waiting has been the posture of the week here at book-making headquarters. which, for someone wired like me, means clicking my phone every few minutes, checking to see if there’s yet a reply. forcing myself into tasks—say, cleaning the bathtub, sorting the wash––that will keep me and my antsy fingers away from the checking, reminding myself simply to breathe.
it might come as little surprise––after keeping you in the loop here as i’ve loped toward the publishing finish line––that the reply i am so, so anxiously awaiting is the one from the editor who will, ultimately, thumbs-up or thumbs-down that collection of words i refer to as my latest book. a book whose making has certainly silvered a few more of my hairs. a book i turned in sunday night, with hours to spare before the monday deadline. the first editor, a true godsend with whom i’ve been back-and-forthing for the last four weeks, gave it a solid thumbs up, but the one we now await is the one who a.) moves it along. or b.) asks for more rewrite still. or, i suppose, in the doomsday version (one i’m apt to imagine) c.) she simply throws up her arms and shrieks, “i’ve no clue at all why this was a book i thought worthy of printing!”
over the last few weeks, in this latest batch of dispatches from here in the writing garage (this appendage to our old house began its existence as a place where mid-century cars sputtered fumes, not too distant, i suppose, from its now housing a sputtering writer), i’ve pulled back the curtain a bit on just how it is that thousands of words find their way onto pages soon to be glued, bound, sewn, or whatever is the latest technology for keeping the papers from scattering. (imagine if in buying a book, you were handed an assemblage of pages and told to shuffle them into just the right order before you sat down to read; binding, clearly a nifty invention….)
one of the lists i’ve been making this week is something of a manifesto, of how––should i ever find myself in the editor’s desk––i might try to alleviate the suffering of a writer whose tender self and soul would be under my watch. it’s hardly a stretch to assume that most who assign themselves to the occupation of putting words on the page tend to find their hearts rising and falling in some measure with the way those words are met by editors and loved ones and even anonymous readers.
i’ve suffered at the hands of all the above. i’ve winced as editors killed my “little darlings,” the newsroom nickname for those snazzy bits of sentence or prose that the writer pretends makes him or her the star of the class, only to find the darling is unceremoniously flung to the cutting room floor, where it lands with an unceremonious thud. i’ve gulped as my father-in-law dialed long distance to suggest i might need a refresher stretch on the therapist’s couch as he thought something i’d penned right here on the chair, after our firstborn sauntered off to college, was far too depressing, and a sure sign that i’d teetered over the edge. and, back in my newspaper days, i had readers pen letters in what used to be a telltale chickeny scratch, often in recycled envelopes (in the digital age, it’s now hard to predict when an incoming email is going to explode with invective), all but insisting i leap from my desk in the tribune tower, run––not walk––three blocks east, and jump in the big cold lake. with stones tied to my ankles.
it can be not so pretty, this audacity to say what you think. or you feel. or what you pray. to put into words the otherwise ineffable. to sometimes see sentences there on the screen that you simply hadn’t realized were in you until they arose, one tap-tap at a time.
it’s one thing to put words to breath, in conversation over breakfast or lunch or sitting alongside a friend on a bench or a swing, and to know that those words won’t leave a trace––except in the memory of the one to whom they were spoken. to dare to put ink (or pixels on a screen) to those thoughts––sometimes half-baked, sometimes raw, sometimes with too many dashes or commas––is, when you pause to think about it, rather a bold expedition. seatbelts ought be required.
anyway, my manifesto would begin with one or two basics: don’t forget that the one on the waiting end is likely on needles and pins; offer kind words even when pointing out stumbles and weak spots; and please remember how daunting it is to play at this game. it’s not too much of a stretch to extend my manifesto beyond the wordsmithing game. it’s a very short list that might apply to the wider world as we seem to be slipping deeper and deeper into an age of too-little regard for the human species with whom we share this moment in time.
it takes so very little.
what would you include on a Manifesto for Minimal Kindness, editorially or otherwise?
note that in the snapshot above, compared to one shared a couple weeks back, the stacks in the writing garage only grew higher and higher as the days ticked by, one after another en route to that finish line...good news is the other writer who lives in this house wandered into the room last night, eyed the bowing shelves, the shelves all but groaning under the weight, eyed the impossible hopscotch of books, and declared: “you need more shelves.” so i guess my disarray just might save me after all.
please excuse the interruption in regular programming here at the chair, i’m barreling toward the latest installment in the Deadline Plan, this one poured in concrete, i’m told. i rounded the bend on the penultimate deadline last sunday, and awaited the first batch of edits, which landed tuesday midday. now awaiting batches two, three, and possibly four. all destined to drop––impeccably and with my whole heart attached––on the editor’s desk by end of business on monday.
if you ever wondered how a book becomes a book, here’s how in one word: persistency.
never looking up from the page. forgetting to eat lunch. thinking of verbs in your sleep. surrendering nearly every last domestic chore to the very kind fellow who stalks these same halls, the one who is making sure i sleep, eat, and drink gallons of water.
i think it will all be worth it. i’m pretty sure there will come a day when i look back on this chapter and––just like labor pains––forget how much it hurt, how much my head pounded, and my heart right along.
