In The Hurt Of Holy Week

snowdrops

This year has battered my soul

like the three-spirited God of Donne.

So I come to Holy Week cold

indifferent, and weary.

The hollow hymn unsung by my tongue.

Hosannas and hallelujahs fall on rocky soul

making no purchase in my heart.

I understand not praises or prayers,

save the one made late in a garden

to let this cup pass . . .

or the cry, “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani.”

The silence weighs heavily on my chest.

My knees will not bend,

a protest in resistant kneeling

to a God who is not close (is not there?)

Is this denial? It is doubting?

If so, I wear my doubting like a coat in winter.

Protecting myself against the darkness,

against the possibility that you are our own invention.

Am I rejecting You? Or have you rejected me?

Are you hiding your face or am I closing my eyes?

Either way, I do not see. I do not feel.

In this hour, where the dying light lingers,

I will, again, tonight, be unable to sleep –

caught up once more in my spirit’s wrestling.

One cannot do so and not end up broken.

It is cold and comfortless these questions

and fears. Is this simply misunderstanding?

Are you closer to me now in my distance?

A holy paradox.

The loneliness of Holy Saturday

where death lingered longer

and the disciples huddled fearful,

bewildered, frightened, and uncertain.

I am with them now. I understand this pain,

this fear, this sacred lack.

We are, all of us, looking into that grave

and wondering, in that moment,

if you could not escape it

what lays in store for us?

We have not reached Easter Sunday

but remain baffled and hidden

in our darkened rooms,

questioning: What has this all been for?

So I look, with longing and trepidation,

for a resurrected hope that light will come.

I, who have lived so long in my unbelief belief,

in my constant inconstancy

and the unanswered question,

long to hear you say, “Fear not,

for I am

with you

always.”

But, right now,

I only hear the silence

of another sleepless night.

 

 

 

Grace & Transformation: Babette’s Feast

Babette

For those of the Christian faith, this week is holy week. It began with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter. Maundy Thursday is the day that commemorates Christ celebrating the last supper with his disciples. It may sound strange to some, but a film I love to watch on Maundy Thursday is Babette’s Feast.

Directed by Gabriel Axel, the movie is a gorgeous tale based on the story by Isak Dinesen. The film begins with the narrator telling us, like a storyteller reading us a fable, “In this remote spot there once lived two sisters who were both past the first flush of youth. They had been christened Martina and Philippa after Martin Luther and his friend Philipp Melanchthon. They spent all their time and almost all their small income on good works.”

The remote spot is a small village on the remote coast of Jutland in 19th century Denmark. The two sisters are pious women Martine (named after Martin Luther) and Philippa (named after Luther’s friend Phillip Melanchthon) who equate piety with austerity and without gaiety.  Their father, a pastor over an austere sect, has passed and the two sisters oversee a dying congregation.

Then Babette Hersant, a refugee, shows up on their door with a letter from Achille Papin, recommending her as a housekeeper to the two sisters. Martine and Philippa inform Babette that they cannot afford to pay her, but she offers to work for free. Though a talented chef, Babette fixes their ascetic, abstemious meals without complaint, though improving on them each time. It’s only after she discovers that she has won the lottery (10,000 francs) that Babette tells the sisters that, using her money, she is going to prepare them a lavish French feast.

Most films that deal with such scrumptious feasts, tend to focus on the sexual or sensual pleasures of food (Chocolat or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman). Another film that is similar in tale, is Big Night about two immigrant Italian brothers who are going to have to close their restaurant because Primo, the brother who is the chef, refuses to make “Americanized” Italian dishes. Before closing, they spend their entire savings to have one last big night with their friends to enjoy a deliciously prepared magnificent meal that centers around a timballo.

Big Night and Babette’s Feast  understand what M.F.K. Fisher, one of the preeminent American writers on food, wrote in the Gastronomical Me, “Like most humans, I am hungry…our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…”

Those eating the meals prepared by Babette or Primo taste the love that went into the preparation of the meal. It was more than just mere food to be quickly devoured, but was meant to be savored, tasted, appreciated, delighted in and experienced.

Both Primo and Babette, through their culinary talents are asking, as Isak Dinesen wrote in her story, “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.” Their food is not just a talent or skill, but a gift they are offering up to those who they love.

Christ’s ministry most often took place around a table, sharing a meal, and enjoying the company of those he was with. To break bread with someone, in his culture, was to accept them. Jesus also revealed his love by sharing a last supper with his disciples (his closest friends) on the night before he died. His last act before death and resurrection was to share in a meal. Quoting M.F.K. Fisher again, “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”

This is what I love about the story and the film adaptation of Babette’s Feast, that at the very heart of it is grace. As Dinesen writes in one of my favorite passages from the story:

Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!

Babette sacrifices of herself, in service, and by giving up her fortune to share in what she loves most (preparing French cuisine) for the two sisters who took her in. From her sacrifice comes transformation (in both the sisters and those who partake in the feast itself). There is forgiveness, reconciliation and love. Feasting in Babette’s Feast is more than mere pleasure, it is an act of spiritual joy. It is how I imagine all the meals that Christ shared with others to be.

This feast requires one to be present: in all of one’s senses. To see the beauty and the effort required to make this sumptuous meal, but also to enjoy the tastes and textures: the spices, the sautees, the sauces the fragrance, and the colors which counteract the dull blacks and grays that have been throughout most of the film. Grace is not bleak or dreary but is a delight, shared laughter and conversation, appreciation and gratitude and gratefulness.

