Tag Archive - Poetry

Favorite Literary Companions of 2012

A good book is like a good friend. It helps you to see the world more clearly. Perhaps it makes you laugh. Or cry. It nourishes your dreams. Very often it reveals to you a bit of yourself you did not know was there. And, as in the case of a good friend, I am sad when we come to the end of our time together, and I continue to think of it fondly in days, and years, to come.

Here are some of the more memorable encounters from the past year, in strictly chronological order as they came to me.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor’s wordcraft is a cauldron of conundrum, brilliant characterization, and truths so deep they defy reduction. Her stories have a meandering way of taking us inside ourselves, preparing us for “almost imperceptible intrusions of grace“.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

His words are sumptuous. His descriptions of Paris in the 1920s with her rain-washed cobblestones and sidewalk bistros and cafes are perfectly delicious. And his intimate reflections on the literary luminaries who were his friends, priceless. I found myself dreaming of living in a little garret in Paris myself with daily strolls through those same avenues, the gardens, the museums… And, always, I love peaking inside the creative process of genius. I remember him speaking of how he could not write about Paris while in Paris. He needed distance to see it properly. This, I understand.

The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky said of this novel that he wanted to write one character who was completely without guile; innocent and good. Gentle Prince Myshkin allows himself to be thought foolish so that he may make others wise. It is a beautiful, redemptive story. An elegant counterpoint to Crime and Punishment.

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson

A chronicle of genius. Albeit eccentric, unwieldy, arrogant genius. A man who thoroughly changed the face of communication in our time. Isaacson weaves an engaging narrative about his enigmatic subject. I found myself laughing frequently. Deeply saddened sometimes. But mostly awed by this man who so often saw the not yet as though it already was. And as I have watched my one year old granddaughter navigate my iPhone over the past few months, it has been clear that his passion for intuitive design was spot on.

 Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultra-marathon Greatness, Scott Jurek

Scott Jurek is one of my heroes. Partly for his freakish ability to run obscene distances really fast, but also for his practice of foregoing a shower and sleep to hang at the finish line for hours congratulating finishers who have been on the trail far longer than he. This book tells the story of a spindly legged kid from a family with its fair share of challenges who grows up to be one of the most remarkable ultra runners the world has known. Jurek writes with great good humor and a deep sense of gratitude. He also includes some of his favorite (vegan) recipes.

Wounded by Love, Elder Porphyrios

Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet…The soul of the Christian needs to be refined and sensitive, to have sensibility and wing, to be constantly in flight and to live in dreams, to fly through infinity, among the stars, amidst the greatness of God, amid silence.

Do you see why I love this man? This is one of the most significant books I have ever read. I know I will revisit it often. Elder Porphyrios’ writings on love have been both nourishing and challenging. It was his belief that if we pursue love only and our hearts become filled with love–for God, and for others–that everything else takes care of itself. This is a very pedestrian reduction of his beautiful words. I invite you to come to know him yourself.

Lit: A Memoir (P.S.), Mary Karr

Liar’s Club, the story of Mary Karr’s rough and tumble childhood in Texas, is credited by many with starting a memoir revolution. This third in the a series tells of Mary all grown up. Of her ‘fairy tale’ prince, of the son she adores, and of the demons that will not leave her alone. It is raw and honest, tragic and hilarious. Ultimately it is a compelling, marvelously crafted story of perseverance and grace.

Lifted By Angels: The Presence and Power of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians, Joel Miller

“This is the staggering asymmetry of God’s goodness. There is more grace than envy, more love than hate, more heaven than hell.”

I read the whole of it in one day. I just couldn’t stop. Joel Miller’s narrative is enthralling, his theology is sound, and his subject matter fascinating. Read my review in its entirety HERE.

A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver

I bought it on Kindle. For my phone. So it is always with me. I can’t tell you how often I pull it out. Just a poem or two. Or all of them at a go. Gift. This voice. That penetrates to the very essence of things. And renders them in such lovely expression. Par example

I HAPPENED TO BE STANDING

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why.  And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self purpose.

