pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Tag: joy of writing

the sound that soothes

typewriter image

take a listen: typewriter keyboard. tap-tap-tap-ring!

it’s the closest i know to a lullaby. the tap-tap-tap of the typewriter keys, ending every time in a churn and a chime. it’s how i went to sleep nearly every night of my growing-up years. my papa, perched at the kitchen table, his index fingers flying across the keys, a flick of the return arm, the telltale ping, and he was off again, bolting across the very next line.

he wrote, late into the night. i barely ever heard him come up the stairs. my bedtime was infused with words being formed, one sentence strung upon another. whole constructions of idea, unfurled across the page. i heard the whole thing.

my bedroom, just above and tucked at the back of the house, absorbed it all. especially in summer, when the screen door was open, and my window, just above and a smidge to the north, made for acoustic shortcut. every last A-S-D-F-G-H, a melody in pre-tempered steel.

no wonder typewriters soothe me. no wonder the tappity-tap-tap is more than music to my ears; it’s balm to nooks and crannies deep inside.

my papa’s been gone now, 36 years, four months, and 20 days, but i can bring him back, at least in sound, by pounding across a keyboard. oh, to have an old underwood with churn and chime. i make do, i suppose, with apple’s iteration of that soothing sound, the tappity-tap as if in padded slippers, not nearly the decibel of yore, certainly not the grind of how my papa typed. my papa typed in high-grade staccato, in rat-a-tat-tat, with cymbal crash. the whole house shook, i think.

and so this week for me was pure soothe. i too was perched at my old pine table. the one where i too try to build my house of words. where i, like my papa, string letters into words, words into sentence, paragraph into prose, one key at a time.

i was bathed in the lullaby of the alphabet keys. nearest thing, perhaps, to amniotic heart song.

it’s been awhile since a week beckoned with a single assignment: write, and write some more.

i did as instructed. and right away i knew i’d slipped into my old familiar writing groove, the one that comforts me as an old sweater soothes the arms that know it best. the posture that seems to fit me most emphatically is the one when i’m coiled into the keyboard, playing across the keys as if a child’s playground, and i am putting bum to every slide and swing. feeling breeze blow soft against my face. delighting in the pure joy of making words spring to life. prying back the hatch on my heart, and letting all that’s there leap out, and romp.

after days and weeks and months of that other side of writing, the one that pulls you to podiums, or hauls you out in front of crowds, and begs you to put breath to words, to tell the stories behind the pages of a book, i came home this week to the old hard chair that holds me up every time i sit down to write. i came home to days filled with little but the sound of thinking and the tappity-tap of my fingers skipping across the keys.

and that’s when i heard the hum that rises up from deep inside my heart. i am, it seems, most content when wrapped in quiet, when deep in thought, when lollygagging across my laptop swingset.

a writer (or at least this one) is by nature — and job description — one who takes in the world in full alert, and preferably from a lookout station planted firmly at the sidelines, not at center stage. it’s from the margins, the quiet margins, where the art of exploration, of thinking deeply, of taking in the roar and the whisper of the crowd, might best be exercised.

and so i’m home again, here at the quiet keyboard, alone with whatever rises up and spills from that sacred nautilus deep inside.

and to that i whisper a hushed and certain, amen. and thank you.

what sounds soothe you? and where is your most sacred landscape, the one that puts the hum in your heart??

p.s. i got a tad distracted this morning when i tuned into mika and joe, to catch the morning update. i seem to have lost my rhythm, the one that hummed when i awoke. twas a tough choice: take in the news, or type the morning away. i thought i could straddle both. but the revelations from the squawking box, they shook me up a bit (the national enquirer allegedly harassing mika’s teenage daughters, the word that m&j were told by the white house that the impending enquirer story could be spiked if only joe would pick up the phone and apologize to the president).