Like the meals Christ shared, Babette’s meal is a form of connection and community. To quote from Dinesen’s story, “Our longing is our pledge, and blessed are the homesick, for they shall come home.” Babette has not returned to France, but she has returned to the food she grew up with and loves deeply. She is offering her food as a way of offering herself, her home to these sisters, the congregation, and to people from their past. Just as Jesus said, “This is my body, broken for you.”

This is a feast for both body and soul.

Cooking, in the hands of Babette, is a holy ritual. She is making a new creation out of the ingredients she is working with. She is raising simple elements into dishes that are sophisticated, transcendent and artistic in no less a manner than the artisans did in building the Temple.  Babette’s feast is a reminder of Israel with all of its feast days and rituals.

In the film, the character of General Lorenz Lowenheilm says, “Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

The story itself is born out of Dinesen’s own life. After the suicide of her father, her grandmother and her aunts came to take care of the family. As a ten-year-old girl, who was close to her father, she watched as women loved and tended to each other. She drew on this experience in writing Babette’s Feast. 

Martine and Philippa, after the meal, discover that Babette is surrounded by all of the dirty dishes. The two sisters than her for the meal and Babette informs them that she had been a chef in a famous French restaurant in Paris. They ask if she plans to return now that she has the money to. “No,” she informs them, “the people who would appreciate my talents are now gone from Paris. I have no desire to return.” Then she lets them know that she spent all of her money on this meal. Overcome by hearing this, the two sisters are filled with compassion and embrace her. When they express sadness as her poverty, Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.” Philippa assures her that her art is not lost for in paradise she will be all that God has meant her to be.

Babette’s feast conjures up a spiritual sense of shalom (or wholeness or well-being). The meal was more than mere transaction, but the transformation that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation among people whose pasts had kept them from such healing.  This is not about consumption but about creation and how creation is, ultimately, an act of renewal. Like Christ, Babette’s feast is a sacrificial act meant to bring about this grace and mercy, of letting go of past sins and grudges.

Is this not a beautiful reflection of the Eucharist table?

That is why re-watching Babette’s Feast has become a tradition for me every Maunday Thursday. Like communion, it is done in remembrance of Christ.

Babette's Feast

The Wonderful Silence

sunrise

In one of my favorite books, one that I first read as a boy but have reread many times (including to my sons) is The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Jester. Milo, a boy like many boys, is bored (the worst thing that can happen to a child, apparently). He receives a mysterious package (the best kind) that contains a small toll booth, a map of the Lands Beyond which he drives to in his toy car. It’s a magnificent book, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, another of my most cherished books.

Amidst all of the imaginative adventure, that cleverly masks a lesson about loving learning, is one of my favorite passages in the whole book:

Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.

As an introvert, I am someone who cherishes “the wonderful silence.”

There are mornings, when I get up before dawn, just for that silence and a cup of coffee. I am not a morning person by nature, but there truly is something magical about watching the darkness take on colors, sometimes bright and vivid ones, and to hear the welcoming of the sunrise by birdsong (that is louder than at any other part of the day – probably because so many of us are still asleep).

There are a peace and tranquility during these moments that I find during no other part of my day. I can almost hear the sounds of my sons still sleeping in their beds; before I get them up and ready.  It is so quiet I can hear my own thoughts.

Sometimes, I sit still. I drink in the silence as I do my coffee.

Emily Dickinson wrote that “Silence is infinity” but I know otherwise. In a few minutes, I will awaken my sons and then the busyness and noisiness of the day must begin.

In these moments, I allow myself to simply breathe. Nothing more. Nothing more is needed. I am alive to this moment and I am in this moment. I try not to occupy my thoughts with the day that is about to unfurl before me, but to pause and to understand that silence cannot be improved upon.

Some mornings, I open up a book of poetry and select one. I read the words softly to myself. Letting the words sink in and reflect on them throughout my day. I often find that Rilke or Mary Oliver do best. On this morning, I read Rilke’s lines:

Of all who move through the quiet houses, you are the quietest. We become so accustomed to you, we no longer look up when your shadow falls over the book we are reading and makes it glow.

There is wholeness in this quietness. Wholeness. Shalom. Peace.

This is not an empty silence.

No, there is a fullness, a richness to it.

This is a spiritual silence. One that nourishes the soul before I am confronted by schedules and tasks and things that must get done.

Certainly spending time this way helps me to understand Blaise Pascal wrote, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quiet in a room alone.”

By starting in this quiet, I find myself more able to listen throughout my day. To hear the stories of others and be able to hold those stories within myself and to allow me to make connections. As another of my favorite children’s authors, E. L. Konigsburg, wrote, “Silence does for thinking what a suspension bridge does for space – it makes connections.”

So this is what I do.

This is how I start my days.

Quiet. Alone. Whole.

And I am grateful.

 

 

On The Nature Of Beauty: George Eliot & Eudora Welty

George Eliot

The Chinese philosopher Confucius once wrote, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” This goes against our culture which praises the obvious outer beauty of models and actresses and even athletes. We admire the glamorous and sexual. There is always a connection between feminity and beauty and anyone who does not match the criteria is somehow considered deficient and lacking. How many young women grow up feeling less than because they do not look like those they see on TV or in movies and in magazines?