This is the line that caused me to buy the book. (Thanks, Karissa) The Night Circus is an enchantment. Mysterious. Beautiful. All done out in black and white. It is a feast of imagery and imagination. Read it for the artist in you. The part of you that still traffics in magic. Or wants to.

Deep Calling to Deep…

I wish you could know my friend Kendra. She is a remarkable young woman. Heart wide open. Generous, courageous, curious. I walk away from every encounter with her encouraged and challenged.

So when she made a request of me, a couple of weeks ago, I took it very seriously. She asked for suggestions for some creative, inspiring, heart-and-eyes-wide-open reading. As I began to compile my list, it occurred to me that I would have you know these books. And I would LOVE to know what would be on YOUR list.

Here are some of the authors and books that call to deep places in me. That rankle and provoke, that compel me to dream better dreams, that stoke the fire within.

Mary Oliver, especially Thirst  Oliver sees the world with extraordinary eyes, and she paints it with lovely, evocative words that allow us to see it, too. Her writings on longing and prayer and the life within are some of the most excruciating and exquisite I have ever read.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

P.S. I love hearing her poetry in her own voice. Listen to three poems here. The first will surprise you, I think. The second, one of my favorites, will leave you undone. Marvelously undone. The third will nourish and delight.

Thomas Merton, especially The Seven Story Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation. Also, the Book of Hours offers a lovely sampling of his work. Thomas Merton is an Anam Cara. A soul friend. One who sees the world in a way very like, only more so. I can pray his words and feel as though they are mine, just more elegant. More piercing and concise. More thorough. I crawl into them and travel through them to a place I want very much to know.

“You have made my soul for Your peace and Your silence, but it is lacerated by the noise of my activity and my desires.  My mind is crucified all day by its own hunger for experience, for ideas, for satisfaction.  And I do not possess my house in silence.

“But I was created for Your peace and You will not despise my longing for the holiness of Your deep silence.  O my Lord, You will not leave me forever in this sorrow, because I have trusted in You and I will wait upon Your good pleasure in peace and without complaining any more.  This, for Your glory.”

C.S Lewis, especially The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces  Well crafted stories carry profound truths to deep places in our hearts. I have read the first title 6 or 7 times, and the second twice. Once each with friends. I still see these characters regularly before my eyes. Lewis’ insight into the meandering of the human psyche and his ability to convey these are unmatched. *Note, The Great Divorce starts slowly in my opinion. Persevere! It is SO worth the effort. Soon you will be reading so fast you forget to breathe. And re-reading. I promise.

Chaim Potok, especially My Name is Asher Lev I have read three books (thus far) by this author, all excellent. But this is my favorite. Important questions about talents and gifts, about faith, and most especially about where (or whether) one can live at peace within the other. Excruciating. Riveting.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho An evocative tale about a young man seeking his “treasure”. He finds far more than he could have dreamed. Something richer, deeper, better. Something MORE…

“When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible…”

Madeleine L’Engle, especially Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art I happen to know Kendra already loves this one, but it is most essential. This is a sweet washing of life and imagination and God and story and creativity and everything that makes us truly alive in the world.

Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God When I am lost; when my soul is terribly troubled and I do not know how to say what is happening, I rush to Rilke. Almost always, I find the words I need here. His was a turbulent, hungry, desperate, ecstatic journey with God. And he wrote it all down. So I borrow his words. And say what is already in my heart.

In deep nights I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen
that clutters the surface of my world
is poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet….

My hands are bloody from digging.
I lift them, hold them open in the wind,
so they can branch like a tree.

Reaching, these hands would pull you out of the sky
as if you had shattered there,
dashed yourself to pieces in some wild impatience.

What is this I feel falling now,
falling on this parched earth,
softly,
like a spring rain?

John O’Donohue, especially Beauty the Invisible Embrace and Anam Cara  O’Donohue’s lyrical prose reads like poetry. (It doesn’t hurt that I heard him read before I read him.) I can always hear him now. A rich, Irish brogue that sings the words. Words about the beautiful. About love and kindness and spirit and God.