as i look at my bookshelves these days, i see not just pages and pages of paper and ink but the accumulated anguish of hundreds of authors over hundreds of years. books do not write themselves. books demand total attention. and day after day of it. for as long as it takes.
and what’s it all for? for the scant hope of communion, for the slim chance that one someone somewhere will be reading along and suddenly hearing a loud pop, down in their heart, or up in their brain. because some faraway someone has just put to words some ineffable thing that they’ve never named. though they’ve long sensed it.
there is much typing still to be done here. and after that, the copy-editing brigade comes over the hills. and then proofing each page, making sure no squiggles or bloops slide into a sentence. making sure each their is a their and not there. same with the its‘s.
once this latest round of incessant typing slows to a ceasefire, i’ll be back to breathing again. it’ll come in waves from then on. this here is the final hard push. just like the time my miracle baby was about to arrive, and the monitor beside me dropped to a gulch. and my doctor looked me in the eyes, and said, “barb, you’re getting this baby out in one push.”
and i did.
and i’ll do it again with this book.
in the meantime, here’s a little amuse bouche for your troubles.
One of the best things a man can bring into the world with him is a natural humility of spirit. About the next best thing he can bring, and they usually go together, is an appreciative spirit — a loving and susceptible heart.
John Burroughs, naturalist, conservationist, wonder seer
and why not another?
If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.
Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, political activist
what pithy bits of wisdom or heart stirred you this week?
this is the word factory, the chamber where a book is in the making. and if you can’t see the steam rising from the computer screen, imagine it. it’s there. and so too it rises from the fingers wildly skipping about the keyboard, plucking new verbs from out of thin air. making up occasional others.
i’m in the final stretch of a book-making adventure that has been wildly, um, adventurous. early thursday morning i was given the latest in a long series of hurdles, each one daunting, each one prompting me to mutter under my breath, this is impossible, i can’t do this. but then, hours later, after the shakes (and the swears) wear off, i find my stride here on the alphabet keys from which i build so much of my life. i type like there’s no tomorrow, i type into the wee wee hours. my deadline––a full revision of a manuscript: this sunday night, before bedtime.
which is why this one particular friday, there isn’t much chair to pull up to. i’m deep in the 70,359 words that currently comprise The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text, a quiet contemplative book slated for birthing on the vernal equinox of 2023 (that’s march 21st, if you’re wondering). where it will end, is anyone’s guess. i sense a word chopper not too far in the distance. that’s when you’ll hear the telltale welp of the writer watching her words whirl down the drain. a painful interlude in which i try hard to fixate on the words of that guy we know around here as the oak park native and spear-fisherman, one ernest miller hemingway, who might or might not have once insisted “a story is only as good as what’s left on the cutting room floor,” a possibly apocryphal maxim that’s meant to take the sting out of the editor’s slicing and dicing, and by which the writer soothes herself as each “little darling” dies a swift death as it whirls to the cutting-room catch basin. what it means is that you’ve pared your pages of prose of all fat and mouthfuls of gristle, and all you have left is sinew and spine. and now, i’ve mixed enough metaphors in a single paragraph to have each and all editors unbuckling their seatbelts, scrambling for safe exit.
speaking of safe exit, you might be wondering if this room where i type has been deemed an occupational hazard, a danger zone where i could be caught under an avalanche of literary proportion. there is, you might be pleased to know, a single narrow uncluttered trail to the door. and the books that surround me on four of four sides are stacked in utterly intelligible groupings, all of which i can easily reach from here in the chair where i spell out my words, one tap at a time. i pride myself on conservation of effort when it comes to bending and plucking.
before i leap back in, somewhere around the 39,000-word mark, i thought i’d quietly leave a dollop of wisdom from the inimitable novelist george saunders on why it is we write in the first place. may this give you something fat-free, and stripped of all gristle, to chew on:
Literature is a practice that improves a culture and can make it more tender and open. But its effects lag and are approximate and tend to benefit people already gentle and inclined to caring.
In stories we might catch a glimpse of why people do the things they do, which should prepare us to think about things more incisively and boldly when people do something that is cruel, violent, or inexplicable. Whatever we are brought to feel, through literature, about love and understanding and sympathy must take this into account: the invasion of a peaceful country by people who have somehow, it would appear, set aside love, understanding, and sympathy, or have twisted these notions into strange shapes amenable to their purpose.
Also, in this world of ours, there be monsters — the workings of whose minds are mysterious, and whose darkness (their apparent indifference to love, understanding. and sympathy) we somehow keep underestimating.
This, too, can be written about.
But what also can be written about: people fighting and dying for their freedom and the freedom of the people they love.
What do we do when notions dear to us (notions of compromise and kindness and the ultimate goodness of any human being) are mocked by events and made to feel facile? Can our understanding of these notions be expanded so that they are more muscular and useful and don’t have to be set aside or apologized for at moments like this?