Shallow and superficial is certainly nothing new.  The Greeks even had a saying, “If he is not beautiful, he is not a god.” And, even in this modern age, we too often hold fast to that ideology. I can easily remember being on the playground at school and the cruelty of boys who would try to pick out who they thought was the ugliest girl and mockingly say to another boy that she was his “girlfriend” just to get an “Ewww, gross. No way!” out of him (especially if the girl was near them). Then the boys would up their game by telling that boy that he would marry her one day and have her hideous children. This was yet another reason why I so often hated school. Having always felt an outsider, I have always identified myself with whoever was being bullied, teased, made fun of or mocked. They were the ones I would come alongside to be their friend.

Charles Darwin believed that animals, as well as humans, preferred beauty because attractiveness made one more desirable to the opposite sex and for breeding. In his The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relationship to Sex, Darwin controversially wrote that animals choose mates based on aesthetics: if someone was alluring. Sexual selection was rooted solely in a taste for beauty. So where does this leave those who are found lacking? As less than the aesthetic ideal?

Two of my favorite authors are George Eliot and Eudora Welty.  They have written some of the most beautiful prose in the English language. They have daring souls and keen eyes for details. Despite their talent and craftsmanship, in reading biographies of both novelists, I was horrified to see how much time was spent on describing their looks and appraising their appearances. Both by the biographers and by those who knew Eliot and Welty.

In 1933, Anne Freemantle wrote of Eliot, “It must be a terrible sorrow to be young and unattractive: to look in the mirror and see a sallow unhealthy face, with a yellowish skin, straight nose, and mouse-colored hair.”

William Michael Rossetti, the critic and brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, described  Eliot as, “a woman with next to no feminine beauty or charm or of countenance or person.”

Novelist Henry James was, perhaps, the cruelest with his assessment of Eliot’s countenance when he wrote that she was “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous.”

When I read such horrendously cruel and malicious descriptions, I cannot help but wonder why they would take the time to be so mean and vicious to another human being? What, within themselves, is so insecure that they feel the need to act no better than the boys on the playground of my school?

“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive.,” Eliot once wrote, “There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.” Beautiful and good. For Eliot moral virtue always eclipses physical beauty.

Is this what lies behind her writing the poem “Empathy”?

Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible
Comfort of feeling safe with a person,
Having neither to weight thoughts,
Nor measure words–but pouring them
All right out–just as they are
Chaff and grain together,
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them,
Keep what is worth keeping,
And with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.

Those who spent any time with Eliot noticed a change in themselves. Even Henry James who’d spoken of her so cruelly found that there was such empathy and tenderness in her that he found himself becoming aware of her true beauty. As he wrote, “Behold me, literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking!” He, like others who began to know George Eliot better, realized that she had a luminous intelligence and a generous character. In her masterpiece Middlemarch, Eliot wrote, “I should like to make life beautiful – I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expanse of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think most people are shut out from it.”

Eliot believed that the meaning of our lives was to make life less difficult for others. As if writing her own beatitude, she said, “Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.”

Eudora Welty young

A woman who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi with Eudora Welty once said of the author, “It wasn’t that Eudora was plain. She was ugly to the point of being grotesque. In the South, that was tantamount to being an old maid.”

Those who were polite described her as “different looking” or as not being “pretty.” Others call her the “ugliest person I’ve ever known.”

“People give pain, are callous and insensitive, empty and cruel,” Welty once said, “but place heals the hurt, soothes the outrage, fills the terrible vacuum that these human beings make.”

Her looks made her an outsider in a Southern culture that prized beauty and loveliness in a young woman (or Southern belle). For the Southerner, beauty in a woman was akin to purity and revered as something that they needed to protect from all harm and is so often tied to issues of race. Because Eudora Welty did not measure up to this form of perfection and fragility, it may be why, as Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in an article for The New Yorker, “Welty had a notably vivid sympathy for the freak and the grotesque, for the pygmy and the pickled and the blinkingly dim, characters who served to set the wider population in her stories at a disadvantage. She knew her outsiders, and she understood what people used them for.” This would also play a huge role in the works of two other Southern writers, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers (who also did not meet that standard for womanhood).  All three women were most often described as “homely and plain.”

They, however, would shift the ugliness from the obvious exteriors to the less noticed interiors of characters whose cruelty comes out in relation to the grotesque figures that populate their works.

“Beauty,” Eudora wrote, “is no a means, not a way of furthering a thing in the world. It is a result,; it belongs to ordering, to form, to aftereffect.” This belief shaped how she constructed and wrote her stories, as well as her eye for photography and her love of gardening.  Welty believed that to create beauty, one had to engage with empathy the world around oneself.  It is a “stepping down from the general view close to the particular” where one truly begins to see people and place more clearly and with more sympathy.

Her writing always contained understanding and insight into the life of others, especially those outside of or on the fringes of society. As she once said,”Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.”

Art, for Welty, illuminates the human condition: the suffering, the loneliness and the separateness of human life. She holds this up for the reader to see, just as she did in her photographs. Eudora Welty was a shy woman who found protection behind a typewriter or camera, where she could watch with her eye for detail, the lives of others In an interview with the New York Times, she spoke of these two art forms as a “kindred impulse” that sprang from her inquisitive nature and a “wish to respond to what I saw and what I felt about things.” She saw both as her desire to portray things truthfully: “Portray life, living people, as you saw them. And a camera could catch that fleeting moment, which is what a short story, in all its depth, tries to do. If it’s sensitive enough, it catches the transient moment.”

