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Tag: festival of faith and writing

the prayers we pray when we think it’s the end…

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i motored home from the faraway writing festival in an ice storm, the sort that has you white-knuckling the wheel, and praying the prayers that matter most. all along the roadside, as i started toward home, crunched-up cars and parts of cars were strewn like pool balls along the sides of the highway. police lights flashed. stunned passengers staggered from what was left of their cars. the lanes of the highway were shiny and gritty, the detritus of ice piling thicker and sleeker.

i’d felt the ice as i walked across a long parking lot, as the spitting rain began to ping against my face. as it started to sting. as i realized it was no longer rain, but bits of ice in the making. by the time i got to my old red wagon, the ice bits had piled along the edge of the windshield, into the groove where the wipers lie still.IMG_0575

the forecast warned it would only get worse. and i had a house soon filling with people i love — with my beloved brother from maine, and his little girl who was turning nine that very day, who was coming to my house for pink polka dots and sparkling pink lemonade and a hot-pink birthday cake covered with roses and shimmering glitter (not unlike the bits of ice now piled on my windshield). so i turned the key and pointed my car toward chicago.

and what prayer popped front and center? the one that begs for time with my boys. the one that found me telling God, over and over, that my job was not done. the one that had me making deals. the one that mentioned how inconvenient it would be for me and my wheels to join the cascade of crunched metal and glass along the sides of the road, mile after mile after mile. and lest God had forgotten, i made sure to mention that my firstborn was about to start his first-year law school exams, and he could ill afford to come home for my funeral. (i’m fairly certain that was the thing that cinched the deal, don’t you think?) for good measure, i added that the little one, the one i will nearly always refer to as “my little one,” well, he had enough to worry about, i reminded God, without losing his mama on the side of the icy michigan interstate.

of all the words in the world, of all the petitions to which i might have put breath, the ones that flowed from my heart and my lungs were the ones that centered on the two whom i mother with my whole blessed being.

truth is, i suppose, that i will never ever hit my fill of being their mother. of loving them with every ounce of all i am — and more. i will, in my last breath, wish i’d had more. wish i could witness just one more chapter of who and why they are becoming.

is that not the burning furnace at the heart of our deepest, greediest loves? is it even greedy to love beyond the borders of who we are, of our wildest imagination? or is it the living breathing definition of love beyond measure? is it, perhaps, the holiest iteration of loving?

i made it home all right. even made it home, i’d find out the next day, with a nail smashed into the rim of my tire. must have picked it up in the last couple miles, as i drove through a construction zone. it didn’t go flat on that long icy ride home; it waited till the next morning when we pulled out of the garage and felt the telltale galump of a car with one flat tire.

later that night, when i mentioned to a friend how scary the drive had been, and how hard i’d prayed, she told me: “my prayer was always ‘I want to tell my kids I love them one more time.'”

the prayers we pray when we’re staring into the hard stop. the ones that chase away all the distraction, and bore through to the life-and-death essence.

the ones we’ll pray till our last….

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our birthday girl…

what prayer might you pray till your last?

funny how these things decide to write themselves. i thought i was about to spill out my notebook, to share a few fine lines from the festival of faith and writing, which kwame alexander, the newberry-winning author, decided should be called, “festival of faith in writing.” apparently, the prayers won out. 

but before i go, a few favorite lines from the line-up of poets and thinkers who, for three days and one ice storm, made me swoon…

kwame alexander, in a brilliant hilarious keynote, in which one of the stories was about his mother dying: the loss of your mom, he said, is “the most devastating thing any child ever has to go through…” (when mom died) “my star exploded and everything froze.”

poet marie howe: when asked how she found poetry, or perhaps how poetry found her, replied: “I was looking for a language no one else seemed to be talking about.” 

“First time I noticed it was the back cover of Bob Dylan’s first album. Looking for language that speaks to this world within the world and I couldn’t find that.”

in a conversation between marie howe and irish poet padraig o tuama, this:

“poetry can be something of a common heart”

“if poetry does its work, it gets to the heart of the matter.”

padraig: “poetry is the original song of human life. I believe the first poem was the lullaby around the fire, a baby is crying…”

the essayist dinty moore, spewed wisdoms from other writers, including these:

Harry Crews: “writers spend all their time preoccupied with all the things the rest of the world spends all their time avoiding.” 

Mary Oliver: “pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” 

James Tate: “when one is highly alert to language then merely everything begs to be a poem.”

Allen Ginsberg: “catch yourself thinking…”

that’ll do for now, with one more offering from my blessings of motherprayer file.

