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Tag: Brian Doyle

on the subject of ephemerality…(and other long-lasting truths)

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in an already cruel april, this seems the cruelest of april’s jokes, this pillow fluff falling from the skies, soft as it is, quick as it is to melt on the tongue (i know; i was just out there with mouth wide open, agasp at the softness, the quiet of this particular snow). this meringue of ice crystals clasping the prayer hands of all the buds just on the verge. the leaden sting of waking up not just to a snow-falling morning, but doing so in the latter weeks of april when the earth has finally, triumphantly, broken through the thawing crust, when the whole globe is aching, is straining, is trying to muster resilience and make it to the other side…

IMG_1476instead, a lesson in ephemerality. the suddenness of slipping away. magnolia? velvety perfumed petals, now on ice. spring beauties, flash-frozen. i dashed out last night, clippers in hand, on a late-night salvation run through the garden. trying to save the soon-to-be stricken.

in any april, a snowfall is crushing. this april, it might knock the last breath of wind out of these tired old lungs. this is the april when we’d already drawn in, drawn quiet. when we were down on our knees, some of us, begging the earth to come to the rescue in the form of easter-egg pastels rising up amid the bursting-forth green synonymous with spring.

when the news pages read apocalyptic — when a zoo in the german town of neumünster is making a sacrifice plan of which animal to feed to another; when krakatoa, the great indonesian volcano, sent “violent puffs” (plumes of smoke and ash and flame) into the skies above the sundra strait, making like some sort of mountainous dragon; when the red-ringed virus crushes our hearts, day after day — we need something akin to a life rope.

the ephemerals of spring carry the whiff of that promise. it’s the evanescence — the now-it’s-here, now-it’s-goneness — that cups the germ of its beauty. the japanese, long wise to this notion in its cherry-blossom iteration, teach this as the truth of the sakura season, in an island nation that maps the bloom from first hint to full blossom.

and, now, it’s all gone. or buried under inches of snow here in the middlelands, here along the lapping shore of lake michigan (where these days it is so very quiet, i could count out the waves by the minute).

so we will need to turn inward again, further and deeper inward. i’ve taken up morning prayer (the serious kind, with flickering candle, the turning of pages, sliding a ribbon from section to section in the book of common prayer). i’ve taken up sourdough baking. and, soon as we can rustle up some plain white rice (the boys protest my usual brown), the homebound college kid and i are honing in on the original nursery confection, from-scratch, stirred-in-a-pot, rice pudding.

braiding sweetgrassamid my red-ringed survival plot, i’ve stumbled into a global book discussion group through my friends at emergence magazine. we’re reading the breathtakingly beautiful robin wall kimmerer’s braiding sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. kimmerer is a mother, scientist, botany professor, and member of the citizen potawatomi nation. each week, these past corona weeks, i find myself in small-group clusters that stretch from bern, switzerland, to tribeca, from the mexican countryside to south portland, maine.

this week we read a chapter titled, “the honorable harvest,” a framework for living centered on the insistent question that arises for kimmerer — and for us, i would argue, as we ache to plot a way forward, out of this corona siege into a recalibrated symbiosis with the world all around — as she pulls fat white bulbs of leek from forest floor:

“if we are fully awake, a moral question arises as we extinguish the other lives around us on behalf of our own. how do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?” kimmerer asks (italics, for emphasis, are mine). kimmerer, a plant scientist who lives and breathes indigenous wisdom, turns to her ancestral instruction for answers.

“collectively, the indigenous canon of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest,” she writes, and goes on to say that the guidelines aren’t in fact written down, but rather reinforced in small acts of daily life (the best such codes anyway). if you were to list them, and i will, she writes that they might look something like this (and, again, i’d add that there is here a particular resonance for mutual reciprocities in the age of corona, when hoarding — and stripping bare grocery store shelves — seems an instinct worth batting down):

know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.

introduce yourself. be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.

ask permission before taking. abide by the answer.

never take the first. never take the last.

take only what you need. 

take only that which is given.

never take more than half. leave some for others. 

harvest in a way that minimizes harm.

use it respectfully. never waste what you have taken.

share.

give thanks for what you have been given. 

give a gift in reciprocity for what you have taken. 

sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

brian doyle long riveri’ve one more morsel for the week, and it’s one worthy of its own post, but i’ll tuck it here instead (if i change my mind, you’ll see so in a subsequent post). my wonderful six-year gig plucking and reading and extolling the wonders of books for the soul for the chicago tribune has come to a close (slashed budgets, new owners, no money for freelancers), and the last of my tribune reviews is, fittingly, a book that deserves a trumpet blast. it’s a collection of breathtaking essays from the late, great brian doyle, and it’s titled, one long river of song: notes on wonder. if you are looking to survive this red-ringed siege with your heart and soul intact, read it. if you’re a high-minded soul and hope to emerge more vibrant and alive than ever, read it.

here’s but a bit of what i wrote:

At turns in “One Long River of Song,“ we discover Doyle the psalmist (singing the wonders of raptors and hummingbirds, otters or three-legged elks), Doyle as God’s acolyte (from the prayers to his unborn children to the one starkly titled, “Last Prayer”), Doyle as run-on sentence humorist (antics with his rambunctious brothers, basketball with toddler teammates). Over and over, his musings are canticles of joy, punctuated with occasional double-shots of heartbreak and humility. It’s the textured layering, the leap from shadow to light, that keeps the reader alert, and ever absorbing.

Always, emphatically, there comes wisdom; it’s a signature move, one you can count on. Have your pens aimed and ready.

It’s gospel of the ordinary, the shoved-aside, the otherwise overlooked. And at the heart of it, that ineffable and necessary unction, a holiness you can all but hold in your palms.

and with that, i will tiptoe away, to spend my day turning pages, stirring puddings, and awaiting the melt of the ephemeral snow…

bless you all. be safe. and be blessed….

since this morning is a bit of potpourri, have at it. leap in with any thoughts about anything corona. about the beauty of evanescence in your life and your world. about the honorable harvest and how you intend to live it….

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?