Through her art, both in story form and photographs, Eudora Welty stated, “My continuing passion is to part a curtain, that invisible veil of indifference that falls between us and that blinds us to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.”

One cannot help but see how empathy and a desire to open the eyes of others to each other’s human plight came out of her own loneliness and pain.

As with Eliot, those who spent time with Eudora Welty found their attitude changed in regards to how they thought of her. In her biography Eudora: A Writer’s Life, Ann Waldron writes how many people’s experience went like this, “The first time I saw her, I thought she was the ugliest person I’d ever seen. Five minutes after I started talking to her, I thought she was the most wonderful person I’d ever known.”

What saddens me, in both cases, is that people had to get past Eliot’s and Welty’s appearance to discover the true beauty that both women had; that they superficially judged them before understanding the true depth of feeling and thought that both had. Eleanor Roosevelt, another woman well-known for having her looks criticized and mocked, once said, “No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful.”

 

The Beloved Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter

The first women’s author whose books I remember having read to me and loving immensely was those of Beatrix Potter. As a child who loved books and nature, her works were a perfect fit. I also remember when my mother read the words, “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is soporific,” I stopped her and asked, “What does that word mean?” She explained to me that the lettuce made the bunnies sleepy. After that, I knew and used the word “soporific” quite a bit to show that I had learned such a grown-up word. Years later, when I saw the play Wit by Margaret Edson, I loved that the protagonist, Dr. Vivian Bearing, also learned the word soporific from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.

Beatrix Potter’s works would teach me all manner of marvelous words:  periwigs, lappets, larder, punting and bracken among them. And, long before I discovered the delightful names that littered the works of Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter introduced me to Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise, Tabitha Twitchit, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and the two bad mice (Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca).

Beatrix Potter illustration

As a child who was an introverted daydreamer, I often escaped into books or nature or drawing (and they were all interconnected).  “I cannot rest,” Beatrix Potter once said, “I must draw, however poor the result, and when I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever.” When I read those words, I completely understood the desire and feeling behind it.  In my loneliness, I often turned to drawing (most of them were drawings of animals that inhabited my stories, surely due to the influence of Potter’s own works). I spent hours drawing my own imaginary worlds that were all centered around the woods I loved to explore. These woods, like Beatrix Potter’s own stories, were filled with anthropomorphic animals.  I’m not sure if it was because of her books but I always, secretly, believed that animals truly could speak English but chose not to around people. I cannot tell you how much time I spent being silent and still in the woods with the mere hope that I would catch some in conversation.

Books and nature always meant freedom to me: freedom to explore and to wonder. The opposite of this, for me, was school, which I likened to a horrible prison. When I first read Hard Times by Charles Dickens, I shuddered at the school in Coketown where Mr. Gadgrind demands, “Now, what I want is Facts!” To me, that was the essence of school: impersonal and tedious memorization of facts. It was dreadful and I found myself daydreaming quite a lot while I was there. Beatrix Potter once bragged, “Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.” I envied her. And agreed with her. School too often rubs off the originality of children. It puts them in boxes and labels them: the athlete, the popular kid, the smart kid, the artist, the musician, etcetera.

Like Beatrix Potter, I learned more when I was out in nature: looking at the flora and fauna, the animals and birds of the woods I explored whenever I had the chance and weather permitted. Like Beatrix, I would spend hours in the woods, watching and sketching. An amateur artist as a child, Potter discovered a love of landscape (especially those of Scotland and of England’s Lake District). She also developed an interest in mycology, the study of fungi. It was this interest that caused her to study more closely spore germination and the life cycles of fungi. Potter would be one of the first people to suggest that lichens are a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. She made some of the most beautiful watercolors of a subject many artists would overlook.

beatrixpotter_fungi8

“I remember I used to half believe and wholly play with fairies when I was a child,” she wrote, “What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit-world of childhood, tempered and balanced by knowledge and common-sense.” As a boy, I, too, used to imagine a world filled with fairies and magical creatures. Using twigs, bark, and moss I would build small fairy homes and even made bowls from the tops of acorns and fill them with small brightly colored berries (sure that this would draw fairies to inhabit these wonderous offerings on my part). Another naturalist who did likewise is another of my heroes, Jane Goodall.  So I felt that I have been in good company in my imaginings.

IMG_6434

Because of Beatrix Potter’s marvelous stories, I pay attention to squirrels (and owls (and I cannot see an owl without thinking of Old Brown). I became aware of oak trees, hazel bushes, fox-gloves, buttercups, water-beetles, lavender, and to comprehend that the natural world had names and that by knowing these names I felt more connected to them. “In Summer there were white and damask roses,” she wrote, “and the smell of thyme and musk. In Spring there were green gooseberries and throstles [thrush], and the flowers they call ceninen [daffodils]. And leeks and cabbages also grew in that garden; and between long straight alleys, and apple-trained espaliers, there were beds of strawberries, and mint, and sage.” Can one not picture and even smell the wonders of such a place?

