Tomes, Billy Collins

It’s been a rough week month, and I haven’t had time to read a new book, or do much of anything that wasn’t absolutely essential, but I think January is over? Is it? Are we done with January, because I am DONE with January. Come back in a couple of weeks when we’re firmly in February and I’ll have something for you, I promise. In the meantime, I’m going to swim in a little Collins and try to get my head on straight. Feel free to join me!

Tomes, Billy Collins

There is a section in my library for death
and another for Irish history,
a few shelves for the poetry of China and Japan,
and in the center a row of imperturbable reference books,
the ones you can turn to anytime,
when the night is going wrong
or when the day is full of empty promise.

I have nothing against
the thin monograph, the odd query,
a note on the identity of Chekhov’s dentist,
but what I prefer on days like these
is to get up from the couch,
pull down The History of the World,
and hold in my hands a book
containing nearly everything
and weighing no more than a sack of potatoes,
eleven pounds, I discovered one day when I placed it
on the black, iron scale
my mother used to keep in her kitchen,
the device on which she would place
a certain amount of flour,
a certain amount of fish.

Open flat on my lap
under a halo of lamplight,
a book like this always has a way
of soothing the nerves,
quieting the riotous surf of information
that foams around my waist
even though it never mentions
the silent labors of the poor,
the daydreams of grocers and tailors,
or the faces of men and women alone in single rooms-

even though it never mentions my mother,
now that I think of her again,
who only last year rolled off the edge of the earth
in her electric bed,
in her smooth pink nightgown
the bones of her fingers interlocked,
her sunken eyes staring upward
beyond all knowledge,
beyond the tiny figures of history,
some in uniform, some not,
marching onto the pages of this incredibly heavy book. 

Oh, you know…

I’m not organized enough (anymore) to have written about any of the five or six amazing books I’ve read this month. I meant to, but then, insert your preferred excuse here (dear friends visiting, cancer watch, baby watch, buying socks for the homeless, sending gifts to family far away, trying and failing to find a present for my husband, baking cookies). I’m sorry about that because I really do feel like I’m depriving you of some wonderful reads, but you’ll just have to wait until the new year. I’m guessing most of you have stacks of unread books sitting around your house anyway, so you’ll make it another two weeks, but next year! Next year, I’ll definitely probably possibly be more organized.

In the meantime, here’s a reflection on Advent written by my mother in 2012 that I read every year, and every year, it resonates more. No matter who you are, or what your life looks like right now, I wish you a peaceful end of 2017.

God, who asks
“do you want it gift wrapped?”
and means a choice of sunset

or a purple nighttime sky with stars,thank you for all the presents,
the sweet ordinary things —
elbows, chocolate,
toothbrushes, and running shoes,
people who become EMTs,
beagles in bed, old cranky prophets
who won’t let us forget justice,

and the hard re-giftings
possible in things you did not give –
road rage, Parkinson’s disease,
the deporting of our neighbors,
death by suicide
of someone we love.

Tie us with the curling ribbon
tendril of your love
when something scrooges us
and we can’t hold ourselves
together alone.

Maren Tirabassi

Happy Thanksgiving

The Summer Day, Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This is, perhaps, a strange piece to share today (unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, in which case, enjoy the coming summer months!). It’s Thanksgiving in the US, and this year, we have no elaborate meal, no friends stopping by, no plans other than to attempt to teach our oldest how to make pie and stuffing (the only two foods my husband can’t do without). A part of me wishes we had the distraction of a busy day. Activity is a pleasant diversion, and we certainly have much to be grateful for, and to celebrate.

Right now, however, we’re also struggling to balance the joy in our life with the immense sadnesses of several of our closest friends. They are not my stories to share, but I carry them heavy in my heart right now. On a day of indulgence, family, and tradition, I’m finding it hard to do anything beyond live in the tiny moments – the grasshopper in my hand moments – because the bigger picture is too daunting, and shadowy, and hard.

The tiny moments though, they make up my days with the frenetic love of toddler attention spans. They are tiny fingers clasped around mine, buoying me through tearfilled phone calls. They are ten second snuggles, and unexpected baby belly laughs, and the blossoming of brotherhood. They are a house, clean for five minutes before a whirlwind of adventure displaces every little thing, and a sink overflowing while we stroll in the sun. They are the careful attention of a two year old sous chef, and the flinging of small bodies into outstretched arms.

They are my salvation right now, and for them, I am thankful.

Shoulders, Naomi Shihab Nye

Shoulders

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

This will be my last post until September. I’m taking parental leave, and I know that despite my best intentions, the likelihood of getting back here before the unofficial “start of the year” (for me, the year has and will always begin at Labor Day) is a pipe dream. Having one kiddo was busy – having a newborn and a toddler, I expect, will be chaos.

That being said, I never get tired of sharing Nye’s work with a larger audience. She has been one of my favorite poets (although she’s a wonderful author of fiction, as well) for over a decade now, and I’m constantly stumbling over her words, tucked away in some notebook or word doc I’ve saved, at the perfect moment. For me, this is that time. I’m on the precipice of a life change I can hardly imagine but feel deeply blessed to have, and at the same time, I’m concerned that our second child will be born into a world so dramatically different than our first.

Our first was a child born of Summer (I still remember being moved by that idea of “eternal” plenty when I read A Game of Thrones back in 2001). Although the world was far from “fixed,” it was still a hopeful period for this country. The rights of many were being recognized in ways they hadn’t before, and the political spirit was leaning toward uplifting the most vulnerable rather than trampling them. My own life, and the lives of many of my nearest and dearest were in celebratory periods, and I felt a great confidence – not only in myself, but in friends and stranger alike. I floated through pregnancy enjoying a sense of alignment with the world that I don’t think I felt before or since.