writing school

writing stack

friday mornings are sacred. friday mornings are when i burrow deep into my soul, poke around, see what’s percolating. i learned a few years ago to pencil in friday mornings, ink them in is more like it. as certainly and solidly as if it’s a trip to the dentist, or a date with the pope, i scribble “write” on my friday morning calendar. that means i’ve devoted the hours to whatever unfolds here. that means it matters — to me, anyway.

but this friday morning i’ve surrendered my sacred time, turned it over to a gaggle of kids — high school kids — who want to learn how to write. how to write from the heart, specifically. so i’m writing this on thursday afternoon. i’m pausing from the making of outlines, the stacking of papers, the pulling tomes from my shelf, so i can lay out the words that will find their way to you come friday morning.

come friday morning, i’ll be at the head of a class — a workshop filled with 78 kids in the first round, and a second session with 32 seats now claimed — and i’ll be trying to impart a few things about the magnificent art of writing. i’ll ask, first, why it matters, why finding and telling the truth is essential to not just the whole lot of us as a republic, a civilization, but why it matters to each of us as living, breathing, heart-pounding human beings. human beings who know what it is to grieve or to doubt; to thrust our arms in the air, expression of joy; to question, to ponder, to stumble toward illumination. at its best, its holiest, writing allows us to slip inside someone else’s story. to understand their loneliness, their heartache, their triumph or tragedy.

we write to lean into communion, to abridge the abyss.

which brings us to craft. to the “how” of the sacred equation. we’ll peek inside the bag of writerly tools, pull out a few, try them on for utility and maybe even capacity for magic.

all week i’ve been pounding away at the keyboard, typing up thoughts; poring through pages and pages, culling the very best musings i could find on the subject of writing, writing straight from the heart. i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the blessing of teaching. of finally reaching the point in a long life of doing one thing with unswerving focus — devotion, defined — day after day, year after year, and finally realizing you do know a thing or two worth turning around and passing along to the folks coming up behind you. i’ve considered the moral imperative. and the miracle of being in a room, strolling up and down the rows of desks, watching the gleam in the eyes begin to turn on, to brighten.

i’ve felt my heart skip a beat at the thought of connecting. of being in a room where the number of years on the planet does not matter. where we connect, writer to writer, because we were born, some of us, with a heart that beats to the rhythm and power of poetry, with a deep-down knowing that story is, after all, the great connective tissue, the one best hope for, well, nothing short of peace on earth, and the particular soul-soothing balm that comes from knowing you’re not all alone in the end.

so while i shuffle off to room 301 at new trier east high school, that storied hall of secondary learning nestled along chicago’s north shore, i’m leaving you perhaps my very favorite of seven handouts, a glorious swatch of thought from the writer Colum McCann, author of Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House). McCann’s “Letter to A Young Writer,” instruction worth etching onto a wall of your house or your heart, is the 24th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, an annual prize for a short-story collection published in english and in the u.s. during a calendar year.

here’s McCann, advice to a writer — young or old or anywhere in between:

“Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.”

what words of wisdom would you impart to a starting-out writer, or starting-out thinker, intent on employing a very big heart?

up above, a few of the books i’m hauling along to writerly school. vivian gornick, donald hall, mary oliver, leslie jamison, and alice laplante, among the bound volumes.

from the middle ages to me: my voracious appetite for the not-so-edible “salad of many herbs”

799px-Flickr_-_Beinecke_Flickr_Laboratory_-_(Commonplace_Book),_(late_17th_Century)-thumb-615x190-75565

florilegium, or “gathering of flowers,” they’re called. or were called in medieval times.

quaint.

one wealthy 15th-century italian wool merchant declared his zibaldone, or book of hodgepodgery, “the salad of many herbs.” a snip here, a pungent bit there.

it was his self-inscribed anthology of esoterica and knowledge, the pages into which he stuffed everything from recipes to tables of weights and measures to the latest smart something he’d heard rumbling on the florentine sidewalks. decidedly, it was not a journal, no catch-all for memoir, nothing like a diary. nary a rambling of the soul found here, this was strictly the province of accumulated knowledge — and things not to forget.