It was the writing of Beatrix Potter that would lead me down the path to other beloved works, such as The Wind in the Willows. Certainly, these books opened me up to nature and those whose love of wild things and places enchanted me as an adult and made me continue to see and notice (everyone from Henry David Thoreau to Annie Dillard). These seeds were first planted by Beatrix Potter. The joy she took in crafting and illustrating her beautiful tales, were tangible to me as a young boy and I sparked with her enthusiasms and took them as my own.

Beatrix Potter in garden

I was amused by new phrases such as “flutterment and a scufflement .” She introduced me to language because she did not write down to children or simplify her language more than necessary. Her writing opened me up to new words and forms of expressions that made my own world seem that much bigger and grander. It’s why I read her books to both of my sons and watched as they, too, were drawn in by these captivating tales. My younger son, who appreciates nature, immediately connected with Potter’s lavish illustrations. He and I will open her books and just spend hours poring over the detail she gave to them. And we cannot close one of her works and not, immediately, want to go on a nature walk with our own sketchbooks in hand.

“Thank God I have the seeing eye,” she would write as she had grown too old to venture out into the natural landscapes that she loved so dearly, “that is to say, as I lie in bed I can walk step by step on the fells and rough land seeing every stone and flower and patch of bog and cotton pass where my old legs will never take me again.”

The “seeing eye” is something she definitely had and passed on to those readers who cherished and held her books dear.

“If I have done anything,” she said, “even a little, to help small children enjoy honest, simple pleasures, I have done a bit of good.” And she did. She has opened the eyes of many children since to the simple pleasures of nature and all that it has to offer those who venture and explore it. Her life and works had a huge impact on my own life and those of my two sons and I pray that they continue to do so for many children to come. I can only hope that parents will not only read these delightful tales to their kids but then use them as an opportunity to get out of their homes and into the woods. Children desperately need to connect with nature and many adults need to reconnect with their kids and the natural world themselves.

May there never grow to be a time when a child isn’t captured by the sentence, “Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.”

 

 

 

 

On Why I Read (And Love) Women Authors

Women Authors

After posting my blog Book Questionnaire, I got a question from someone who follows me on Twitter asking, “I’m interested in the fact that many of your favorite books are written by women. Was there a reason why you are so open to enjoying the writing of women, instead of assuming that men were the better writers, or that they more accurately portrayed men & the real world, than women?”

When I wrote my answers to the questions of the book questionnaire, it didn’t even occur to me that I had. I do not think of a writer in terms of gender but only in terms of their talent, their craft, and their ability to tell a story. For as long as I have been a reader, I have never looked at a book as being a “boy’s book” or a “girl’s book,” but simply either being well or poorly written. I don’t like labels, especially when, if a teacher or librarian had tried to warn me off a book with, “That’s for girl’s,” I might have missed out on some of my favorite works of literature that have shaped and molded so much of how I see the world. I never would have gone west with Laura Ingalls and her family, never spent time in a Secret Garden with Mary Lennox or in Avonlea with Anne Shirley, and never longed to be a member of the March family. My life would have been the lesser because of that. I more often identified with the female protagonists (Anne Shirley, Meg Murry, Jo March) because they, like me, were daydreamers and often did not fit in. I wanted to have adventures with Pippi Longstocking or Mary Poppins and solve mysteries with Nancy Drew (whose books I devoured just as much as The Hardy Boys series).

I know publishers had J.K. Rowling use her initials when they first published the Harry Potter series out of fear that boys would not read them if they knew they were written by a woman. This is very narrow thinking to my mind. I didn’t care that Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott or L.M. Montgomery were women because I fell in love with the worlds they created with words. They drew me into their stories and made me long to be friends with their protagonists because, as Anne would say, they were “kindred spirits.”

Part of this may be that the person who had the biggest influence on me was my mother. She was the one who instilled and encouraged my love of reading. She, along with many of my great-aunts on her side of the family, were lovely storytellers and weavers of family history. That’s why I love the writing of Eudora Welty.  Her stories and novels remind me of the way my great-aunts spoke and their love of language and narrative. When I first read Eudora Welty, it felt like coming home to me. It filled me with a love of not only language but of a land and a people and a culture. They were all great talkers. And I loved listening to them.

I am not sure how I often discover the books that I love. Sometimes they were recommended to me by librarians, sometimes by teachers, sometimes by my mother or, often by the writers whose works I already loved.  In undergraduate school, I saw that, in many ways, my knowledge and breadth of women writers was lacking, so I enrolled in a “Women in Literature” class. I discovered Virginia Woolf, first through her essay A Room of One’s Own and then through her marvelous fiction. I was exposed to women of color: everyone from Zora Neal Hurston to Maya Angelou to Toni Morrison. Morrison’s The Bluest Eye opened my own to white privilege and brought tears to mine in reading about Pecola who believes herself to be “ugly” because of her dark skin and longs to have “blue eyes” because she felt that to be beautiful was to be white.

In undergraduate school, I also took a poetry class with the poet Susan Ludvigson. It was there I read not only her work but began to discover Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Jane Kenyon, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, May Sarton, Nikki Giovanni, Denise Levertov and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I was already an admirer of Emily Dickinson, who was always “Saint Emily” to me. Saint Emily was the one who taught me to see the small, often unnoticed things of life (a bee, a flower, a slant of light). Mary Oliver taught me to be astonished.

A few years ago, Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul stated in an interview with the Royal Geographic Society that he considered no woman author to be his “equal” because they are “sentimental” and have a “narrow view of the world,” and that they are not  a “complete master of their house.” He was particularly critical of Jane Austen, the author I most often recommend to people.