“…beauty is so quietly woven through our ordinary days that we hardly notice it.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky’s world can be dark at times, but his characters are nuanced and layered. No villain is without hope of redemption, and no protagonist is thoroughly without vice. All are pilgrims. We see more of ourselves in them than we might care to.

Lilith by George MacDonald  The path to resurrection will ALWAYS lead through death. But none of us wants to die. Really. This is one of the most difficult books I have ever read. Mostly because at the time of my first encounter I was digging in my heels and refusing to die to all the things I had used to define “me”. I felt like letting go of these would be death, NOT figurative but LITERAL death. This book, this fantasy of the highest order, helped me get inside that dark place. It gave me courage to do the hard work of becoming, by first being willing to walk into the terrifying darkness of being nothing.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield  This is one of the most important books I have ever read on pursuing your calling, whatever that calling may be. I re-read it frequently because I so need the kick in the pants it delivers. Here is an example of what you will find within:

If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.

Julia Cameron’s  The Artist’s Way: Creativity as a Spiritual Practice  Cameron is a successful writer, but she remembers all too well what it is like to be silenced by fear. In this book she teaches us how to break through barriers to our creativity. Barriers we are not even aware of that are blocking our art. It is highly interactive and requires homework. But it is so worth it.

Thanks, Kendra, for giving me a reason to revisit old friends. Pick and choose whatever seems right to you. It is a worthy start, I believe.

To all of you, friends near and far, who is it that fans the flame of your passion, your creativity?

 

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy lives with her daddy in the Bathtub. It’s the only home she has ever known. Theirs is a meager existence, raw, uncertain. But it is also a life of wonder. Of camaraderie and spirit. “The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world.” It is life lived close to the earth and her rhythms, and subject to her volatility.

The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.

The six year old poet philosopher stitches together an understanding of the world from all she sees and hears. She presses baby chicks against her ears to listen to their heartbeat. She drinks in the music and fireworks and renegade joy as the community revels in this outside way of life they have chosen. In the wilds of the Delta. Outside the levy.

When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces. I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe…

Hers is an epic story. Of melting polar ice caps, of prehistoric aurochs, of floods that threaten to take everything. Of a quest to find the  mother who was lost to the river. Because her father is sick. The father who taught her to be “a man”. To be strong and take care of herself. Who protected and cared for her in the only way he knew how.

She draws her story on the walls of her house, on a cardboard box, on her bedclothes. Because it matters.

In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.

It is a remarkable film. Beautiful. Poignant. Heart-rending at times.Little Quvenzhané Wallis is brilliant as Hushpuppy. Compelling, fiery when she needs to be, completely natural. And so vulnerable, at times, that I wanted to sweep her up in my arms and take her home.

Winner of 4 awards at the Cannes Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, it is now playing in limited release. Look for it wherever art films are played in your area. In Nashville, you can find it at the Belcourt.

The Soft Seduction of Silence…

Silence is an urgent necessity for us. ~Martin Laird

We all experience it, even if we do not know how to name it. The restless frenzy. The onerous availability…to everyone…all the time. The constant barrage…of NOIZE.

And inside it

our souls crave

stillness

silence

space

Perhaps we are aware. Many of us are not. But the need is there nonetheless. Unheeded, it drives us to medicate, to escape, to make horrible, selfish, destructive choices. And still, we hunger, our insides a jumble of confused nausea.

Today I offer you a deep breath. An invitation. To be still. To breathe slow. To listen. From voices more capable than mine. A poem, a proposition, and a portal. Do with them as you like.

Poem

The Moor

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.

~R. S. Thomas

Proposition

In the New York Times, of all places. An article from some months back. Pico Iyer, The Joy of Quiet. Compelling.

Portal

I am in my second reading of Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land (Thanks, Ian). This time I am reading it with friends. And we sit around the table and groan as our hearts resonate with his words, and with those of the saints and mystics who populate the work.