George Saunders, Story Club newsletter
or this, from jane hirshfield:
is the clarification
may this week bring you peace. and a glimmer of peace to this broken, broken world.
and happy blessed most magnificent birthday to two complete loves of my life, who happen to have been born back-to-back: my beloved sweet P, on sunday, and auntie M, on monday the 28th, a day i consider a national treasure.
perhaps you have visions of some victorian chamber, with a velvet tufted fainting couch, at the top of a curving stair. perhaps you imagine, ala virginia woolf, a room of one’s own where even the logs in the fire waft a delicate perfume. that, you might imagine, is the inner chamber of one who strings words into sentences into paragraphs into pages for a living. (well, there’s not much of a living there, but that’s a story for another day, and one i shan’t get near.)
but back to the room of my own. i’ve got one all right. and once upon a time it was the one-car garage, likely a Buick or Olds, that puttered up the drive here in this circa 1940s house, when the war tragically was full-steam ahead, and the doctor who built this old house–a doctor who delivered babies deep in the night–must have been proud of that room for his Buick or Olds.
i park myself in that room. for interminable hours these days. from the dark before dawn till the dark in the night. and, mostly, i love every minute of it. even when it’s hard. even when the words are sputtering out like someone forgot to grease the cogs and the wheels in the word factory.
i thought i’d let you peek at my highly categorized filing shelf (up above), where the alphabet of books i’ve read for this book (did you realize that many, many books are compendiums of many, many books tossed into the word whizzer, where they whirl and they swirl, and they come out the other side a veritable library now distilled and condensed into the one single volume you hold in your hand?) are stored in their hardly sophisticated, but highly utilitarian, toppling strip on the floor. i’m certain a shelf would be a handy thing, but all the shelves in the house are previously occupied, so i was left with only this strip on the hardwood floor of my once-garage.
anyway, these are some of the more than 200 books (i just did my taxes, i now know precisely the number i bought), i’ve read in the note-taking phase of this so-called literary endeavor. it appears that i still write like a newspaper reporter, when it was my job to run about the town, and sometimes the country, asking all sorts of questions of all sorts of people who knew what i wanted to know. only this time around, many of the folks who know what i want to know are, well, dead. many died a long, long time ago. take the desert elders of egypt. they died some 1,800 years ago. but their wisdom was timeless, and i hope to absorb at least a mere pinch of it. moving a bit closer in time, there are the transcendentalists, emerson and thoreau, and in my book they seem rather young, having died not even two full centuries back. you get the point. and not all the geniuses whose words i am scouring are no longer among us. many, many are living and breathing and writing more sentences all their own.
i’ve also realized that a pandemic is the perfect time to write a book. there’s nowhere to go anyway. and each day is a wide-open block on the calendar, with little variation except for the chores that punctuate the morning. there’s water-the-plants day, and haul-in-the-groceries day. the middle of the week + sunday are wind-the-clock days, and in a week as wide open as that, why not plunk yourself down in your word-factory chair and get to work on a book? i realize this is my second such endeavor this pandemic, which, honest to goodness, is not too pathetic.
anyway, since this morning is write-the-chair day, i thought i’d let you peek behind the curtain before i plop back down and start typing some more. after all this time pulling up to the very same table, week after week, month after month, year after year, i figure you’re due a backstage tour.
i’m up to 37,226 words, in case anyone’s counting. and i hope to tack on a few thousand more today. i’m not too far from the end of the rough first draft, and then the hard part begins: reading it all from the start, trying not to wince, or fall off the chair in utter humiliation. round two is where you get serious. and each word is a test; each word, each thought, each big idea needs to be tested for muscle and truth, and, yes, poetry. it’s all due the first of june, which means i’ll be typing straight through the return of the songbirds and the blossoming of the lilac. it’s a very good thing i love the topic––the Book of Nature, by the way, that ancient theology that all of creation is infused with the sacred in all its wisdoms and truths, and that your closest encounter with the one i call God just might come lying under the stars one night, or cradling a broken-winged bird in your palm. what i love most is that it’s a wisdom woven with threads from all sources, ancient and not quite so old. so the books on my floor are books from the Celts and the Choctaw, from ancient Egypt and China, and right here in the Land of the Free, from Walden Pond and Cape Cod and clear out to the Great Salt Lake and the Redwoods Forest. which is all making me feel very Woody Guthrie. (and notice my knack for hitting the upper-case key here? that’s because my day job–there in the word factory–insists we show up with our capitals.)
so that’s the news from the factory floor, where i’m due any minute to be back in my chair and hitting the keys–caps shift and otherwise.
on the topic of books, what are the ones on your must-share list? and why?
in which i tell you a bit of the backstory of my next book, book No. 4, The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season, coming soon to a bookstore near you…
The call came just about a year ago. An editor I adored had dialed me up seemingly out of the blue. She had an idea: Our good friends at Abingdon Press had an itch to launch a small line of really beautiful gift books, the sorts of books you might tuck into the drawer of your bedside table, the sort you might leave in a nook where you often curl up for a long minute’s ponder. The sort of book you might stash in your glove compartment, or the cupholder next to your steering wheel, to steal a few minutes’ solace while idling in the after-school car line.
