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billy collins books poetry

Questions About Angels

Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

—Billy Collins

I love Collins’ luminous, whimsical poetry (witness my stack of his books, above). My favorite part of this poem is the image of that one lone, willowy angel, dancing alone in her stocking feet as the indigo night sky stretches overhead and the bassist checks his watch.

April is National Poetry Month, and I have been sharing poetry here on Fridays – I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

darwins chai journal scone orange cafe

A couple of months ago, Stephanie tweeted the following:

Underneath the hustle of the productivity cult, it seems to me what we’re really aching for is liturgy. Small, sacred things on repeat.

I love that definition of liturgy, and I’ve been pondering it ever since. I especially like the idea of liturgy as daily rhythm: the small routines that give shape and meaning to our days.

I’ve written before about the liturgy of dinnertime (and, more broadly, of marriage) in my life, but I started wondering where else liturgy shows up in my days. What small routines, performed over and over, pull me back to the present moment, until the act of doing them becomes a kind of prayer?

My morning tea is the first thing that came to mind. After my shower, wrapped in my robe, I walk into the kitchen and hold the red teakettle under the tap, counting to seven or eight as the water splashes in. I turn on the burner, measure looseleaf tea into my favorite cobalt blue mug (or grab a tea bag, if I’m super rushed).

tea mug scone

I move around the apartment, tending to other details of the morning, until I hear the kettle whistle and rush in to take it off the burner. I pour the tea, let it steep while I get dressed and blow-dry my hair, then sit down (if there’s time) to sip it at the dining room table, with a scone or a bowl of cereal.

Sometime during the workday, or on my lunch break, I slip away to Darwin’s for half an hour with my journal and a cup of chai. This routine, too, has its own shape: I walk in, join the line by the front counter, greet the barista and order a medium chai (sometimes adding a scone or my favorite breakfast sandwich). I snag a table if I can, or perch on a bench or barstool if I can’t, and alternate between sipping and scribbling until it’s time to go back to the office.

When I get home after work, my brain is often fried – and even in our small apartment, there are always chores to do. Often, after walking in the door and dumping my bag, the first thing I do is sort laundry or tackle a pile of dirty dishes.

It doesn’t always feel sacred, and I sometimes grumble about having to deal with all this on top of a full-time job. But making dirty things clean is satisfying, as Anne Shirley often noted. And folding the warm, dry clothes, or lining up the shining dishes in the dish rack, brings a tangible feeling of accomplishment. After a day of clicking and typing, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

I worry sometimes about getting bogged down in routine, going through the motions of my life without really paying attention. (It’s so easy to do that when I’m clicking from email to website to Word doc, all day long.) But repeating these daily acts helps ground me – even if I don’t always realize it.

I also have a few daily “liturgies” that involve other people: blowing a kiss to my husband as he leaves for work, checking in with a friend or two via text message, greeting colleagues as we start the morning. And several weekly routines also help save my life: buying fresh flowers for my desk, yoga class on Monday nights, talking to my mother on the phone.

I wonder if simply naming these liturgies, becoming more aware of them, can turn them into a source of peace, a chance to truly connect with our lives as we go about our days. I love the idea of small, sacred things on repeat as a counterbalance to the to-do list and the relentless pace of modern life. I want more of that, please.

Where do you see this kind of liturgy showing up in your life?

pasta salad red bowl book

Spring is (finally) springing here in Boston, and though the farmers’ markets won’t be open yet awhile, I’m feeling the need to bring a little spring into my kitchen.

We’ve been eating hearty soups all winter, and while I love them, I’m mixing in a few lighter recipes these days. I’m on my annual asparagus kick, and last week I whipped up our favorite pasta salad.

I’m not a fan of most pasta salads – cold, slimy things full of suspect ingredients. But this particular one is warm, light and fresh. It involves several of my favorite things: juicy tomatoes, creamy goat cheese, peppery arugula. It’s quick and easy. And it makes me think of my friend Happy.

His real name isn’t Happy, of course – it’s Craig. He’s a tall Californian ex-hippie who’s lived in Texas for many years. Back when he used to blog, “Happy the man” was his blog moniker, and it stuck. His granddaughters, and lots of his friends, still call him Happy.

One spring when we lived in Abilene, J and I spent a weekend in Austin (during South by Southwest) for a college friend’s wedding. Happy and his wife, Laura, were our hosts – treating us to fish tacos at Wahoo’s and taking us to a couple of fabulous concerts. But we spent one rainy afternoon just hanging out at their house. Happy whipped up this dish, and we ate it from white ceramic bowls, curled up on their sectional leather couch with our shoes off. I felt so warm and taken care of and – well – happy.

Every time I make this for dinner, I remember that afternoon, and a little of that glow comes back. (Plus it’s delicious.)

This is more of a guideline than a recipe, but here goes:

  • Boil a pot of salted water and cook pasta (we like fusilli or bow tie) according to package directions.
  • Slice a handful of cherry or cocktail tomatoes; saute briefly in olive oil if you like.
  • Toss pasta with tomatoes, 2-3 cups arugula, and a small log of goat cheese, crumbled.
  • Garnish with a few grinds of black pepper. If you have some fresh basil to toss in, so much the better.
  • Eat warm, in your favorite bowl. Enjoy!