more commonly known as commonplace books, i’ve just discovered i’ve been keeping one — or four or five, more like it — for years and years. (“commonplace,” you should know, is a translation of the latin term locus communis (from greek tópos koinós), or “common place,” and, according to our friends at harvard university’s library, suggests a storehouse, or clearinghouse — in ink, on paper — of ideas and arguments, easily located for ready application. say, when engaged in verbal jousting at the medieval village pub.)

and i just thought i was a hoarder of the literary kind, demonstrating my rodent-like tendencies for squirreling away little bits and snips of enchantment. of the poetic species.

they live in assuming places, my commonplace books, my cache for what tickles my imagination, delights my word-ly fancy, catches my breath. for years, one lived on my laptop’s desktop, but it grew to be so long, so unwieldy, so likely to bring down my hard drive, i only recently birthed its second generation, both titled, “words and lines worth saving,” iterations I and II.

two more, the kind made of cardboard and paper pressed between covers, they live atop my desk, my actual old pine desk, one to my right and one to my left. as i flip through them now, i see i’ve stuffed inside a post-it note with a german address (in case i visit, i suppose), an advent calendar from 2012, a rosary (still in plastic) from the basilica of holy hill. and as i flip through the left-hand book, one i’ve titled, “notes of wonder,” i see that it’s bulging with snipped-out pages from the new york times book review, notes i scribbled on the back of someone’s eighth-grade essay, and assorted ponderings, including this: “God’s first language, which is silence.”

the one i count among my life’s truest treasures, though, is the unwieldy one on my desktop. there, if you scroll along, you’ll find among its 9,938 words unfurled across 35 pages, the turkish word for “moonlight on water” (gumusservi), the definition of epistemology (after stumbling across the line, “the epistemology of loss,” in a john berryman poem), or this from galway kinnell: “to me,” he said, “poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

it’s my digital memory box, the place where i commit the things that take my breath away, stir my soul, make my heart beat double-time. it’s my independent study in the literary arts, and poetry in particular.

little did i know that no less than jonathan swift prescribes one thusly:

“A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories:’ and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.”
—from “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet”

apparently, the practice, with its roots in antiquity, has been unbroken since the middle ages, with a particular up-bump in renaissance times. the idea — brought on with a bang not long after the invention of the gothenburg press, “largely because literate people were discombobulated by the flood of information the printing press had unleashed upon them,” according to alan jacobs, writing in the atlantic — was that particularly pithy or otherwise catchy little thoughts were to be hand-copied and tucked into one’s commonplace book. in arranging topically, it was thought, the literate raconteur would have, at fingertips’ reach, a ready arsenal of neatly tucked-away poetry and argument. need a zippy rejoinder? oh, just wait, it’s right here, on page 23 of my florilegium (the latin name pinned onto the practice by the medievals, who found them particularly handy for stockpiling thought of theological and religious theme. for what little it’s worth, i much prefer to think of mine as that “salad of many herbs”).

why, thomas jefferson was a prodigious keeper of the commonplace (writing in english, latin and greek, of course). as were henry david thoreau and ralph waldo emerson. the british library’s renaissance project boasts a collection of some 50, many penned inside the iron bars of prison cells and locked towers (sir walter raleigh, so imprisoned from 1606 to 1608, filled his penitent hours with library lists, poetry and an illustrated guide to the middle east). in fact, clear through the early 20th century, students and scholars were long required to keep them. and so, if you tiptoe into the bowels of any of the western world’s great libraries, just ask to see the commonplace collections, and you’ll soon stumble on the jottings of john milton, victor hugo, sarah orne jewett, samuel clemens, and john quincy adams, to name but a smattering.