The wise and wonderful editor thought that maybe Slowing Time was the book with which to begin. Specifically, she wanted to draw from the winter sections of that long-ago very first book with my name on the cover — from Winter, Season of Deepening (basically Advent, the counting-toward-Christmas month of December), and Winter, Season of Stillness (the dawn of the newborn year, the quiet and cold months of January and February) —the sections that began and ended Slowing Time’s spiral through the wonder and astonishments of the year.
Would I be keen to nip and tuck, to add and subtract, to make something wholly new out of something already well-worn, its pages rubbed soft at the edges, its corners turned in, in that way that we mark a place to return to? Would I be willing to dive into winter all over again?
The answer was an unqualified and emphatic, Why, certainly!
So, as the nights grew longer last December and started to brighten minute by minute through January and February, long before anyone ever imagined the pandemic about to strike, about to change just about everything, I daydreamed and plotted all over again. Just what would I tuck into a field guide to winter’s often unwhispered wonders?
I settled on Stillness. I charted my way through the months by the sun and the moon and the stars in the heavens — by the solstice on the longest darkest night, and by Epiphany when the star shines brightly. I traced the stirrings in meadow and forest, and paid heed to the invisible but certain stirrings underground, deep within earth and within our very own quieting selves.
As is my capricious way, I jampacked wonderments of sacred contemplation and delighted in the kitchens of December, January and February. I paused to inhale snippets of poetry. And I counted out blessings for week after week, a calendar of meditative post-its, for each winter’s month.
The point is perhaps countercultural. It is, in my book, imperative: Dare to be still, dare so even in, especially in, December, when the world typically kicks into overdrive. And keep at it clear through to the first rumblings of vernal awakening. Relish January’s blessing of starting all over again, wiping clean our soulful slate, resetting our sights on the determined ascent. Consider the ways February calls us to reach beyond our solitude, beyond the walls of our very own hearts, to attend to the urgencies of those we love, and those we don’t even know — yet.
Last winter, deep in the making of Stillness, I didn’t know, in those long and glorious weeks of tapping away on my keyboard, that its October birthing — and this coming winter — would come on the heels of months of locked-down fear and worry and heartbreak. I didn’t know that we — the people of this holy Earth — would have been sequestered into a stillness that was not to our liking, one dictated by an invisible virus, one that’s barely understood even all these months later. I didn’t know how hungry we’d be for face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart connection.
And so the invitation now is more urgent than ever: Seek a stillness that draws you quietly, gently into your deepest self. Look more than ever for the small wonders that punctuate your every day. Make your own joy. Savor an Advent — or a Festival of Lights — that’s stripped of the crazy-making cacophonies. Kindle a flame, night after night. Awake in the first light of dawn. Cloak yourself in layers and layers of illumination, ones you stir on the stove, ones you pull from the bookshelves, ones you gather on a snow-laden walk through the woods.
The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season will tiptoe into the world in just a month, on Tuesday, October 6, to be precise. But I’m telling you first, because everything I write begins here, where some of the holiest stirrings of my life have been birthed.
I’m going to leave you a few little excerpts, and the peeks at the pages and cover above.
But first, one penultimate thing: my editor promised Stillness would be beautiful, and I am humbled to say that I do think it is. I was delighted to discover that Abingdon hired a brilliant book designer — Jeff Jansen is his name and, among other brilliant strokes, he’s the genius who designed a few wonders for best-selling author Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts.
I gasped the first time I saw the red bird perched on the red-berried bough on the all-white cover Jeff designed for Stillness, and once I turned the pages, spotted the hand-drawings of the fat-cheeked raccoon, the wily squirrels, the pine cones, the gingerbread babies and the bright shiny kettle, I swooned again and again. When the first finished copy landed with a plop on my doorstep a few weeks ago, my knees nearly buckled when I discovered they’d graced Stillness with that rarest of book-publishing graces: the sewn-in satin ribbon that might mark your travels through the season soon upon us, the season of stillness, and so many wonders awaiting.
Though the peddling part of book publishing is the part that breaks me out in hives, my publisher would be not too pleased if I failed to mention that you can pre-order Stillness now from your favorite indie bookstore, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Cokesbury, the sales arm of Abingdon. The marketing team already sent me custom-made bookplates, so in this age of virtual book signing and book tours, I can — and happily will — scribble a love note, sign it, date it, and send it off for you to affix to the title page, whether it’s a gift for yourself or someone you love. Just leave me a note, with instruction, and via email I can get your mailing address, and ship off your bookplate soon as your books arrive….
so now you know the story behind the pages of Stillness…
and now, a few little excerpts, one from each month…
*excerpt from “December: Sacred Invitation”:
December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world—or at least the northern half of the globe—in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral—paradoxical spiral—we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.
At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on—all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks—we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.
Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally—yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.
December is invitation. December is God whispering, Please. Come. Closer. Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts I’ve bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg—finally—to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I savoring, or simply slogging along?
December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness. The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who Breathed the First Breath: Make room in your heart this blessed December, make room where the birthing begins.
*excerpt from The January Kitchen (the section headnote plus the table of contents, which includes essays + recipes):
The January Kitchen:
As the curtain rises on the newborn year, we find ourselves tucking away tins, now emptied of all but the last sweet crumbs, vestige of merriment, of splurge upon splurge.