What are your favorite springtime dishes?

harvard yard autumn light leaves

Villanelle for an Anniversary

A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the Yard,
The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,
The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

The maps dreamt on like moondust. Nothing stirred.
The future was a verb in hibernation.
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Before the classic style, before the clapboard,
All through the small hours of an origin,
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

Night passage of a migratory bird.
Wingflap. Gownflap. Like a homing pigeon
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Was that his soul (look) sped to its reward
By grace or works? A shooting star? An omen?
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

Begin again where frosts and tests were hard.
Find yourself or founder. Here, imagine
A spirit moves, John Harvard walks the yard,
The books stand open and the gates unbarred.

—Seamus Heaney

I’ve loved Seamus Heaney’s work since my undergrad days, when I discovered him in an Irish literature course. My favorite poems of his include “Song” and “Postscript,” which I’ve shared here before.

I did not know, when I came to work at Harvard, that Heaney also had a strong connection to this place. But he spent considerable time here, and he composed the poem above for the university’s 350th anniversary, in 1986.

After Heaney’s death in August 2013, a colleague clipped “Postscript” for me from his copy of the Financial Times. I still have it pinned on my bulletin board at work. A few weeks later, I heard President Faust quote the villanelle above at Memorial Church, during Morning Prayers. This spring, I heard her (again at Morning Prayers) quote from Heaney’s poem “The Cure at Troy.” (Clearly she’s a fellow fan.)

I love Heaney’s villanelle for its quiet, spare imagery; for the sense it evokes of Harvard’s history; for its bell-like rhythm, as clear as an autumn night in Cambridge. Most of all, I love the repeated line that captures what a university should be: a place where “the books stand open and the gates unbarred.”

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month.

yoga mat bare feet

Back in January (which feels like years ago now), I read a post on Ali Edwards’ blog about her New Year’s getaway to Cancun. It was full of gorgeous photos – Ali’s posts always are. But the thing that grabbed me was a little throwaway paragraph about yoga.

Ali linked to a yoga app she’d recently downloaded, and said, “My goal is really just to do something […] I’ve had an all-or-nothing mentality for way too long.”

I couldn’t get those two lines out of my head.

A couple of weeks later, I went back to Monday night yoga for the first time in months. And then, when the blizzards began and I couldn’t make it back to the studio, I downloaded that same yoga app. I’ve been making an effort to unroll my green yoga mat in my dining room, a couple of times a week, ever since. Just do something.

The all-or-nothing mentality is a killer, isn’t it? For so long, I thought I couldn’t do yoga (or take up any other form of exercise) unless I did it every day. I worried (sometimes still worry) that I’m not a real writer unless I write every day. After a few unhealthy meals (like Saturday’s dinner of all the fried things from the local clam shack), I sometimes start to panic that my diet is going off the rails.

And then I remember: it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. A small change – even a tiny effort in the right direction – can pull me back toward balance.

I’m not doing yoga every day – not even close. The past couple of weeks, I’ve only managed my Monday night class and one short session at home. But it’s something. It feels good to make that effort. I’m not writing every single day, but I am writing most days – and that’s something, too. When I end up on the mat (or come back to the page or cook a dinner involving vegetables), I feel healthier, balanced, more whole.

Just do something. In the spirit of being gentle with myself this year, that’s what I’m going for.

Does the all-or-nothing mentality trip you up, too? What are your tricks for subverting it?

april books

The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, Martin Edwards
A fascinating, highly readable group biography of the men and women who transformed Golden Age (inter-war) detective fiction in the UK and beyond. Full of details about two of my favorites, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 28).

Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett
Trainee witch Tiffany Aching steps into a dance with the titular spirit of winter, and disaster ensues till she (and the Nac Mac Feegles) can figure out how to fix things. Funny and clever, but a little hard to follow.

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
I love the story of Mary, Colin, Dickon and their hidden garden – and there’s no better book to reread while I’m watching for spring. Old-fashioned and beautiful.

Lowcountry Bombshell, Susan M. Boyer
Private eye Liz Talbot takes a case involving a Marilyn Monroe lookalike and her crazy cast of hangers-on. Meanwhile, Liz’s personal life is getting complicated. Not as good as Boyer’s first mystery, but still fun.

The Truth According to Us, Annie Barrows
Layla Beck, pampered senator’s daughter, is sent to Macedonia, West Virginia, as a WPA writer in 1938. Boarding with the Romeyn family, she uncovers more than a few secrets – and learns a thing or two about truth and history. A big-hearted Southern novel; warm and charming. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 9).

Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs, Heather Lende
After a near-fatal bike accident, Lende muses on faith, grief and small-town Alaska life while recovering slowly (and continuing her work as an obituary writer). The title comes from her own mother’s final instructions. Wise and moving.

Lady Thief, A.C. Gaughen
The sequel to Scarlet finds Robin Hood’s band dealing with court intrigue, a dangerous archery tournament and the slippery Prince John. Gripping and well told, though I found Scarlet (the heroine) frustrating at times.

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
Jane Stuart never knew she had a father – until he asks her to come spend the summer with him on Prince Edward Island. One of my favorite spring books – I love smart, practical, capable Jane. And I love the descriptions of PEI.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

robin redbreast bird spring

Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

–Emily Dickinson

I have adored Miss Emily for a long time, but I love this poem more every year.

April is National Poetry Month, and I will be sharing more poetry here on Fridays this month.

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