 

 

 

once again, of poetry and peepers

packed to the gills

dispatch from 49546…

well, i didn’t strap quite that much onto the old red wagon that carried me across three states to land here, at my biennial infusion of poetry, incandescence, and spring peepers (that frog song that rises up from a pond deep in the woods at the end of an endless parking lot), otherwise known as the festival of faith & writing. where i gorge on writers and poets and wander the hills of michigan in a state of bliss that likely has twinkly little stars whirling from my eyes.

over the course of 48 hours, i’ll inhale the likes of poets marie howe, pádraig Ó tuama, and scott cairns, the writers joy williams, edwidge danticat, kwame alexander, and bill mcKibben, big thinker parker palmer, journalist barbara bradley haggerty, and essayist dinty w. moore, among the many. i’ll feast on flannery o’conner’s prayer journal, and thomas merton’s record collection.

and in between it all, there will be those frogs belting out their vernal love tunes from the murky pond i’ve not yet found.

at night, once heaven’s dome is star-stitched with twice the skylights seen back in sweet chicago, i hole up inside an old, old house, where the floors creak, and the blankets smell of lavender. the folks who run the bed & breakfast, they make you feel right at home, invite you clear into the kitchen while they stir the eggs, or scoop the melon into high-stemmed bowls.

it’s the closest i come to a spell at any spa. in my book, i’ll take poets over thermal mud baths any day.

i’ll try to circle back to this old table and weave in a few of the lines i’ll be scribbling in the margins of my big, fat program guide. i know, sure as i know how to spell grand rapids, that there will be lines and exchanges and snippets of magnificence that take my breath away, set me soaring on the vernal updraft of incandescent poetry.

in the meantime, i’ve been delighting in the joys of making what’s known in the world of literary marketing as “shareables,” lines lifted from the pages of my little bitty book, the blessings of motherprayer, pasted atop all sorts of lovely pictures. they’re meant to share. so feel free to click and drag onto your desktop, and print them out. you could stick them to your fridge, or scribble your grocery list on the back. use as a bookmark, or line your drawers with a whole swatch of them.

i’ll pick just a handful for now, but i’ll keep adding, so please come back to watch them multiply…..

hours that mattermothering verbbirthing roomsloop of prayerby little

what’s your idea of a spa for the soul? 

(p.s. feel free to tell me which one of the shareables you might like best. i need you all to be my in-house market research committee….) xoxox

pilgrimage to the land of poets – and spring peepers, while we’re at it

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a short interlude of my poetry bookshelf (alphabetical by poet, of course)

i’m told tales of folks who slip their finery off their boudoir shelves, who tuck silks and satins into trunks and valises. i’m told they jet off to faraway places, wiggle their toes in pure white sands. sip intoxicants adorned with wee paper parasols and wedges of papaya. then, i’m told, they manage to find their way home, whole again.

i’d not know from such exotica. and i doubt it’d do much besides break me out in patchy hives.

i, in sharp contrast, am yanking out a sweater or three, tucking them alongside my toothbrush. i’ll pack a stash of honeycrisp apples (an upgrade for the occasion) and piles of reporter’s notebooks, then slide behind the wheel of my old red wagon, and motor my way to grand rapids, smack dab in the palm of the mitten state just to the north and the east of my land of lincoln. i’ll hole up for three days of prayerful prose and poetry, and thinking way beyond the quotidian box.

it’s called the festival of faith and writing, and it’s a poet’s idea of heaven on earth. especially if you take your poetry infused with a dollop of holy. it’s an every-other-year consortium where the mystical meets iambic pentameter, or more likely the freest of free verse. it’s a forget-about-lunch, who-needs-sleep, dawn-till-midnight fill-your-lungs-with-real-life-bylines-who-make-you-swoon jamboree.

this year it’s where tobias wolff and george saunders (professor and protege, respectively, long ago at syracuse university) will put heads together for a public tete-a-tete. where dani shapiro, memoirist and essayist, will “insist that sorrow not be meaningless.” and where poet scott cairns will mine eastern orthodox liturgy to “clear a pathway through the slings and arrows of modern life.” ashley bryan, the 92-year-old children’s book author and illustrator, will illuminate the art-making behind his collections of black american spirituals for children. and, before the first day’s dinner hour, i’ll sit down in a small room to listen to christian wiman, guggenheim fellow, former editor of poetry magazine, now senior lecturer in divinity and literature at yale’s divinity school, read poems from every riven thing, or passages from my bright abyss: meditation of a modern believer, which the new republic called “an apologia and a prayer, an invitation and a fellow traveler for any who suffer and all who believe.” before i nod off, i’ll whirl in the incantatory vapors of zadie smith who will ponder the question, “why write?”