i found out i was such a keeper of the commonplace only by accident. because i happened to ask a dear friend of mine, one who unfurls great lines of poetry at the drop of a hat, how it was that she had such a stockpile at the ready. here’s how my poetic friend, dear amy, replied:

“Yes, I have books and journals filled with favorite quotes, as well a hefty computer file with snippets of words I want to remember. I’ve been a nut about quotes and have collected them all my life, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the squirreling away of meaningful quotes is called keeping a commonplace book, a practice that hearkens back to the likes of Marcus Aurelius and Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson. I just LOVE words of beauty and wisdom, and like a magpie, I love to feather my nest with them, as it were!”

it is the dearest thing to encounter a fellow magpie, both of us flitting through the air with words dangling from our beaks. i’ve long said that if my house began to burn, one of the few things i’d tuck to my bosom would be my long-kept compendium of beauty and breath-taking.

for that, in the end, is what animates so much of my imagination. and puts flight to the task of typing so many hours of my lifetime. there is something deeply holy about tripping upon depths of meaning in thoughts thought before you, in words committed to paper long ago, or just the other afternoon.

i can’t imagine my world without knowing that, at the click of a computer key, i could unlock these lines, copied and pasted long ago, breath-catching beauties from dear virginia woolf:

from “Mrs. Dalloway”: “…she was like a bird sheltering under the thin hollow of a leaf, who blinks at the sun when the leaf moves; starts at the crack of a dry twig.”

on sewing: “…her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt.”

describing grand houses of London: “….halls laid in black and white lozenges…”

“turning one’s nerves to fiddle strings….”

“long streamers of sunlight…”

on “the compensation of growing old”: “the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, turning it round, slowly, in the light.”

“thunderclaps of fear”

i copy to remember. i paste to never forget. as mr. swift so finely put it: it’s my “supplemental memory,” my “record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation.”

excuse me while i amble off to imbibe on my salad of many, many herbs.

do you keep a salad of many herbs, a gathering of flowers, a book of hodgepodgery, otherwise known simply as a commonplace book? and do you not think the practice a wholly invigorating one? a holy one, too?

and, most deliciously, what would be among the herbs you’ve snipped from your literary garden?

finally, happy blessed launch of spring on this day of equal light and darkness, the vernal equinox, when, as my beautiful brother david says, “you can hear the earth breathing.” but only if you listen, of course…..

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? 

the holiness of work

holiness of work this

the dry spell had been long. the dust, collecting in my throat. the days of wondering where i was meant to be. aching for a path, a sense of how to find the clearing, through the thicket, up the side of the mountain.

some days i swore i’d lost my soul. found myself pounding out tales of how to clear a plugged drain (talk about ironic). oh, sure, i liked the plumbers all right. didn’t mind learning a thing or two about the ways of my sink. but really? i’d left the bedsides of dying children, picked up pen and notebook, to find myself 30 years later, making sure the world knew how to un-plug that drain.

clearly, that was not my steady diet. i spiced it up with the occasional soulful musing. saying goodbye to kids headed off to college. saying goodbye to my own. but it was, more days than i wanted it to be, an exercise in driving me to madness.

i could barely remember those days this week as i sat, morning after morning, in the shifting light. heard the chatter from just beyond the screen, as the sparrows had it out with the cardinals. and no one appreciated the stalking ways of my fat striped cat.

but there i was, red pen in hand, poring over pages that are typed-out vessels from my heart. more like prayer cards, each and every one. it’s called editing, but really it’s distilling. distilling to the essence, paring away excess. cutting to the bone.

it happens to be essential to the craft of writing, but really it’s essential in this odyssey called life.

we are each of us, processing machines. we wander through the day, absorbing this and that, taking in that long tale, and this winding one. if we’re thinking, paying attention, we are always on the lookout for the essence, the gospel take-away, the distillation of heart and mind and soul.

one by one, we take the offerings of the day, hold them to the light, sift and sort. decide which ones serve up sustenance, which ones merely upholstered the day in wit and whimsy.

