These are the books I bought at Glen East. (This pile represents impressive self-restraint on my part. I could have bought dozens more.)
Most of them came from the Eighth Day Books room, a Glen tradition. Warren, the owner, drives a big blue van full of books all the way from Kansas. (The bottom book was a just-for-fun purchase at the Odyssey Bookshop, across the street from Mt. Holyoke College, where we were staying.)
More than simply acquiring good words at the Glen, though, I spent the week listening, absorbing, soaking them in. I listened to Kathleen Norris read poetry during our worship services every night, from Philip Levine to Christina Rossetti, from Mark Van Doren to (Kathleen’s late husband) David Dwyer. (So many people asked for the titles and poets that one of the Glen staffers, the inimitable Anna, typed them all up for us at the end of the week.)
I also relished the words of old, beloved hymns, including “Be Thou My Vision” and “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “Now Thank We All Our God.” I listened to Lauren Winner’s sermon on the Hebrew letter aleph, and to Kathleen’s nightly meditations on words related to gratitude, including “gifts” and “trust” and “hospitality.”
We writers also spent hours poring over each other’s words, in print and in conversation, scribbling notes and ideas on our manuscripts and in notebooks. We analyzed what the characters say in a scene, how the narrator shows us a place or describes her own feelings, what it means to speak about your past self with the wisdom of your present self. We even studied a graphic memoir and discussed the interplay of words and images. And we listened – though sometimes we interrupted one another in our eagerness to affirm or exclaim or tell our own stories. So many hours of words.
I’ve been reading Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (the top book in the stack up there) since I came home. And while Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes with grace and wit and urgency about many facets of language, what she does on every page is remind me to pay attention. To cherish good words, and sift out the lazy or weak or damaging ones. To sit in silence and allow space for good words to well up, to resonate, to take root and blossom into something rich and wholesome.
I acquired a long list of book suggestions that week (the pile above is only the beginning). But I also gained something deeper, more precious, more elusive, more vital. A reminder to pay attention, to hone the precision of the words I put together, to ask why certain words and phrases and stories move me, to read with a discerning eye instead of skimming mindlessly. A reminder that words are valuable, and that it is our deep and human responsibility to use them well.
Where do you go to find good words?