yes, by day, i’ll binge on words and thoughts that stir the soul, and, often, put goosebumps to the flesh (the surest sign i know that God’s in the neighborhood). and then at night, i’ll make my escape to a historic inn, where a room under the eaves will be my hideaway. and where i’ll forego dreams for the sheer joy of turning pages upon pages, all while plopped atop my featherbed. or perhaps i’ll shrivel like a prune in the depths of my victorian claw-footed tub.

and it just might be the surest cure for my tattered soul.

as i did two years ago, i’ll be taking copious notes, and promise to report back next week, with all the snippets and moments that make me woozy.

but, of all the poetry the days will bring, the one i’m most awaiting is wholly otherworldly, and not propelled to sound waves by human breath. it’s amphibian, as a matter of fact: the wee spring peepers, whose dissonant and deafening nightsong, rising from a blur of woods, stopped me more than anything i’d heard two years ago april.

back then, i described the soul-perking moment thusly:

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

listen in to the peepers for now, and i’ll be back next week, to pour forth the very best i tuck into my writerly notebooks.

and a bit of poetic amuse-bouche till then:

A Word
BY SCOTT CAIRNS

For A.B.

She said God. He seems to be there
when I call on Him but calling
has been difficult too. Painful.

And as she quieted to find
another word, I was delivered
once more to my own long grappling

with that very angel here — still
here — at the base of the ancient
ladder of ascent, in foul dust

languishing yet at the very
bottom rung, letting go my grip
long before the blessing.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2013).

if you imagined a getaway for the soul, a stretch of days to soothe and restore, where would you go? what would you ink into your itinerary? 

and, p.s., happy blessed birthday to my mother-of-heart, ginny, the most loyal reader of the chair that ever there was. and happy one day late to my little ellabellabeautiful! 

reporter’s notebook: on poetry and peepers and what’s hierophany?

reporter notebook faith and writing

because it’s sunday night, and late at that, and because i promised to ferry home a satchel filled with poetry and wisdoms to mull for a week or a day or a lifetime, i’ll cut straight to the cuttings from my notebooks, the two i filled front and back, draining three fine pens of all their ink.

i will say — because it’s impossible not to — that besides the breathless whirl of words and words and kindness and words that sometimes lifted me from the hard pew on which i was sitting, or the hilarity of anne lamott that made me marvel — and love her rare brand of kooky brilliance — all over again, the most mystical moment came late two evenings, as i walked alone toward the far end of the vast asphalt acre that was the calvin college parking lot.

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

and now, from my notebooks:

notes from the festival of faith & writing:

reading list*:

william spencer, the poet’s poet according to keats.
brian young, one of the more powerful poets writing today, according to poet geoffrey nutter. died last week. “recollection.”
theodore roethke opened up nature and poetry for poet and scholar kimberly johnson.
before the door of god, religious poetry through history, by jay hopler and kimberly johnson.
“man killed by pheasant,” john t. price. short story.
loren eiseley, “the star thrower.” 16-page essay.
chenjerai hove, zimbabwean author, poet, playwright and human rights activist (outspoken critic of robert mugabe) who lived in exile in norway, wrote the novel bones, and inspired okey ndibe.
jessica mitford, great memoirist, the american way of death.
patricia hampl: “if i could tell you stories.”
“the whaling chapters” of moby dick.
“the inheritance of tools,” essay by scott russell sanders.
lia purpura, “rough likeness.” a book of essays.
john fowles, “the tree.” essay.

* these are the titles i scribbled every time one of the truly enlightened speakers tossed out an exhortation, “you must read…” a reading list in progress (in perpetuity, actually)….

words to fall in love with:

pullulating: means “sprouting.” or breeding or spreading.
hierophany: places where sacred and secular meet. The term “hierophany” (from the Greek roots “ἱερός” (hieros), meaning “sacred” or “holy,” and “φαίνειν” (phainein) meaning “to reveal” or “to bring to light”) signifies a manifestation of the sacred.
petrichor: word for the smell of rain on dry rock. petra, rock; ichor, blood that flows through vein (in greek mythology, the ethereal golden fluid that is the blood of the gods and/or immortals). in modern usage, it’s a glorious word for a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. (who knew there was a word for that most delicious spring perfume?)
adiaphora: “meaningless things.”

a few fine lines, and the lively minds who put breath to them:
notes scribbled from my notebook (in order of appearance over the three-day festival)…

uwem akpan, nigerian catholic priest (formerly a jesuit), author of say you’re one of them, collection of five short stories telling of african horrors, each told through the voice of a child:

“if you’re afraid to fail, then don’t try. sit in your room. don’t marry. don’t give birth.”