so that’s the task i’m attending to right now. whittling down page after page, sentence after sentence, to its essence. its holy spark, if there is one. others will be the judge.

and as i slowly turned the pages, as the red pen traced progress in the margins, i found myself bathed in an undiluted sense of the holy. maybe, just maybe, it’s baptism, all over again. a new beginning. maybe after all the years, i’ve stumbled on the deep pure vein that connects me, that i’ve been trying to find for what feels like forever.

holiness. it’s why i set out on my journey long ago. it’s the wind beneath my wings.

and it came up and tapped me on the heart this week. seeped in through the holes in the screen door. filled the kitchen.

there’s work to be done, from now till tuesday, when the next deep round of edits are due. this whole month is pretty much a blur of tight deadlines, one cascading atop another. thank God i live with someone who understands the urgency, and the long long dry spell that preceded it.  he seems to know that it’s a prayer i am offering to the heavens. because really that’s what this is.

and it’s the holiest work i’ve ever done.

thank God it found me. i’ve been searching for so long.

so that’s the update from here at the news desk. whirling madly toward the deadline. a dear friend visiting for the weekend, the joy of trying to sustain calm amid deep-down palpitations. so i’ll simply pay closer attention to whatever it is i’m doing in the moment. extract more essence. 

and the question: what’s your holy work? and how did it find you?

growing up in a word factory

word factory

dispatch from 02139 (in which every horizontal plane seems buried under sheafs and piles of papers upon papers…)

poor kids.

you wonder — or at least i do, most often when dillydallying before diving in to some writing project that demands utter and undiluted attention — just how it is to grow up in a house where the smoke spewing from chimneys is that of words on fire. where the factory floor is littered not with scraps of leather, shards of porcelain, or snippets of fine cloth (respectable trades, all, the cobbler, the potter, the tailor). but rather everywhere you try to amble, there’s an adjective tossed to the ground. there’s a verb deemed too wimpy cowering in a corner. and there are reams and reams of blah ideas heaved over someone’s hunched-over shoulders.

it’s a veritable word trap here where we dwell.

at this very moment, for instance, the dining room table is awash in a banquet of fist-high papers, with nary an inch for a spoon or a fork. the back office is barred with “do not disturb” tape. only the claw-footed tub might be spared the detritus of the writing biz, the one that seems to be the family obsession, er, occupation.

alas, tis tough having been born a double-byline (we have two), the progeny of two souls who could find nothing more admirable to do with their lives than string words onto clotheslines and call it a day’s toil.

the boys we spawned, that other writer fellow and i, they’ve lived and breathed keyboards since the days they were popped from the womb.

they’ve guzzled mama’s milk to the tip-tap-tap of keys. they’ve drifted off to nap time, lulled by the somnolent shooshing of fingers upon alphabet squares. heck, early on, one of the duo played make-believe with a toy telephone, put receiver to his ear, and promptly proceeded to push aside his mama with a curt, “i can’t talk to you now, i’m talking to my editor.”

he was two.

gulp.

talk about staring your sins in the face.

and so, as i’ve surveyed the landscape around this little aerie this week, i’ve the niggling sense that we might be drowning in words. one of us has hijacked the couch, the afghan, the dining table and all six of the chairs (the better to fan out those vertical files). the other has staked his polar-explorer flag in the icy back office, and, for warmer-upper reprieve, the cozy cove in the kitchen.

which, by my calculations, leaves the poor sixth-grade lad little choice but to hole up on his out-of-reach top bunk when he too decides to partake of the family biz, though in his case he much prefers inhaling to exhaling words. so that’s where we find him these days, when the smoke from the word chimney gets a tad too thick, when he retreats behind his curtainwall of great reads.

