled cage.

“Like a constellation lit brightly beneath a foggy night sky, it didn’t stop shining just because you couldn’t see it,” she writes. “Acceptance is inside you. It’s been waiting for you to find it.”

Almost Entirely: Poems
By Jennifer Wallace, Paraclete, 128 pages, $18

When the names Scott Cairns, Mary Oliver, and Christian Wiman — great and soulful poets all — are drawn for point of comparison, are flags marking the perimeter of another poet’s domain, that is a poet whose work demands attention.

Jennifer Wallace’s poems, gathered here in “Almost Entirely” — a collection that toggles between the sacred and profane, faith and doubt, love and unrequited love — clearly earns the comparisons, and the claim to her own poetic country.

A poet, photographer, and teacher living in Baltimore and rural western Massachusetts, Wallace edits poetry for The Cortland Review, and her religious orientation is described thusly: “after decades of avoidance and experimentation, she decided in her 50’s to get serious about her spiritual practice and is now, mostly, happily settled within her Christian roots.”

What pulses through these prayer poems, besides an abiding knowledge of grief coupled with a palpable faith in the afterlife, is the residue of Catholic imagery, a childhood of nuns and priests and Latin prayer.

Any one of Wallace’s poems might be a morning’s meditation, or analeptic on a sleepless night.

Unlike most religious or spiritual writing that “tends to fall into the trap of being either willfully obscure, or too quickly cutting to ‘God’ as the general answer to all particular vexations,” observes Brother Joe Hoover, poetry editor of America Magazine, “Wallace strikes a lovely balance.”

Yet another critic, the poet David Rigsbee, lauds Wallace’s poems for “reclaiming the sacred in the steady rumor of its eclipse.”

As in this haunting stanza, from “Requiem,” her seven-part poem: “Perhaps we are here to make of earth a minor heaven / where birds will glider higher / in an air made more full / by the dead’s barely audible sigh.”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” was published in 2017. Her new book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” will be published in April. Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

and since this is a morning of simple offerings, here’s one more lovely little something sent by a friend: words that seared me in a spine-tingling way.

fireproof

may you find solace in books and words and random acts of the beautiful….

what are the balms for the soul you bumped into this week?