He tells us we cannot manufacture interior silence and communion with God any more than a gardener can make plants grow. But, like a gardener creates receptivity to growth by tilling the soil, providing fertilizer and water, removing weeds and guarding against marauders, we can cultivate practices that welcome this silent communion. It is one of the most inviting and instructive books I have ever read on the subject. I commend it to your attention. Laird is a worthy guide.

Praying that stillness and silence find you (and me) today.

Shalom.

The Mockingbird and the Dogwood Tree

I opened the top of the Jeep last week. First time this spring. Sunlight warmed my shoulders. Warm breeze rifled my hair. And Lulu Mae brought the tunes. Earlier in the day, they had accompanied me on my run. And in the garden.

I have adopted their new album, The Mockingbird and the Dogwood Tree, as my official soundtrack for spring. 🙂

Poet storytellers with a style that is organic and clean, Lulu Mae has put together a work that is intriguingly diverse. I keep finding new reasons to love it.

Here are a few personal listening notes. Visit Lulu Mae’s site (or iTunes or Amazon) to sample a few. You want to know these folks. Trust me.

Hey Tom  A good place to start. Simple instrumentation. Clean storytelling. Of one who has gone away. Who is lost to us. And of the invitation to return.

The Fire in Your Eyes  A musical Tell Tale Heart of sorts. Of burying what we don’t want to see. And hoping it will go away. The sometimes unconventional harmonies hint that this is probably not going to work.

Corallina  A tender ballad for the unseen one. The one who does not perceive the beautiful inside her. Joel and Sarah’s sweet, gentle harmonies are positively exquisite.

Clean Up My Heart  A hard, driving confrontation of betrayal. Some wailing guitar work on this one. Abrupt tempo changes contribute to the disorientation of a world falling apart.

Give Me Some Music  A Lament. A plea. Set against an old piano with worn out strings that convey the raw weariness, the desperation of the singer. A great heart swell into the chorus with other instruments piling in. Here is where I had to sing out loud. On my run. (My apologies to the little birds and squirrels.) I just read this week about how ancient Greek philosophers believed music had the power to restore harmony to the soul. To heal. I believe it.

Why, Wyoming?

There’s a man I have seen and he is standing on a rock
And he can see the world in a way that I can not
When he comes down from the mountain,
On the way he is changed
And I wonder, will he ever be the same…

Oh, the mountains they can speak without moving their lips.
And the wind, she will tell me things that I cannot forget….

A ballade of place. Of how the grandeur of the mountains clean the mind and give dazzling perspective. Of the longing to be there when we are not. Having spent some time in the mountains of Wyoming myself, I know just what they mean.

The Man With the Golden Toy  Of vision. Of the power of a symbol, a token, vested with meaning…to empower, to strengthen, to embolden. Of little boy dreams and old man remembrance. Set to a rollicking bluegrass-like verse that breaks out into a a drum laden, beat driven chorus. One of my favorites.

When You’re Not Home  Life is full of choices. Sirens seduce us to a life that looks like freedom, but is bitter imprisonment. Occasionally someone comes along who helps us find our better selves. Who brings out the very best in us. This one’s for them. Poetic. Lovely piano licks. A melody that will linger in your ears long after. And masterful instrumentation.

The Mockingbird and the Dogwood Tree  Another ode to place. Perhaps I am a bit biased since I am a Tennessee girl, but I love this one! Nashville instrumentation right down to the pedal steel guitar. You will definitely hear this one spilling out of my Jeep this summer when I am driving with the roof open to the stars. 🙂

The Fiction of Speed  Of a lifetime kind of love. The sort that ferments and grows richer over time. The subject is deep and important, but the music is completely fun. A ukelele opening, melodica and handclaps on the interlude and chorus.

…If love is instant, then I don’t want it…

Me either.

Favorite Literary Encounters of 2011

It always makes me a little nauseous. Sitting down to make a list of favorite reads, I mean. Because there will be books I love that don’t make the cut. And they will sit there on the page imploring and asking me how they failed me. And I will want to cry. Because yes, they were very good. And I will remember some exquisite passage and exactly where I was when I read it and what it awoke in me. And I will feel like a traitor.