is it any wonder the boy is deep-breathing literary wonders at a clip never before clocked in his lifetime? in six short weeks, the once reluctant reader tore through the harry potters (all), then page-turned his way through “the hobbit,” and just this monday and tuesday zoomed through a brilliant tale aptly called “wonder.” (it’s by r.j. palacio, and it’s about a wise-beyond-his-years boy born with a severe facial deformity and his parents’ decision that it’s time to stop homeschooling and, in fifth grade, send him bravely and with much trepidation to ‘mainstream school.’ it’s a book that no less than the wall street journal described as “a beautiful, funny and sometimes sob-making story of quiet transformation”).

which is why one of my best to-do’s of the week was to be the reader lad’s fetcher, to mosey down the lane to the cambridge public library, sidle up to one of the world’s yummiest children’s librarians (and aren’t they all among the yummiest?), pick her brain, and waddle home loaded down with a menu of new word-fattened morsels. (see above.)

in theory, these weeks through here are the january thaw for the brain; in college parlance it’s the stretch known as january term, J term, or inter-term.

only mr. wordsmith and i have decided there’s no time for time-off in our one swift year, so we’re digging in deeper. he is toiling on a book, and writing yet another one in preparation for a class he’ll be teaching for the next two weeks. i am doing what looks like shuffling papers, but really it’s a wee bit more ambitious than that — and a thousand times harder.

so everywhere you go, there are alphabet keys and — shhhhh! — expletives flying. there are pages jamming the printer. and paragraphs clogging the brain.

it’s dense enough around here that i sat down this morning to ask the young lad, the one shoveling oatmeal into his mouth, just how it was to grow up in a house where the family business is words.

said he, “it’s kinda weird.” but then, deeply-versed in the editing process, he asked me to strike that first sentence so he could begin again.

“it’s kind of like everybody’s always picking up the phone cuz they’re on deadline. or running out the door to an interview. or they’re in their office writing like a madman.” [editor’s note: please do note the use of the masculine, madman, not madwoman, proving once and for all that i am not the only off-kilter member of this writing tag team.]

since the lad was on a roll, and had been asked to unfurl a few deep-held words on the matter, he went on with one more complaint before the clock chimed, “STOP, time to chase the school bus.”

that complaint was this: “there’s way too much attention to words. i’m always getting my grammar corrected.”

and so it is, young lad, when you grow up in a house of words, when you’d best not flub your me & him’s, nor your “i choosed the chocolates.” it’s a family sin, and one you’ll not escape unedited.

so sorry you were not born to cobblers. just think, you’d have holey shoes to show for it. instead you’ve nouns and verbs and subjective infinitives pouring from your ears.

poor child.

poor, poor double-byline.

love, your wordy mama

what were the occupational hazards of growing up in the house where you grew up?? 

no reason ’cept she’s beautiful…

no reason cept she's beautiful

i guess maybe you’ll think you need to call the doctor. dial up some prescription for that poor lady who cannot haul herself in from out beneath the smelly bush.

oh, my, the neighbors soon will whisper. why, i saw her there, just the other night, they’ll say. all curled up and sleeping. didn’t seem to mind the rain. she lay there, drip, drip, drip. till morning. when she stirred, and stretched and, dang, she took another picture, that lady did. seems she’s up and lost her mind over that there vi-bur-num.

fear not, friends. it’s just that, well, i couldn’t very well tuck that lovely rain-laced beauty queen away in some old box with mothballs to keep it from crumbling. i had to lay it out, so you could see. sort of like when folks invite you in for coffee, then make sure to leave all the baby books right there on the cushions of the couch, and you can’t help but flip the pages and coo the mandatory ooohs, and ahhhs.

the other thing is simply this: it’s the very end of a long, long week, and looking at that picture (although here it looks a little fuzzy, which it did not before it landed here. oh, well…) is sort of like putting on your old holey jammies, the ones you would not wear out the house. the ones you would race to change, even before the fire fighters got there, if you’d had to call and beg their services.