Naipaul’s attitude is not only sexist but disgustingly idiotic. It also shows how limited of mind he is; which, to me, is a deadly thing for an author to be. A closed mind shows open ignorance, to quote my mother.

The female authors who I cherish the most (Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather Jhumpa Lahiri, Angela Carter, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Strout) are all writers whose works have opened my mind to a much larger world, even when they are focusing on a much smaller and narrower aspect of home life or society. When I enter their fiction and nonfiction, I am often challenged to think more inclusively and more openly. I have empathy for their characters, even when their characters aren’t always likable.

Often, they make me want to live in the worlds they are exploring: be that Bath, England or Prince Edward Island or Gilead, Iowa. Now I long to visit their homes and the places they wrote (some writing in secret so not even their family members knew).

Many of their protagonists are among my dearest and closest friends. Lizzie Bennet, Meg Murry, Jo March, Anne Shirley, Hermione Granger, Cassandra Mortmain, or Sara Crewe.

To close myself off to books simply because they are written by women or because their protagonists are female is to close myself off to wisdom and experience and true daring.

I love reading diversely and widely. It thrills me when someone recommends a book to me and it becomes one of my favorites, which happened recently with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. By reading these works, I get to embody their characters and view the world through their eyes. I can begin to understand women much better than if I had never read these masterpieces.

Part of why I love women authors is because I tend to get along better with females than males. Females are, more often, better conversationalists who are willing to discuss deeper things and are more open to vulnerability than many males. I, like Virginia Woolf, ““Why are women… so much more interesting to men than men are to women?”

I cannot imagine my life without having read women writers. Their works have enriched and made my life that much more fuller and expansive. In her book One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty writes, “It is our inward journey that leads us through time – forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing, with respect to others. As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction.” Any great writer, male or female, can take us on that inward journey of discovery.

I cannot fathom not having read Isak Dinesen or Elizabeth Goudge or Katherine Mansfield or Mavis Gallant or Barbara Kingsolver or Anne Fadiman or Helene Hanff or Joan Didion or Patti Smith or Ann Patchett or Carol Shields or Ursula K. Le Guin or Naomi Shihab Nye or Kate DiCamillo or Simone Weil or Mary Oliver or Lorrie Moore or Tina Fey . . .  and the list goes on.

My life would be so reduced without their works having been a part of it. They help me to see, to think, to feel, to explore and question in ways I never would have had I not read them. I truly value women: strong, intelligent, creative women. My life has been al the better for this, I believe.

By the way, I have read the work of V.S. Naipaul and I would gladly take Jane Austen over him any day.

Book Questionairre

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What was the first book you had read to you?

Goodnight Moon

What was the first book you read on your own?

The Story of Babar

What was the first book(s) received as a present?

Doctor Doolittle, The Wizard of Oz

What was the first book that really made you become a reader?

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

What was the first book series you ever read?

Uncle Wiggly

Who was your favorite author(s) as a child?

Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Kenneth Grahame – to name just a few and I could very easily go on and on and on.

What was the first book(s) that transitioned you from reading children’s books to more mature literature?

The Lord of the RingsThe Catcher in the Rye

What book did you read later in life that most people read when they were younger?

Watership Down

What book have you attempted to read but have never been able to finish?

Ulysses by James Joyce. I usually start it every Bloom’s Day but never can get through it.

What book have you read the most?

Pride and Prejudice 

What book do you recommend the most?

Anything by Jane Austen.

What book changed your life?

There have been different books at different times. They range from Lewis’ Narnia series to Anne of Green Gables to anything by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen to anything by more modern authors like Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson.

What author would you most like to have lunch with?

Eudora Welty. She’s a born story-teller and she reminds me of a great-aunt that I loved dearly and who used to give me books for presents (How could I not love a relative who did that???)

What author do you admire but would never dare of having lunch with?

Fyodor Dostoevsky or Emily Dickinson.

What literary character(s) would you like to have lunch with?

Anne Shirley, Cassandra Mortmain, Hermione Granger, Lizzie Bennett

What are 5 of your favorite books?

My answers will change depending on when someone’s asking me. Right now, I would say:

  1. Jane Eyre
  2. Persuasian
  3. Gilead
  4. Jayber Crow
  5. Little Women

What book have you read that others might be surprised you loved?

Maybe The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but I am a sucker for epistolary novels.

What book you have read that others might be surprised you didn’t like?

The Goldfinch

What was the last book you finished?

Inside Out & Back Again

What books are currently on your bedside table to be read?

Our Mutual FriendAnything is PossibleFates and FuriesSerena

What is your most cherished book?

My boxed set of Narnia paperbacks that I received as a Christmas present. Those books are what made me grow up and love books and fill my house chock full of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blessing As Greeting

IMG_6814When my older son was born, I asked everyone, when they held him for the first time, to whisper a prayer of blessing in his ear. I, of course, did the same. I remember leaning my lips close to his ear and quietly praying, “May your heart always be filled with compassion and may your mind always be filled with wonder.” It was important to me that the very first words my son heard from each person when they first held and met him be words of blessings over his life. I have no idea what each person whispered to him, only that they did.

Imagine how different our cultures, our communities, and our world would be if that is how we first greeted each other: with words of blessings over that person’s life?