But the fact is, I have found my most memorable books from the recommendation of friends. And we have time to read only so many books before we die. Therefore, I feel a moral obligation to tell others about wonderful books I read, even if the process is excruciating.

Here are standouts from this year’s crop:

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas  This is one of those novels that demand revisiting. The plot is complex, with subtleties and nuances that will require a lifetime to sort out. A disturbing, redemptive, provocative meditation on justice and grace.

Thirst: Poems, Mary Oliver  This book lies on a table in my bedroom. I can not tell you how many times this year I have picked it up, searching for just the right words. And finding them. Mary Oliver has proved a very good friend. Her poems give voice to rumblings in my soul. Yearnings. Delicious joys.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

~Mary Oliver

New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton  “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being…” Is it any wonder that I love Merton so? His exploration of the interior life continues to compel and instruct me.

Peace Like a River Leif Enger  I recall with vivid clarity the moment I knew this story was not going to have a happy ending. Could not have a happy ending and be true. I almost dug my heels in and refused to finish it. But I could not not finish it. I had invested myself too deeply in these characters and I had to follow it through. The best books are very like life. Messy, painful, but relentlessly tinged with hope. Even when all circumstances prescribe against it. This is such.

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts, Ian Cron  Too fantastic to be true, yet absolutely true. A story filled with intrigue, heartbreak, and renegade joy from a fabulous storyteller: winsome, funny, poignant. Read my full review HERE.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand  Hillenbrand weaves an enthralling narrative around the true story of Louis Zamperini whose plane was shot down in the middle of the Pacific during World War II. We follow his terrifying weeks aboard a life-raft, the horrors of life as a prisoner of war, and the surprising challenge of returning home. It is a survivor story to be sure. But it is also a story of going beyond just survival. Highly recommended.

Stained Glass Hearts: Seeing Life from a Broken Perspective, Patsy Clairmont  Patsy Clairmont, humorist extraordinaire who can captivate a whole auditorium with her stories, reveals her softer, poetic underbelly in this lovely ode to the beauty in brokenness. Contemplative. Poet. She who has a deep ache for beauty, transcendence, truth. Weaver of words who can turn a phrase with a delicate, fragile loveliness that pierces the heart. Read the whole of my rave HERE.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough  While many Americans were heading west to find their fortunes, another group headed east to Paris to study. Art, science, and industry were still in their infancy in 19th century America. But Paris was a cauldron of idea and audacity. And the people who spent time there would return to shape the America of the future. McCullough carries us there with fascinating stories of people whose names will be familiar, though I’ll wager the many of the stories will surprise you. I did not write a review of the book, but you can read a post inspired by it HERE.

A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver  “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed.” Yes indeed. Pulitzer prize winning Oliver has much to say about the craft of writing. I found much inspiration and nourishment here.

Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition, John Oliver  O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord. Father Oliver builds his remarkable illumination of the Holy Spirit around this portion of the Trisagion prayers. It is one of the most stimulating books our Tuesday study group has ever read. You can sample a bit of his teaching in this post, inspired by one of the more difficult chapters for me personally.

Hannah Coulter: A Novel, Wendell Berry It is, perhaps, because she seems so familiar. Very like someone I have known. Or, perhaps it is simply Berry’s winsome telling of her story. But this was a comforting, sustaining read for me. More thoughts HERE.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard  I dragged out the reading of it out over a couple of months. Very unlike me. Because I dreaded being done with it. Not walking with her through the woods, over the pond, across the meadow. I miss her directing my gaze to something I would surely have missed. I miss her quirky observations and her detailed explanations. Mostly, I miss her words.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee  I can’t believe I read it for the first time at 45. A rich exploration of life inside the mind of a young girl growing up in the rural south. Some of her experiences very like my own, some completely other. Whimsy, superstition, intrigue, honor, courage, pain. All of these in generous measure. One of the best books I have ever read.

*Honorable Mentions: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley and Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury I found both of these to be terribly troubling. Mostly because the disturbing worlds they predict have so very much in common with the world in which we are living. Worlds where reading is banned and thinking for oneself is a thing of the past. Where we are spoonfed beliefs “for our own good” and for the “benefit of society”. I find it difficult to call them favorites when they made me so uncomfortable. But I haven’t the least difficulty calling them important.