Hibernation—an old-fashioned word for hygge (that au courant Danish term for “cozy comforts”)—beckons. Which might be why depth of winter is the season that draws me closest to the cookstove. I practically purr puttering around the kitchen. All-day pots bubble away, lulling me into dreamy meditative fugues. Slow cooking, I’d wager, was made for snowy days, stay-inside days. Doughs rise. Wine-steeped stews simmer. Chowders thicken. Fruity compotes collapse into jewel-toned ooze. It’s all a plethora of stove- top seduction, as what you pitch into the pot gives way, a few hours in, to heat and spice and saintly patience. It’s kitchen adagio, the slow dance of surrender. And at the cookstove, trophies come dolloped on fork or soupspoon. Either way, you won’t want to dash too soon.
(The January Kitchen table of contents…only recipes listed here)
Elixir (Bread) Pudding
Cure-All Mac and Cheese
Beef Stew with Pomegranate Seeds, Nestled Beside Aromatic Rice
Winter Salad: Roasted Fennel, Red Onion, and Orange
*and, finally, a wee little bit from the Count-Your-Blessings Calendar for February…(just three of the fourteen included here…)
A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar
Fourteen Blessings for February
Here, fourteen blessings to wrap yourself in the end-of-winter’s hardest won gifts—peace, quiet, and the contentment that feels most like purring. Especially when you’re bursting to break out of February’s days upon days of dreary.
Blessing 1: The earth’s turning dollops one more minute of sunlight onto each February day. Ancient Celtic spirituality considered dawn and dusk especially permeable thresholds, “a time that is not a time,” when the sacred is more apt to seep through. Consecrate the sacred hour. Tiptoe outdoors once twilight deepens into darkness. Read the night sky. When you spy a twinkling star, whisper a prayer of infinite thanks for heaven’s lamplights.
Candlemas (Feb. 2): Amid the winter’s darkness, pause to consider the blessing of the candles, ordained to illuminate the hours. Fill your kitchen table, gathering a flock of orphan candlesticks. Adorn with winter branches and berries clinging to the bough.
Blessing 3: Behold the hush of snowfall. The flakes free-falling past the porch light, their hard-angled intricacies and puffy contours tumbling, tumbling, lulling all the world and its weary citizens into that fugue state that comes with heavy snow—when at last we take in breath, and hold it. Fill our empty lungs.
hmm, not sure what stirred me to write this whole meander with grown-up capital letters; perhaps the whisper to act like a real-live someone with her name on the cover of a book. anyway, i’m sure this is more than you ever wanted to know. but my dear mother has been asking for weeks and i’ve been sketchy with details, so this is — mostly — for her.
questions, comments, big giant thoughts? more aptly, do you shudder at the notion of winter, or do you — like me — relish the hygge months?
on the eve of the night before she died, she asked me to write her obituary. and then, a month later, after her brother had read her will, she tapped me on the shoulder (or he did for her, literally, in a jam-packed cafe after her memorial, when he came up from behind, leaned in and whispered the question that made my knees go weak); she asked me to be the custodian, the caretaker, of her creative work.
to peel back the tape from a dozen or so boxes and crates, to lift from layers of dust, old essays, typed and stapled, some typewritten the old-fashioned way, others spewed out from every iteration of computing in the late-20th century. another four years of 21st-century essays, dustlessly tucked away inside her sleek hulk of a computer, one that would be boxed and moved and plugged in at my house, where for weeks i couldn’t bear to click open folders, never knowing if i’d find cold, hard diagnostic reports, chemo spreadsheets, or an essay that would rip my heart out.
my job was to sift and sort, read and re-read, move from pile “yes!” to pile “maybe?” to chisel away at the stack till what was left were those words, those essays that could not, should not, be left to crumble into paper flakes, the ink fading by the year, passwords lost and irretrievable.
but, more than anything, to be the caretaker — to be asked in someone’s last will and testament, for heaven’s sake, not just some passing rumination — is to take to heart the work of seeking light. of lifting up what amounts to someone’s heart and soul and inextinguishable brilliance, and offering it sacramentally to the world, believing wholly that it will find its way to every pair of eyes, to every thirsty soul, to every pathfinder who cannot find her or his way. especially, in this case, anyone who happens to be searching for a path through the tangled woods of cancer, a path my friend mary ellen knew too well. and took on like no one i’ve ever known.
admittedly, my drop caps are not quite so frilly…
it’s been three years, with fits and starts, and sudden rushes of momentum. i’m riding a tail wind right now, have been deep in teaching myself the ways of self-publishing. yesterday laid out 71 pages, complete with drop caps (those giant-sized first letters of every essay, a typographic wonder with roots in the illuminated manuscripts of eighth-century British isles, and those bent-over cloistered monks who traced Biblical text with quill of peacock, crow or eagle, and ink from insects, plants, burned bones or bits of gold).