it’s just a friday night, is all, and rather than curling up with ice cream and a trashy novel, i thought, oh, heck, why not wander over to the table. put out some new fresh flowers. pretty things up for the weekend.

this is, of course, that day we mamas wait for, yessirree. that day when we do the shopping, make the quiche, invite the friends, and call it mother’s day brunch. oh, wait. it’s not like that at your house? hmm. well, it is at mine.

mostly, i’m unwinding from a week that stretched my heart from here to there, and back again. my computer went kerpluey. which was not so very fun. no, not at all.

and, then, i stumbled upon a story so sweet and so delicious, i am still trying to get the drippy stains off of my chest. actually, they might be dried-up tears, because i’m not like those hard-boiled, tough-skinned news chicks on tv. oh no. i don’t pretend that it’s just a story, and i am there to scribble notes.

nope.

i fall hard sometimes. really really hard.

thing is, i realized this week that, for me, writing stories is the most fervent prayer i pray. it is wholly sacred, i tell you, to sit and listen as some fine someone unfurls her story. and i, collecting words like rosary beads, just snatch and string each one. bead after bead, story after story. until the tale is told.

when i’m in the gather mode, scooping up so many beads, i do ask a million questions. once, someone laughed and called me a human vacuum cleaner. hmm.

well, i do tend to ask for a few thousand teeny-tiny details. and, then, because i can’t help myself, i whip up my newsgirl lasso and swing it first in little circles once or twice, then i cast it out, wide and sweeping. often, this is where the things that someones say humble me to tears. if you listen long enough, you can’t help but hear some mighty wisdom.

other times i tiptoe on the ledge, inching close as i can inch to just short of that place where the teller of the story, would say, oh no. that i cannot, will not, tell.

when it’s over, when the last story is spilled, and folks are starting to yawn, i gather all my beads, sweep them up and stuff them in my satchel.

then, back home, i sit down before the magic keys and close my eyes, and pray to God to be that holy pencil, i so often refer to.

what i pray for, is that the pulsing beauty of the everyday psalm–as the brilliant chicago photographer, john white, once referred to the capturing of the uncommonly common street story–oozes through the words that just come spilling out, and fill the page.

then i send it off and wait. i have this little picture in my head. i imagine some sort of gold dust, from the spirit of the story’s essence, rubbing off, onto the fingers and the heart of every someone who takes the time to sit and pick up that day’s news, and, then, just happens to bumble on the one i stitched my heart in, and reads along, to the very end.

i imagine, this mother’s day especially, a whole city glowing gold, as, one-by-one, a story’s read and passed along. i imagine a whole city shining.

or at least that’s what i pray. and why i think the work i do each day is really nothing more than the finest prayer i ever learned to pray.

and that’s what i’m thinking about this lovely evening. lying here, beneath that raindrop-christened bush, where all is beautiful these smelly days and nights.

oh, and besides, the nice computer man told me to fool around here and see if he’d chased out all the critters that were gunking up the gears. so let me just push this one little button here, and see….

promise, soon as i can i will share with you the story that has me at once so giddy, and so very tired, this late late friday night.

it’s sunday now. the computer went kerpluey again. but i think we’ve now done the proper voodoo. at least i hope so. tomorrow morn, when all is quiet, and i am fully breathing once again, i will post the lucy story, and share with you the lovely bits that had to fall to the cutting room floor. ol’ dear mr. hemingway once said, a story is only as good as what’s left on the cutting room floor. and that fine maxim has been the novacaine to get me through plenty a painful cutting session. ouch. it always hurts. but this here blog, i now realize is a fine remedy, a way to still get to tell some of the pieces of the story that i think you’ll love. lucy trevino and her mama, rosa, are my heroes of this day. a more amazing love story i’ve not heard in a long long while….check out the tribune’s website today, or come back tomorrow, and i’ll have the story here….

the essential shelf

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

consider the word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

your turn, who’s jumping next?