“for those who want to be writers, be brave, act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly before your god.”

most poignant moment, after his talk when a young blogger walked up to him and said she’d been writing from darkness all month, in the eclipsed days since feb. 13 when her 29-year-old husband died, after a years-long battle with cancer, leaving her alone with a not-yet one-year-old. akpan, a priest since 2003, magnificently ministered to her with his gift of words. i cried, and through tears, i scribbled some of what he said after folding her into his embrace: “get into rhythm. don’t shy away from anger. the prayers may not come. go to the psalms, let them fall off your tongue. when God sends you on a trip, he arrives there before you.

“right now you’re alone in that body of water, rowing toward the shore.”

geoffrey nutter, poet, author of four poetry collections, most recently, the rose of january. teaches poetry at princeton:

it’s been said that his writing gestures toward what t.s. eliot called, “frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.”

“comprehension is unnecessary in reading a poem. apprehending is instantaneous response: what poetry does best. to poets, the image creates the powerful image more so than ideas. images are more intelligent in the poet, do more work. unfold into resonance. it’s where the soul work is done. poems resonate with mystery.”

“the moment when empathy was born: when jesus, scribbling in the sand, said, ‘don’t judge lest you wish to be judged.’”

calls 17th-century poet henry vaughan “one of my best friends.” adds: “words written in the 17th century in a moment of passion, like a note slipped under the door to us.”

“certainty leaves no room for imagination. if uncertainty can wake up our imagination, our imagination is the beginning of empathy.”

eliza griswold, guggenheim fellow, journalist and poet, author of the tenth parallel: dispatches from the fault line between christianity and islam, and a new collection of poetry, i am the beggar of the world: landays of contemporary afghanistan

“heirophany, places where sacred and secular meet. one of the most fundamental places in my life, this space where the horizontal, secular, meets the ultimate; literally, the shape of the cross. that’s poetry, everyday time is punctured by the sacred….my calling is there, the place where sacred and secular meet.”

mary szybist, poet, 2013 national book award winner for poetry for incarnadine:

szybist, a reviewer wrote, has “an appetite for the luminous; reaches for the heavens without bypassing earth.”

“hard for me to believe faith is possible without doubt. or reverence without irreverence.”

kimberly johnson, poet, translator, literary critic, professor of renaissance literature and creative writing:

“writing a poem is like walking around all day with someone pecking on your forehead. something just beneath the surface is waiting to be let out.”

“i want to live my life in epiphany. i want all my pores open. it’s easier for me when language and culture and stripped away. it’s unmediated experience. my antennae is tuned to stuff that exists beyond the social sphere.” (it’s why she loves nature).

from john t. price, essayist, nature writer, professor of english:

quoting mary oliver: “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.”

okey ndibe, nigerian writer, poet, journalist, author of arrows of rain and foreign gods, inc.:

referring to some not-so-cheery bloke: “no milk of human kindness in him….” (an expression that found me muffling my out-loud sigh of verbal wonder)

“a story that must be told never forgives silence.”

thomas troeger, professor at yale divinity school, hymnist, ordained episcopal and presbyterian minister, who has been quoted as saying (not in this festival, but i couldn’t resist):

“I am trying to map the landscape of the heart that still rejoices in God yet lives in a world that is often oblivious to the spirit.  I believe to live gracefully with this tension is the mark of wisdom.  Such an understanding may baffle the dogmatic mind, but it does not lie beyond the capacity of the poetic imagination.  The imagination often holds together realities that are logically inconsistent yet dynamically coherent.”

reading from his essay, “season of lament”:
“we are living in a season of sorrow for the human community, and part of our role as musicians is to help the human heart relieve its tears so that we might sense anew the resilience of hope that we will never know if we have never wept.”

might i mention that he was a textbook portrait of old-school yankee sartorial splendor, with taut bow tie, tweed jacket, and crisply-creased khakis. all topped off with a mop of professorial white curls.

anne lamott (who was brilliant through and through, and hilarious to boot. oh, and who had just turned 60 the day before her friday night keynote).

“it doesn’t help that when you sit down to write, all your unresolved psychiatric issues choose to come visit you that day.”

(and as she sat down let sunday morning to type a facebook post about turning 60) “all the psychiatric issues sat on the bed with me — and they’d had a lot of coffee. they wanted me to know how they thought it was going — not very good.”

“laughter is carbonated holiness.”