along the way in this modern-day manuscript making, a brilliant friend (formerly a new york times book review editor) was hired as a second pair of eyes in the sorting phase, to add her voice to the hard task of editorial umpiring, calling balls and strikes and the occasional grand slam. a proposal was written, sent to a literary agent and a publisher, both of whom deemed the writing “beautiful” — “smart, reflective, emotionally transparent,” declared the agent — but because publishing in any circumstance is a steep uphill climb, doing so posthumously is even steeper. they pointed us toward doing this on our own: meaning, learning the ways of self-publishing.
in recent weeks, as i puttered about my garden and my life, it began to feel as if my friend mary ellen was traipsing behind me, tap-tapping me on the shoulder once again, getting antsy (as might have been her way), wondering what the heck the bottleneck was all about. and if i’ve learned anything in my decades here on earth, you do not — repeat, not! — ignore the sotto voce whispers of one you’ve loved, now keeping watch from wherever it is those whispers come.
so i got to work. and we’re ready to grab our ISBN (the 13-digit numeric monogram that makes a book a book, gets it entered into the library of congress, for crying out loud; next best thing to tying it up with a frilly bow, baking it a cake).
if writing is holy work, and for some of us it is, burrowing deep inside the wisdoms and epiphanies of someone wise and wiser as her death drew near is among the holiest. and the most blessed. i am blanketed inside the skeins of her sentences. i punctuate paragraph after paragraph with my tears. i hear her voice so loudly, so emphatically, and yet more gently than i’ve ever heard before, i wouldn’t be surprised if she tapped me in a dream, whispered blessings for bringing her holy work across the finish line.
it’s what she dreamed. it’s what she asked. and it’s a task carried not on our shoulders, but in our twinned hearts. where the magic is this: along the way it can sometimes feel impossible, and too heavy a load. but sticking with it — be it this book, or any seemingly unbearable assignment — forgiving the lulls and sabbaticals, carrying it into the light, just might make it the most essential work in a long long while, love’s true labor.
mary ellen, any day now you’ll have your ISBN. and your name forever gracing the cover. and someone, some day, will pull you from the shelf, and your words will be inscribed in countless hearts. which is what you set your sights on from the very beginning…
Mary Ellen Sullivan, author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: An Invitation to Intentional Joy,” ISBN coming soon. (photos courtesy of Maureen Butler)
have you considered the holiness of the daily work you do? what moments in particular seem shot through with something a bit bigger than the moment at hand? and how might your daily tasks illuminate this too-dark world?
my definition of heaven: a summer morning, the breeze blowing in through the screen just enough to tickle my bare toes. the chirp of papa cardinal syncopating the click-clack of my typing, as i pull up to the old maple table and weave a word here, a sentence there, taking threads and making whole.
making a book. weaving a book. yes, writing pages and pages, and snippets and bits. but even more — in the case of this sort of book — stuffing in a little treasure here, pausing for a bit of joyfulness there. it’s a crafting that feels something like making a collage, a heart’s collage. snipping bits of beautiful, and figuring out how they most stand a chance of leaping off the page into a blessed someone’s open heart…
my favorite sort of summer — all these years beyond the summers when i’d spend the weeks crafting intricate home-spun cardboard-box dollhouses with my best friend martha — is to spend the weeks plonked at my old maple table “making a book.”
and that is indeed how i’ve spent this summer (when i wasn’t rushing to take my one sweet boy off to law school, or holding my breath while the other one tried out for soccer).
my deadline is september 1. but i turned in my last stash of pages on monday. which means i beat my deadline, i’m breathing again (but only momentarily — i never really breathe till delivery), and since it’s already listed in my publisher’s spring 2018 catalog (which i discovered by accident the other day), i’m letting you in on the not-so secret. and, voila, that’s the cover up above.
the idea was that we’d make something of “a gift book” of motherprayer, pulling a few favorite bits, and adding a dash of this, a dollop of that. i wasn’t quite sure what exactly a gift book meant, so i nodded (if we’d not been on the phone, with several hundred miles between us, my lovely editor might have seen the quizzical tone to my shaking my head up and down slowly, very slowly…) and then i leapt in to try to find my way through to the other side of whatever that meant. along the way, i decided that i was going to pull bits, too, from slowing time, my first book. and i was going to tuck in other bits of words that just might tinkle someone’s heart chimes. and i suppose that’s how it all began to feel like i was making a soulful collage.
or, as i describe it in the opening pages, “this book might read a bit like you’re peeking into my occasional jottings, something of a journal of the heart.”
and i go on to say: “all in all, this is something of a patchwork. a patchwork of joy. of love. of wonderment. and it’s the closest i’ve yet come to field notes on the blessings of motherprayer, fueled and put to flight on the wings of sacred whisper.” (p.s. in the actual book, i do put on my grown-up-alphabet shoes, put away the all-small letters and reach for the “Caps Lock” key on the keyboard. just in case you were worried…)
and what it means is that this is a book especially for all who love in the way a mama loves — and remember, i EMPHATICALLY (see, i can find the caps keys!) believe that the verb, “to mother,” is not is not is not confined to those who’ve birthed a babe, or raised a babe from and by heart, or even spent more than a few consecutive hours chasing a little person round a swing set or plopped on the couch for a string of heart to hearts. the verb to mother is a verb that belongs to all, all who reach down deep, consider what it means to love as you would be loved, who are wise enough and willing enough to move mountains if need be to buffet someone’s oozing broken heart, to provide the words that amount to the roadmap through tight mountain pass, or simply to share soulfully in all the joy stuffed inside some sweet and hungry someone, be it a kid-sized someone or one who’s all grown up.