What books did you read this year that rankled, inspired, or captivated?

Tidings of Comfort and Joy…

Every year I pull them out with the decorations. They go into a basket in the living room. And we read them over and over. And they are just as funny, or sweet, or troubling as they were the first time. Some of them have Christmas stickers or crayon marks lovingly added by little fingers over the years. And they are one of the threads that ever weaves us together as a family.

Christmas Books

Picture books. Advent devotionals. Classic literature. All have a place. And when I hold them in my hands, a panorama of other Christmases in other places, but with these same dear faces, plays before my eyes. And the fire of gratitude is stoked inside me.

Here are a few of our family’s every year favorites. I would love to know yours.

The Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L’Engle with paintings of Giotto  The Nativity as framed by one of my favorite storytellers, accompanied by the sumptuous paintings of Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto was a landmark artist; the forefather of the Renaissance. And this series of paintings is one of the more remarkable in all of western art. Add that to the beauty of L’Engle’s words, and the beauty of the story itself, and you have a masterpiece worth revisiting, over and over.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore Just a few nights ago I was up during the night with Kenzie. I recited this poem to her. Twenty years rolled away in an instant, and I was holding her mommy as a brand new November baby, reciting the same poem into the night. I memorized it as a little girl. By osmosis. By listening to the Perry Como Christmas album approximately 478 times every year. (My brother and I double stacked it with the Chipmunks Christmas. Side one of both. Then flip the stack.)

The Cajun Night Before Christmas and The Hillbilly Night Afore Christmas My aunt introduced us to the Cajun version when she lived in New Orleans years ago. We love it! I later found the Hillbilly version. When I read it,  Appalachia is in my voice and in my heart.

Twas the night afore Christmas
‘Twixt ridgeback and holler,
No critter was twitchin
Nary hog dast to waller

Each keerful darn’t stockin’
War’ nail’t near the chimbly,
A hopin’ that Sainty’d
Be a extry bit fren’ly….

On the Incarnation by St. Antanasius It is one of the most important books I have ever read. Just over a hundred pages, but throbbing with the essence of the gospel. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In language precise and potent, Antanasius defends the most pivotal truth of Christianity. This year, I make it part of my preparation…

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss I never get all the way through without crying. My children indulge me. We all know someone like the Grinch whose heart is “two sizes too small”. I suppose I never want to forget that all of those someones can be made new. And that my family and I can be part of that. One of Kenzie’s favs so far. Can’t decide, though, if she just loves the black, white, and red illustrations. 🙂

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson Speaking of lost causes…. 🙂 No one has ever seemed more of a lost cause than the Herdman children. And yet, remarkably, they will help all of us see Christmas with new eyes. We laugh our way hysterically through almost the whole book, until that moment when things get really quiet and my kids say, “Mom, are you crying?” Beautiful!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens There is a reason why everyone and his brother has wanted to tell this story. To give it their unique imprint. In it we see ourselves. Our best selves. Our worst selves. And, more than anything I think, we are reminded that it is never to late to choose a new course for our lives. This is a message we need to hear again and again. Some of us more than others. Read it aloud to your family. It is the work of an afternoon. It will spark wonderful discussion. and the language is delightful.

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas I read it every year. Yet, I find that the events of the year…the hard things, the joys, the new experiences…color the familiar stories, and I see something I have never seen before. Beautiful, hard, thought-provoking words from some of my favorite authors: C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle…that draw me deep into the longing, the mystery, and the magic of the season.

Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen Nouwen has been a very influential voice in my life. I enjoy having him near in this Holy season. Short writings that orient my heart for the day.

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson This story haunted me as a little girl. I could not get it out of my head. Or out of my heart. It haunts me still. But I still read it. May I always have eyes to see the unseen people in my world. May I be so discomfited that I must do something to help. I highly recommend the edition with Rachel Isadora’s luscious illustrations. They are positively captivating.