“because we’re religious people we’re not going to spackle our hearts closed to block out the hurt.”

panel with peter marty (pastor/writer), christine byl (seasonal laborer, clearing trails in alaska, where she lives in a yurt with her husband and a band of retired sled dogs, author dirt work: an education in the woods), john t. price (nature writer)

quoting henry james: “a writer is someone to whom nothing is lost.”

quoting patricia hampl: “we don’t write what we know; we write to discover. to go off on an adventure.”

christine byl: “i write about what i don’t know about what i know. that’s where i enter. i enter the familiar with an eye toward the undiscovered.”

fred bahnson, writer, farmer, former peacemaker among mayan coffee farmers, author of soil and sacrament: a spiritual memoir of food and faith

“our job is not so much to make a point but to evoke something. invocation is one of the oldest forms of communication. it’s a priestly urge. the act of focusing your attention on something. creating a shared empathy. they’re not beating them over the head, you’re simply saying, ‘look, attend.’”

mycelium (vegetative part of fungus): “perfect metaphor for prayer.”

amen and amen. and good night.

it’ll be two more years till this festival convenes again. i’ve plenty to read till then, and more than enough to think about….(and in the meantime, big giant thanks to my dear old friend and latter-day pathfinder, bruce buursma, the tribune’s longtime religion writer — later baseball writer — who pointed me to the festival in the first place…what a mensch. and great wise soul.)

anything above strike your poetic fancy? who would you add to an essential reading list of poets and thinkers and brilliant essayists (oh, by the way, some fine soul reminded me this weekend that the word essay, with french roots, means “to try, to attempt.” is that not all we can ever do, weaving words into thoughts into rocket blasts from our heart)? what words would be among the most delicious on your plate? 

road trip: words upon words, stopping at the intersection of faith, doubt and ink in between

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before the sun rises over the steel mills of gary, indiana, tomorrow morn, i’ll be motoring toward motor city for a three day festival of words, words and more words. with a fat dash of big questions stirred in for good measure.

i’ll hit the brakes before i hit the outskirts of detroit. in fact, i’ll be stopping mid-mitten, at just about the palm of the hand, to pull into the fine burg of grand rapids. i could roll down the windows and listen for the voice of anne lamott, a faith-filled writer you might have read. but i’m actually a bit more keen on listening closely to uwem akpan, the nigerian catholic priest who penned the haunting “say you’re one of them,” five short stories of african atrocities told through the voices of children; or amy leach, a shy and brilliant essayist whose debut book, “things that are,” is a madcap collection of nature essays encouraging communion with the wild world (she’s been said to be “a descendent of lewis carroll and emily dickinson,” be still my heart — a girl after my very own chambered vessel, indeed).

a clutch of poets will be in the bunch, and i intend to be in the room when mary szybist, the author of “incarnadine,” winner of the 2013 national book award for poetry, tackles “reverence without curtsying.” or when jeanne murray walker, poet and playwright, talks memoir, or okey ndibe, the nigerian poet, novelist, journalist and political commentator,  takes on “negotiating between the visible and invisible: deities and writing.”

i’ll have notebook flapped open and pen perched (for i’m among the last of the pen-and-paper note takers) when guggenheim fellow eliza griswold, best-selling author of “the tenth parallel: dispatches from the fault line between christianity and islam” steps to the podium, or when james mcbride, author of the brilliant “the color of water: a black man’s tribute to his white mother,” and most recently, “good lord bird,” a comedy about the abolitionist john brown, which won the 2013 national book award, settles in for a thursday night’s conversation.

it’s called the “festival of faith & writing,” and who knew that such a gathering of great minds has been convening every other year on the rolling campus of calvin college — smack dab between the literati-littered coasts — since 1990. and that over the years, elie wiesel, john updike, maya angelou, salman rushdie, annie dillard, kathleen norris, and donald hall — to name but a handful — have been putting voice not to unwavering belief but the far more animated living-breathing blurred boundary between doubt and hope.

it’s that very crack in the veneer of faith, the place where shadow seeps, that birthed the festival in the first place.

“because of a long interest in writers between the cracks — writers who struggle with and deal honestly with the challenges of human experience, while writing with skill and poise and quality. these are not people who are easy believers, but that is part of what makes reading such authors worthwhile. we can learn a lot from these folks and their honest portrayals of the human experience,” says dale brown, the former calvin english professor who dreamed up the festival, one literary invitation at a time, and presided over it until he left the college to run the buechner institute in 2007.

it’s a mere 204 miles away, and it’s a landscape i’m learning, one page at a time.

if laptop and lulls allow, i’ll post dispatches from the front. fine thoughts, stirring questions, readings you might want to track down. if not, click on any of the above links and partake in a virtual festival of faith & words, all on your own.

in the meantime, what writers/thinkers/poets might you drive a couple hundred miles to encounter, page to page?