it’s a book that weaves twin threads — and more. it’s a book intended to kindle the soul, and to ponder the lessons learned along the winding steep-pitched trails of mothering. we need both, those of us who see the holy work in mothering. one is oxygen for the other. and along the way, i wound up deciding that — as with mothering, in which, for the life of you, you could not would not pick a favorite among your children — i’d fallen in love with this book, too.
right now it’s working its way through the book-making wizardry, where all sorts of geniuses grab their polishers and rub it to a glisten. i’m braced for the day when someone pings me to ask if i might take another stab at this or that, or “kill the darling,” a famous newsroom directive that means, “all right, you’ve had your fun typing this sentence that all but does a cartwheel, now kill it because it’s noisy and it’s getting in the way.”
but on this fine morning at the end of blessed august, i’m closing down the month by reporting in on how i’ve most blessedly savored every drop of this one glorious whirl through summertime….
and, too, here’s my latest roundup of books for the soul, in case you care to read about those, too. this month’s lineup includes a jesuit’s wise and courageous words of compassion, dharmas from thich nhat hanh, and prayers from julia cameron.
i’ll keep you posted, but till then have a most glorious last weekend of august.
what were the joyful noises you made this summer? what wonderments and serendipities did you stitch into the season not yet over….
it’s those two little eggs. they’re what bring me to tears. well, that and the fact that i’ve not slept too much this whole last week. it’s what happens when you’re redlining. which, in the world of books with your name on the cover, means you are weighing every last alphabet letter, typing, trying words on for size. hitting delete (a lot of hitting delete), then typing some more. you’re nearing the end.
i’d been waiting and waiting. for months. and then, with not even a whisper, not even a ping (i was at a funeral, and my phone was turned off), the whole 240-some pages slid in under the so-called transom (as if a laptop came with an office door, an opaque glass door, with your name etched on the face, and a doorknob that creaked when you turned it, as back in the movies and sitcoms of a whole other era).
at first, i was trembling too much to peek. i knew that this round — the one after your words have been wrung through the copy-edit machine, after the production editor puts her very fine eye to every last comma and dash, and all the words in between — this round weighed more than the others in the editing room. the closer you get to the end, the closer you get to the day the big box arrives, when you pull back the tape, and stare at the stacks, the ones with your words, covered and bound, the more it all weighs.
i quelled my butterflies. all but stuffed them back in the jar where they belong, the one with the air holes punched in the lid. and then i dove in.
i’m done with round one, the round where you read on the screen. now i move onto round two, the one where you read from pages and pages, actual paper. actual trees, felled for the service of smoothing, and fixing, and hoisting up line after line, as many notches as my brain and my heart and imagination can muster.
which means my brain cells are thirsty for coffee. and my muscles and bones are aching for sleep. and while i practice my finger-stretching exercises, the warmups for another day with the red pen and keyboard, i figured i’d give you a peek at the cover. i’d had no idea it had slid off the art director’s drafting table. certainly no idea it was over on amazon, where, with the click of a button, you too can take a close look.
you can even read how they describe it, those folks who do the describing:
Barbara Mahany writes, “Mothering was my crash course in love. Love of the sort I call Divine. Love in the way we yearn to be loved: Without end. Without question. Without giving in to exhaustion. Love with a big and boundless heart. Love with eyes and ears wide open. Love even when it’s not so easy.”
In Motherprayer, Mahany generously shares personal love letters on the mysteries and gifts of mothering, interspersed with family recipes and gentle essays, all offering beautiful lessons in how to love, and how to love breathtakingly. In her bracingly honest style, Mahany lifts up the everyday—the hard, the glorious, the laughter, and the tears—and invites readers to pay attention, cradle our loved ones in prayer, and see the sacred lessons in loving.
which is why i’d better get back to the redline. which is why i nearly toppled off my chair the day i stumbled onto those words. i was minding my business, one fine afternoon, just clicking around on the keyboard, in that way that we do now, when suddenly one click led to another, and there it was: my next little book, idling on amazon. awaiting its turn in the racks. the book-peddling racks.
so while i head off to try out some verbs, try to find ones with sinew and heft, i’ll leave you here with a promise: i’ll tuck my whole heart, and all of my soul, into the redlining to come. and the book that comes very soon after. the book that will land just in time for mothering day. the book you’ll find at the bookstore next april.
i’m writing a book for the very best reason: for both of my boys (those two little eggs in the palest of blues up above), so they’ll know, so they can hold in their hands, someday maybe even read, the record of just how deeply they were loved. and the few things i learned along the way.
redlined, of course.
if you wrote a book, what would you put on the cover?