Your turn. What are the books you read over and over in this season?

Man Child

When I am a very old lady
and can’t remember my name,
or what I just ate for lunch…
I will remember
that once upon a time
you wanted to marry me.

I will think of the way
you put crayons
between your toes
til you needed them.
And how there was a place
in every outfit
for a sword.

I will see you
putting pictures on paper,
images emerging
from that mysterious
inside
place…
…while my heart
pounded
with wonder.

I will see you,
walking stick in hand,
pack of dogs at your feet.
Master of the farm.

Lego creations
of marvelous intricacy.
Do you remember those?

It is funny to me
how in old videos
you leap into the frame.
Ebullient.
Irrepressible.
Tumult of delight.

Cacophony of ideas
whirl round
in your head…
words
not
fast
enough…

And music…
what shall I say of that?
Of being paid to sing,
when you would have gladly
sung for free?
Of backyard operas?
Of piano pieces rendered
in a breathless
allegro molto vivace!

Did you know then…
that she was the muse
that would sing you?
Whose seduction
you could not escape?

There is a picture of you.
You hold a Bible
near your heart.
When did it sink
so deep
inside you?
That God grace…
that bit of glory
uniquely yours.

And of love…
You never have known how to love,
except wholly.
You never have been able to give,
but all.
It has been costly.
It has been redemptive.
It has been good.

How could I have known
that in you, my son,
I would find a
friend for my soul?
One whose heart
resounds…
words unspoken
but known.

I wonder…
in those later years
when memory is leaking away
like water
from so many holes
in a tired old pail,
will I remember this day
when my man-child
became man?
How my heart swelled with pride
and gratitude
and gladness?

I think it will be part
of the deep knowing
…that lingers
when words are gone.
I hope so.

Happy 18th Birthday, Jake! Being your mother is inexpressible gift. I could not be more proud of the man you are becoming. Thank you for loving extravagantly, for seeing deeply, for listening intently. Thank you for the unadulterated joy you bring to my life and to the lives of others. Thank you for curiosity and creativity. Thank you for all the times when I am doing ordinary things in our home and am serenaded by extraordinary music. Yours.

Life with you is always an adventure. And the adventure has only just barely begun. Godspeed! I love you!

11 Favorite Turns of Phrase

I have an almost idolatrous relationship with words. I admit it. To be able to express a thought, an emotion, with precision…to make it live in the mind and heart of another is deeply satisfying. I admire writers who string words together elegantly, evocatively. I have collected these for years. Here are a few of my favorites.

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery…  ~Annie Dillard

In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. ~Aeschylus

All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapor from the exhultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago.  But the savor is still unmistakable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace.  ~G.K. Chesterton

For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.  ~Mary Oliver

Trample not on any; there may be some work of grace there, that thou knowest not of.  The name of God may be written upon that soul thou treadest on; it may be a soul that Christ thought so much of as to give his precious blood for it; therefore, despise it not.
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.  ~e.e.cummings

I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.  I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.  The function of man is to live, not to exist…  ~Jack London

I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.  Also, of endless books.  My father bought all the books he read and he never got rid of any of them.  There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.  Nothing was forbidden me.  In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves.  I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.  ~C.S. Lewis

My worship is a blue sky and ten thousand crickets in the deep, wet hay of the field. My vow is the silence under their song.  ~Thomas Merton

Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia.  ~Ursula K. LeGuin

Luck!
In the house of breathings lies that word, all fairness. The walls are rubinen and the glittergates of elfinbone. The roof herof is of massicious jasper and a canopy of Tyrian awning rises and still descends to it. A grape cluster of lights hangs therebeneath and all the house is filled with the breathings of her fairness, the fairness of fondance and the fairness of milk and rhubarb and fairness of roasted meats and uniomargrits and the fairness of promise with consonantia and avowels. There lies her word, you reader! The height herup exalts it and the lowness her down abaseth it. It vibroverberates upon the tegmen and prosplodes from pomoeria.  ~James Joyce

Where have you found words wielded winsomely? A phrase that delights your senses?

