pull up a chair

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

Tag: patricia maclachlan

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?

turn the page slowly

come in close. crack open the cover. take in the book. finger the paper, the color, the type. hear the page crackle. as you lift it, you turn it. you turn the page slowly.

drink in the story. take note how the words are unfurled on the page. feel the thump of the poem as it beats with your heart.

at its best it is poetry, tucked in those pages. tucked between covers. awaiting your fingers. awaiting your heart.

some of the books that i love best, have always loved best, are books for children, children’s books. books meant to be read curled up in a lap. curled up in a corner. curled up in a chair with a lap like a mama.

i have loved children’s books, collected children’s books, since long before i had children. and will keep doing so, i am certain, long after those children no longer fit in my lap.

i don’t even have to close my eyes to see the thumbelina page in tasha tudor’s book of fairy tales, the one i have loved since i was so very little, curled in a corner, the page in my lap. on the page that i love, the little spit of a girl floats on a red tulip petal, two wisps of perhaps a cat’s whisker for her oars. she has been floating on that page, trying to get to the edge of the bowl that is wrapped in a bank of bleeding heart, and lily-of-the-valley and sweet yellow pansies for 46 years, since 1961, when tasha published the book, and probably near the time that my mama gave it to me.

it might have been thumbelina who made me love books. or maybe my mama.

because today is a day at school in which all children are reading, or being read to, in hopes that illiteracy can be wiped out in schools not far away, i pulled two of my favorites off of the shelf.

they would be, for now, the beginning and end of my favorites, for one, “what you know first,” by patricia maclachlan, engravings by barry moser, has been my favorite since i stumbled upon it years and years ago in the stacks of a dusty old book store, a used-book store with the marvelous name aspidistra, squeezed in next to a hamburger joint at the not-so-quaint corner of clark and wrightwood in chicago.

the other book, “ox-cart man,” by donald hall, illustrations by barbara cooney, i call the caboose of my favorites only because it’s the last one in the door. it should have been a favorite for a long, long time. but i only just came upon it, waiting for me on a table at just about the coziest, most thoughtfully considered place to find children’s books in all chicago these days–the sweden shop, on foster near kimball, where my dear friend sandra has resettled after closing her own much-loved and missed shop, sweetpea, where some of the best books on my shelves were ever-so-reverently slipped in my most hungry hands.

“what you know first,” is pure heart-breaking poetry. a child is leaving the prairie; the family farm, sold, or, probably, lost. you hear the child’s voice, ache for the child, as he or she, i can never tell which, leaves behind an ocean of grass, endless sky, a cottonwood tree, even uncle bly who sings cowboy songs, eats pie for breakfast. i’ve always heard echoes of “the grapes of wrath” in these few pages, a grownup novel of loss and leaving behind boiled down to its rich, pure essence, in words a young heart can’t help but feel. the black-and-white engravings, i could study forever. could frame and hang on my wall.

“ox-cart man,” a poem that originally appeared in the new yorker, of all places, on oct. 3, 1977, quietly unspools a powerful tale of a man, his wife, his son and his daughter who work all year to gather, to grow and to make goods that he then sells at the market, drawn there by the ox and the cart. it is a book that pounds home the lesson of true economy, you use what you have, you sell what you’ve got, you buy what you need, you start over again. in a disposable world, these pages can’t be fingered often enough.

the u.s. poet laureate billy collins wrote of hall: “[he] has long been placed in the frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet.” barbara cooney, one of my truest heroes (she wrote and illustrated “miss rumphius,” which teaches us, “you must do something to make the world more beautiful”), won the caldecott medal for her ox-cart illustrations that remind us of early american paintings, new england quaint.

the power of both books is that they are quiet, so quiet. plainspoken poetry. they are books you can’t close when you get to the last page. you just sit there, holding. holding your breath. holding your heart.

holding on to the power of a poem, poured out on the page, a page best turned oh so slowly.

please forgive me if i rambled. bless you if you got to this bottom. please take a turn. tell us your best children’s book. go ahead, gush.