This time around, I’m much more anxious. The things I hear and see, the lengths people have to go to to be recognized with simple dignity, the pain I’m witness to in the people closest to me – it has been a far cry from the sunny peace of two years ago. I feel a sense of powerlessness and exhaustion to make the kind of statements I want to make for myself, my family, my neighbors, and those around the world who are suffering horrendously. And yet, this little wiggle, this busy kid I carry with me everywhere, he offers me great comfort. He is a reminder, when I feel overwhelmed, of my ability to empathize with other mothers no matter our differences, to have patience with the greater questions, to be as kind to those I meet as I hope they will be one day to him.

It’s a lot to get from a little person who hasn’t made an official appearance yet, but I’m profoundly grateful. The serenity of the world may not surround me right now, but I can still find it, still breathe deeper remembering my role – not just as a parent, but as a human being – is not to fix everything or celebrate always, but to keep my eyes open for opportunities to care for those who cross my path.

 

Be well, my book loving friends. I look forward to rejoining you in a few months and hope in the meantime, you find great books to transport and transform you.

On Turning Ten, Billy Collins

I had a book I was going to post about today – that I should be posting about, since I promised my friend John, and his editor, that my review would be up – but the reading of it has been so sad, so perfectly January, that I haven’t been able to bring myself to rush through. It’s not a long book, and it’s not nearly as aching a story as his first (if you haven’t read it, and you can bear a brilliantly written tragedy, you should), but it’s harder because he and his family are friends now, while in 2014, he was barely an acquaintance.

I’ll have it done by February, for sure, and I look forward to telling you about it, because John’s one of those writer friends I love and hate for being so damn good at what he does. In the meantime, here’s a little bittersweet Collins to carry you into what promises to be a divisive weekend.

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

It’s almost Christmas, and for once, we’re not getting on a plane (at least not until next week). We won’t see our families until New Year’s, instead opting for a cozy holiday with our own tree and the company of our dear friends and neighbors on Christmas morning. In the past, we’ve alternated between my husband’s family in Colorado and mine in New Hampshire, and this would have been my family’s year; however, this Sunday marks a momentous day for me and mine – the day of my mother’s retirement from 37 years of ministry in the UCC.

Her ministry has been instrumental in shaping who I am. Her particular sense of humor, her tireless efforts for the justice and dignity of the most vulnerable among us, and her enthusiastic acceptance of all people and all faiths has influenced more people than I’m sure she could ever imagine. She is far too humble to think of herself as a tide changer, but those of us who know her know the truth – she is a light, a warrior of love, and a beacon for those who love the church and those who have been mistreated by it. She is dearly loved and deeply admired for her perspective, her compassion, and her faith, and while I know she has many more years of world-changing in her, she’ll be doing it from a different venue now.

In honor of this incredible transition, today I’m sharing a poem she wrote about Christmas. In addition to her work in ministry, she’s the author of more than twenty books and spent a year as a poet laureate, in addition to having taught writing for several decades. For me, there is no better way to ring in this holiday weekend than by considering her words and the overwhelming love she has for this difficult, hard to love world.

Improv on Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch who Stole Christmas, Maren C. Tirabassi
The grinch on the inside of Who you and Who me
who shrinks from the carols and ducks under the tree …

The grinch who fears weight gain and avoids every store,
with chestnut-roast muzak and wreaths on the door …

The grinch who dreads greedies and commercials for toys,
and deplores the way sadness is wrapped in fake joy …

This grinch has a heart that is just the right size,
but it hurts so at Christmas that it is no surprise …

That with all of the darkness, the hurry, the haste,
with all of the “must-do’s,” the parties and waste …

The grinch on the inside of you-grouch and me-beast,
the grinch who hates candlelight service and feast …

The grinch who is lonely, and feels like a stranger,
the grinch who’s disgusted when I rhyme with “manger” …

Finds that all of the stories of this Christmas season,
the Scrooges and Nutcrackers point to one reason.

It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Fred Claus,
and the Polar Express are all written because –

There’s a mystery here, there’s a wonder, a glow,
that comes not from a package or starlight on snow …

That is not about family with its comfort or grief,
and is not about having some perfect belief …

It’s all about God, who won’t come the right way.
who jumps out of the church, as well as the sleigh …

God who needs diapers but takes myrrh in a pinch –
this God who sends babies is in love with each Grinch.

Reciprocity, John Drinkwater

I hate when my busiest working season falls in the summer. It’s always interrupted by travel and bbqs and outings, and I end up half distracted while at my computer, and half worried while I’m out trying to enjoy myself. This year has been especially challenging with two major projects in high gear since the beginning of June, all of our family commitments long flights away, and a seemingly endless parade of distractions that keep me from focusing.

I suspect I could make good use of blinders right about now, but since single-mindedness eludes me, I’m doing  my best to multitask through the madness. That means, yes, I’m reading, but it’s slow. I get maybe a chapter a day if I’m lucky, and that doesn’t jive well with my reviewing schedule.

On the plus side, it does mean I get to share some of my favorite poems. This one has become almost a mantra for me in the last month. I read it once or twice a day and then spend maybe thirty seconds admiring the leaves rustling out the window. It doesn’t sound like much, but it serves to ground me, and to remind me of the fullness of life, even during one of its stressful seasons.

Reciprocity, John Drinkwater
I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.