and as long as we’re in the book bin today, why not mention that my first book, Slowing Time, was read aloud back in the spring by a lovely woman in Nashville, and recorded, made into an audible book. i have five copies that i’m happy to give away. if you’d like a book-on-tape, if you’d like Slowing Time, with a wee bit of buttery twang, just plop a comment down below, and the first five someones who raise their sweet hand, will get an audible copy. how’s that for a friday morning adventure in listening? (my dear publisher has wanted me to do this for months, but i’ve, um, been a bit shy.)
because i love to give glories where glories are due, i am leaping off my chair to holler my lungs out in thanks to nancy watkins, the brilliant longtime chicago tribune editor, who was employed to copy edit Motherprayer (and thus made my wildest dreams come true), and the astoundingly fastidious and kind and word-perfect susan cornell, the production editor at Abingdon Press, who is shepherding each and every page to the printing press. there’s a dream team on this book, and page after page, i find myself sighing at their utter perfection. consider me enchanted. blessings to both of you. xoxox
the sentences don’t go to sleep when i do. they follow me to bed. romp while i flutter closed my eyes. pay no attention as i turn down the dial, try to quell their insistent chatter. they carry on merrily, words slithering here and there. one taking a bow, an exit bow, another squeezing in its place on the stage. whole sinewy chains of words, traveling en masse — some sort of compound-complex-intricate dangler, something i’m sure my third-grade teacher warned me never to try without trapeze — they migrate across the page. appear out of nowhere. demand a splot of real estate somewhere on the vast black-and-white tableau.
that’s how it is when you’re up to your neck in what are called revisions, an episodic literary state of being, from which there’s no escape.
you all but nibble tables-of-contents for breakfast. you inhale paragraphs, exhale footnotes. you slow the pumping of your heart to near stand-still (a dangerous state of affairs, to be sure) as you ponder permissions, and zap off begging sorts of notes to those whose words you’re so hoping you can borrow, set off with frilly quote marks that trumpet, “these lovely words came from minds far richer than mine.”
your days and nights are a melee of “delete,” followed frantically by “command-z,” every writer’s salvation keys, the ones that undo whatever ding-dong doozie you’ve just done. i’ve been known to “command-z” for unsightly spells, whole minutes it might seem, so grateful all the while to that unknown programmer who long ago thought to provide mere typers with escape hatch. if only sin and cruelty could so swiftly be erased, undone, made to disappear. but isn’t that why catholics have confession booths?
what i’m revising — day in and day out, and late into the nights — is my next go at this semi-livelihood i’ve taken up, the one in which you find your name spelled out in pretty letters across the front cover of a stash of pages, pages that slide in and out of bookshelves. more simply put, a book is what i’m up to. and what i’m writing — er, revising — is a book i might not have mentioned here, not by name i’m fairly certain.
it’s called motherprayer: lessons in loving, and my friends at abingdon press are once again behind it. if all goes according to plan, and believe you me, i’ll do my part, it’ll land in a big squat box on my doorstep in a mere 10 months, next march to be precise.
it’s a book i’ve been writing for years and years. it’s a book, the one book, i’ve long felt most pulled to publish. it’s the one stash of writing i want to leave behind. and by leave behind, i don’t mean dropped off at the side of a curb, or abandoned, only to crumple into so much flaky yellowed dust. i mean these are words i hope and pray might be left in the hands — or on the bookshelves — of my boys. it’s a stack of love letters, really. ones that began even before here, before the chair was the place where i turned with my truest, tenderest, unpracticed whisperings.
all my life the one thing i’ve always done is write love letters. it’s the medium i know best. it’s what turned my life from nursing to newspapering, really. it was a love letter to my papa that started it. the one they read at his funeral, the one that made the ad man say, “kid, you can write.” what he meant was: “kid, you can write a love letter. you can uncork a heart, and put words to what’s spurting out, spewing merrily and frothily.”
if i pause to think about it, and suddenly i am, it’s how i found my way to that long, lean bespectacled architecture critic with whom i spend my life. and it’s how i made so many friends in high school — my nightly mission, one that shoved aside all homework, was to sit and pen notes to friends who were aching, lost, or lonely; and sometimes simply happy. i’m pretty sure my love letters are what made me my high school’s unlikely homecoming queen.
but there has never been a love letter that mattered so much as the ones i’ve penned for my boys. the ones i’ve penned here, too, when i hold up to the light some moment, some fraction of time, some quandary or conundrum, some twist or turn in the plot that leaves me breathless, or in tears. and, so often, throwing up my arms to the heavens, turning pleas to prayers, “dear God, show me the way….” “dear God, stitch this shattered heart….” “dear Holy God, thank you…”
and for the life of me, i can’t seem to shake my sense that it’s here, in these front lines of the mother-child tangle, that so much blessed wisdom pulses. and so i keep close watch, i plumb the depths, i poke around — year after year, chapter upon chapter.
which is how i came to gather up a stash — each in the form of an essay, a chance to catch the fleeting moment, some crucible of childhood and motherhood — and why i’ve culled and tossed, boiled down the lot to the ones that just might hold a glimmer of the elusive truths we’re after.
it’s motherprayer, a love story. one i’ve been deeply writing for the last quarter century.
what’s your best medium, the one in which your heart and soul most deeply feel the muse?