 

 

11 Things That Make Me Laugh

A cheerful disposition is good for your health;
gloom and doom leave you bone-tired.

Proverbs 17:22 (Message)

With that in mind, I offer you eleven things that always, always make me laugh. Feel free to borrow one or two if you like. And be sure to leave a couple of your own.

Bill Cosby Himself  Cosby has a remarkable ability to transform the most ordinary things like parenthood or a trip to the dentist into comedic brilliance. Almost thirty years after its release, this is still relevant; still fresh and funny. And it gets even funnier when my usually calm, collected husband is rolling on the floor, gasping for breath because he is hysterical. 🙂

Taylor Mali, Poet  Mali’s work is intelligent and incisive. And his personal delivery is brilliant. Just be careful. Somewhere in the midst of laughing your face off, you will discover that he is making you think. I encourage you to let him deliver his words to you with his own inflection and emphasis. If you’re not sure where to start, I commend a couple of my favorites: The The Impotence of Proofreading and Totally Like Whatever, You Know? Another favorite, less humorous but profoundly good, is What Teachers Make

Winnie the Pooh  A.A Milne infused his stories with a subtle, elegant wit. I read his stories over and over to my children–the original ones, not the language impoverished Disney reductions–and sometimes had to stop and snicker. This is not knee-slapping hysteria, but a soft gladdening of the heart. A couple of examples:

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best — ” and then he had to stop and think.  Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.

“Did you make that song up?”
“Well, I sort of made it up, ” said Pooh, “It isn’t Brain…but it comes to me sometimes.”
“Ah,” said Rabbit, who never let things come to him, but always went & fetched them.

The music of Andy Gullahorn  Like Taylor Mali, Gullahorn wraps a whole lot of truth up in his humor. This is an art. And not all his songs are funny. But they are all good. He is one of our family’s road trip favorites. We sing along, and sometimes laugh out loud. Especially to Green Hills Mall.

The poetry of Shel Silverstein  Whimsical. Clever. Unexpected. Fun. And his childlike drawings are perfectly delightful. Where the Sidewalk Ends is my favorite collection, but all are good.

Candide  You probably know Voltaire was a philosopher whose influence on the French Revolution cannot be overstated. But do you know that he was a most clever satirist? This is a fanciful tale of travel and misadventure. Voltaire puts his own words in the mouth of a naive young man who we come to believe may be more intelligent than most of those around him. I do not hold to Voltaire’s view of the world, but I admire the artistry and good humor with which he articulates it.

Homer Price  You might know Robert McCloskey better for his Caldecott award winning picture books Make Way For Ducklings or Blueberries for Sal, which we also love. But it’s this collection of short stories that kept my boys and me in stitches. Both of them would list it among their favorite books ever. Innocent small town fun involving pet skunks, a doughnut machine run amok, and an award winning ball of string, and much more.

Christmas Vacation  We watch it every Christmas….and sometimes when it’s not Christmas. We know everything that’s going to happen before it happens. And sometimes the laughter precipitates the action. Good, clean, dysfunctional family fun. 🙂

Patsy Clairmont  She has the soul of a poet. She writes words of exquisite beauty, and has a keen ability to see beyond. But, put her on a stage in front of a few thousand women, and she will have you in stitches before you know what hit you. Sample her humorous side with Crafty or Emotions for starters.

Nine Months  I do have an inordinate fondness for Hugh Grant. The good-natured, but bumbling character he plays so well is great fun to watch. But this is an ensemble piece. Robin Williams as the Russian veterinarian/obstetrician and Tom Arnold as the enthusiastic (aka obnoxious) father with the video camera are two other stand-outs. Yes, I do usually end up crying at the end. But only after laughing til my sides hurt.

Rat Race  Frantic. Messy. One misadventure after another. The kind of silly humor I don’t usually go for, but I gladly make an exception here.

*Fifth in a series of eleven posts of elevens; one for each of the first eleven days of the eleventh month of 2011.

**Yes, that absolutely gorgeous baby in the photo is in fact my granddaughter. 😉

 

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