In the Philippines, the gesture to greet someone is called Mano and, translated into English, means “to bless.” This is typically done by someone younger towards someone who is older as a sign of respect and is usually done when entering their house.

Think of Gabriel’s greeting towards Mary, “Hail, Mary. Blessed art thou among women.” It is a holy greeting, a greeting of reverence and sacredness. How many of us greet one another in the realization of the holiness of each other?

There is the Arabic greeting of, “As-salaam‘alaykum” or “Peace be upon you,” to which the other person responds, “Wa alaykum as-salaam” or “Peace be upon you, too.”

In Hinduism, there is the greeting of “Namaste,” done in conjunction with a small bow and putting one’s hands together in front of one’s chest. They believe that each person contains an element of the divine spark and are therefore acknowledging that in another.

How might we shape another person’s experience or how they view themselves, at least for that moment in time, by greeting them with a blessing over their life? To offer them words of life and, like the angel Gabriel, honor them.

To offer another a blessing is to understand that words, inherently, have power: power to transform and change someone. Within language is the incarnation: that not only is all life sacred but so, too, are the words we speak, especially to one another. Is it any wonder then that the Proverbs remind us, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker J, Palmer writes, “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Therefore, choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Why, I wondered, would God waste precious breath on saying something so obvious? I had failed to understand the perverse comfort we sometimes get from choosing death in life, exempting ourselves from the challenge of using our gifts, of living our lives in authentic relationship with others.”

When we speak to another in the form of a blessing, we are speaking from the depth of our true selves (as created in the image of God) to their true selves (also created in the image of God).  We are not projecting onto them our own sense of inferiority, our own limitations and liabilities, our fears and our weaknesses, but moving past our own fears to embracing the truth about them and, ultimately, about ourselves: we are connected and meant for holy community with one another. To speak to one another in the form of a blessing is to honor that person.

When we speak to another in such a manner, what are we planting within their souls? How are we altering and changing them in a way we may not even become aware of? How much would offering another a blessing as greeting change and alter us? Certainly we would see others in a completely new manner: a whole (Shalom) way of looking at someone.

To greet someone in blessing is to do so out of humility and not a sense of pride and selfishness. We are moving beyond ourselves to addressing the createdness of each and every being. We are saying, as God did upon their creation, “It is good.” It is realizing that each and every one of our destinies are the same: love. We were created in love and are deeply loved – beloved. When we greet one another in such a way that recognizes this, then we cannot judge another by their skin color, gender, sexuality, religion, or socio-economic status. Instead, we are embracing them with our words, with our fervent desires and hopes that their life will be blessed, that they are worthy of love, that we will reach out past our loneliness and our fears to the understanding that we were put here to live out “on earth as it is in heaven” with all we come across in our daily paths. We will then begin to see, as Thomas Merton did, that, “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.”

 

 

It’s All Right To Wonder

Mister Rogers

I grew up in a home where questions were often ignored, dismissed or unwelcome. Since I was a kid who was always wondering, I tended to have a lot of questions. “Where did God come from? Did God have a mom and dad?”

One of my favorite programs as a child, and continues to be even now, was Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Like many kids, I felt a sense of calm because of Fred Rogers’ relaxed nature. He never appeared angry or upset. He always appeared to understand. As a boy, I, like so many who watched this show on PBS, felt as if he were talking directly to me.

Along with going to the Land of Make-Believe or visiting people (Yo-Yo Ma or Wynton Marsalis to name two) or Picture Picture (where we got to see how things, like crayons or harmonicas, were made), I loved Fred’s songs and could often sing them along with him. One song that was especially important to me was one that few may remember. It was called “Did You Know?”

The lyrics were:

Did you know? Did you know?
Did you know that it’s all right to wonder?
Did you know that it’s all right to wonder?
There are all kinds of wonderful things!

Did you know? Did you know?
Did you know that it’s all right to marvel?
Did you know that it’s all right to marvel?
There are all kinds of marvelous things!

You can ask a lot of questions about the world…
And your place in it.
You can ask about people’s feelings;
You can learn the sky’s the limit.

Did you know? Did you know?
Did you know when you wonder you’re learning?
Did you know when you marvel you’re learning
About all kinds of wonderful,
All kinds of marvelous,
Marvelously wonderful things?

I remember hearing those words being sung by someone I deeply trusted and heard him telling me that it’s all right to wonder. What a vitally important thing to teach a child. That it’s okay for them to wonder and marvel because the world was full of wonderful, marvelous things. This song stayed with me into my adulthood and has, in many ways, shaped my own way of viewing the world (not as something to fear, but as something that offers me the opportunity to be endlessly curious).

“It seems to me,” Fred Rogers once said in an interview, “that some of us value information over wonder, and noise over silence. And I feel that we need a lot more wonder and a lot more silence in our lives.”

These words resonate with me. I watched his show because, unlike so many others, Fred offered his viewers the opportunity to wonder and reflect.

Because of that song, when I became a parent, I remembered what it was like being a child whose questions were shut down and how it made me feel as if there was something wrong about asking them. I never wanted my sons to keep their questions internally because they are afraid to ask me.

Questioning is a way of digging deeper of trying to understand and come to terms with what we encounter in life. Questions about God, death, sadness, cruelty, friendship, and about the very world we go through in our daily lives. A child must believe that they can come to their parents and be able to ask without fear of being shamed for their wondering. Questions are how they try to make sense of all that they encounter and don’t understand. They are entrusting their questions to that parent and a parent’s job is to hold that question with the trust that has just been given to them. I always listen to not only what they are asking but why they are asking me. Sometimes I have answers and sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, I am honest and admit that I don’t understand myself.

I listen carefully. I listen to the words and the emotions of their questions. By listening to them, I’m showing them not only that I care but they and their questions are important. And, whenever I have taught children, I approach them with the same care and respect.

As parents, we must listen with our ears and our hearts. We must provide safe spaces for our children to wonder, to question and to marvel. “It’s our insides that make us who we are,” Mister Rogers said, “that allow us to dream and wonder and feel for others. That’s what’s essential. That’s what will always make the biggest difference in our world.”

Like Mister Rogers, we need to tell our kids, “It’s all right to wonder” and show them that we do the very same thing. Sometimes I ask my kids questions to see how they answer, to hear what’s in their hearts and minds, to understand their views and grasp of what matters most. It’s a way to connect more deeply with them. Again, it’s a way to show them that who they are and what they think matters to me.

Is there not a greater gift we can offer them than this?

 

The Comfort Of Familiar Books

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Throughout my life, whenever things felt overwhelming or dark, I would return to the books that I loved the most for comfort. As a kid, I spent a lot of time with Anne Shirley, Jo March, Meg Murry, Sara Crew, Laura Ingalls, Mary Lennox, the Pevensie children, or the works of Edward Eager, E. Nesbitt, or E. B. White. I wanted to run away with Claudia and her brother Jamie to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or go to Moonacre Manor with Maria Merryweather or to Oz with Dorothy Gale

The older I got, the more authors and books I added to that list. One of my favorites, who always comes through in a pinch, is Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. I found kindred spirits in characters like Cassandra Mortmain from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or I wanted to spend time in Guernsey with their Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I returned again and again to Helene Hanff’s letters from 84 Charing Cross Road or the rural tales of veterinarian  James Herriot or Port William in the fiction of Wendell Berry.

I continued returning to my favorite children’s books and discovered new ones, like the Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall or pretty much anything by Kate DiCamillo.

Yet, recently, the book I find myself taking down from the shelf and simply meditating on its simple story and beautiful illustrations is Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man. Some may recognize the title from its being referenced in the bestselling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

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Unlike most manga, The Walking Man is a visual poem of the ordinary. Its story, told mostly with images and with very few words, is about a nameless protagonist and what he encounters as he simply walks around his neighborhood and his city. Even the title of each chapter is mundane: The Bird Watcher, Snow, Around Town, Tree Climbing, Rain, A Blanket of Cherry Blossom, A Nice Hot Bath.

This is a contemplative work, something that is not meant to be rushed through, but for the reader to stop themselves, look more closely at Taniguchi’s drawings and then go out into their own world, wander and wonder and notice it. This is not about story and narrative, but about reflection. It’s about taking time to enjoy the simple, mundane pleasures that the world affords us: lying on our backs in the grass, watching birds, climbing a tree, taking a bath, feeling the cool breeze on one’s skin, the scent of flowers, or splashing in rain puddles.

Walking Man laying down

The Walking Man is about the small journeys we take in our own neighborhoods and towns. It’s about the deeper journey we take within ourselves as we allow ourselves to be present to the world about us. It’s about the outer transformations that occur (storms, snow) and the inner ones that we can easily overlook within because we are too busy.

There is a gentleness to Taniguchi’s work. It’s about a man simply appreciating and being fascinated by everyday life. There are no major revelations or great insights other than for us to become more like this nameless man.

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The Walking Man is filled with humanity and elegant line drawings with their intricately constructed landscapes.  The drawings, like the message of the work, ask us to take our time and discover beauty in simplicity.

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Every time I return to the peaceful, reflective world of this book, I find myself within its pages. I slow down. I look closer and notice even more details each time I turn the page, which takes longer and longer with each reading because I am in the stillness and silence of the drawings. My pace begins to mirror the nameless man in the story.

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When I close the cover, I don’t rush to get up but I close my eyes for a few moments, almost as if in prayer. I sit with the images and I ask myself, “How can I take my time today to see and be present to what is around me?”

Do I sometimes, intentionally, not carry an umbrella so I can feel the gentle rain on my skin?

Do I lie in the grass and gaze up at the limbs of the tree and the clouds in the sky?

Do I close my eyes and touch the bark of a tree to feel its roughness against my palm?

Do I allow myself to actually experience the world around me?

Do I take the time to meet those who come across my path?

Do I experience joy by smelling a flower or petting a dog?

The images are both filled with the solitary as well as with community, which is vitally important and necessary to the sense of connectedness that runs throughout this masterpiece.

This is a work about ikigai (meaning “life” and “benefit” or “reason for living”). It’s about finding value in those daily moments we so often experience without being truly present to them.

Jiro Taniguchi

This is a thoughtful work created by someone who relishes the miraculousness of the mundane and sees the extraordinary beauty that’s found in the ordinary.  It came as no surprise to me that those who knew Jiro Taniguchi described him as “extraordinarily kind and gentle’ and this spirit shows in his work.

The Walking Man is a book you won’t just want to read, but you will want to savor and meditate on, as well as it will make you want nothing more than to go out into the world to walk and notice.