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empty tomb oxford easter

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

green blooming tree appian way spring

This Good Friday, as we prepare for both Easter (on Sunday) and the 2014 Boston Marathon (scheduled for Monday), seems a fitting day to practice resurrection.

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sand glitter beach coronado

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

—Mary Oliver

Married to amazement, indeed. That’s what I want.

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April is National Poetry Month, so I’ll be sharing poetry on Fridays here this month (and more often if I can’t help myself).

First up: one of my favorite poems from Seamus Heaney, whose words I discovered in a college course on Irish literature.

inishmor aran islands

Postscript

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

That last line is a perfect evocation of what poetry should do. And this whole poem – its images, its Irishness, its use of simple words to convey a deep truth – is vintage Heaney.

(Photo from my trip to the Aran Islands in 2007, which caught my heart off guard and blew it open.)

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memorial church interior harvard yard

It is my Lent to break my Lent,
To eat when I would fast,
To know when slender strength is spent,
Take shelter from the blast
When I would run with wind and rain,
To sleep when I would watch.
It is my Lent to smile at pain
But not ignore its touch.
It is my Lent to listen well
When I would be alone,
To talk when I would rather dwell
In silence, turn from none
Who call on me, to try to see
That what is truly meant
Is not my choice. If Christ’s I’d be
It’s thus I’ll keep my Lent.

—Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine is one of my spiritual heroes; I love everything she writes, from memoir to semi-science-fiction to thoughts on faith and art. This poem was recommended by Kari.

A blessed Lent to you.

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January reading roundup #2

book breakfast one good deed

For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey, Richard Blanco
I love Blanco’s inaugural poem, “One Today,” and I was surprised and moved to hear him read his poem “Boston Strong” at Fenway Park this summer. This slim memoir traces both Blanco’s career as a poet and the process of writing the inaugural poem. Lyrical and lovely.

Dancing Through It: My Life in the Ballet, Jenifer Ringer
Ringer, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, chronicles her years in the highly competitive world of professional dance. She is honest about both her eating disorders and the Christian faith that helped her conquer them. The writing sometimes lacks polish, but her voice is warm and engaging. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 20).

One Good Deed: 365 Days of Trying to Be Just a Little Bit Better, Erin McHugh
On her birthday, McHugh resolves to do one good deed every day for a whole year. The deeds take many forms – giving money to the needy, promoting a friend’s work, being kind to grumpy customers or simply keeping her mouth shut. She writes about them with humor, wit and an earthy grace.

Dear Mr. Knightley, Katherine Reay
Orphan Samantha Moore has always taken refuge in her favorite books, but struggles to form relationships with people. When a mysterious benefactor (“Mr. Knightley”) offers her a full scholarship to journalism school, Sam pours out her heart in a series of letters to him. A heartbreaking, charming, modern twist on Daddy-Long-Legs, and a wonderful story of redemption.

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman, brilliant but socially inept genetics researcher, develops an exacting questionnaire to help him find the perfect wife. Rosie, a whip-smart, fiery redhead who fails nearly all Don’s criteria, bursts into his life and upsets it utterly. A fast, funny, smart love story. Recommended by Anne.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, Anya von Bremzen
Anya von Bremzen, food writer and Soviet émigré, explores her country’s chaotic history as she and her mother cook their way through essential Soviet dishes of the 20th century. The history lessons dragged at times, but this was a fascinating and very different take on the food memoir trend.

I’ve been reading up a storm lately, so look for another reading roundup on Friday.

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

What are you reading?

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sunset cape cod

You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

—G.K. Chesterton

We often say grace before meals at our house – sometimes a spontaneous prayer, sometimes the old Lutheran blessing I learned at my grandparents’ kitchen table when I was a child. We fell out of the habit for a couple of years, but have come back to it. I like the ritual, the brief pause to give thanks before plunging into a meal and an account of our days.

We say grace, too, before Sunday night dinners with friends, joining hands in a wonky circle around a long wooden table. When it is Amy’s turn, she always says, “We are so thankful for all that we have been given.” When she says, “Thank you for our family,” I know she means both her blood family and us, the family we have chosen, the family we have become. Tomorrow, when we gather in our church basement with Amy and her kids and some other friends, to eat and celebrate and be together, we will say grace, and perhaps we will sing about thankfulness.

I don’t always say grace verbally at other times of the day. But in one way or another, I am saying grace all day long.

I say grace at the sunset and the sunrise, at the streaks of gold on the horizon and the deep cobalt twilight of the Cambridge sky. I say grace before snatching half an hour with a cup of tea and a good book. I say grace before traveling to places known or unknown, before spending time with family or friends.

I say grace when I receive a text or an email from someone I love, and when I walk across Harvard Yard to Morning Prayers, the bells of Memorial Church ringing through the crisp, cold air. I say grace when my colleagues make me laugh, and when I pull off a complicated piece of writing, and when a package of shiny new books comes in the mail. I say grace when I cook a delicious meal or wrap up in a warm sweater or watch a good movie.

Every year around this time, I reread W.S. Merwin’s poem “Thanks,” which admits a prickly truth: saying thank you can be difficult in a world that is often dark and dangerous. But I believe the very act of saying it, and Chesterton’s parallel act of saying grace, both create pinpricks of light in the darkness. No matter how dark it gets, or how mundane the days can seem, we have much to be grateful for.

This week, as I bake treats and wash dishes and laugh with my husband and call my mother, I will be saying grace, and saying thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. See you next week.

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Oct 2013 001

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

I have never met Mary Oliver, but I consider her one of my teachers.

A published poet since 1963, Oliver has written hundreds, probably thousands, of poems during her lifetime, producing more than 25 books of poetry and three books of nonfiction to date. She writes about early morning walks in the woods or along the shoreline; finding the footprints of animals in the forest or near a lake; the tension between the fleeting beauty of the natural world and its undertones of violence, death and decay. She harbors a deep love for the world we inhabit, and a deep sadness for the ways humans mar or destroy the quiet, lonely places where animals and plants live.

I doubt Oliver ever cared much for clothes and fashion, but if she did, she gave up that particular passion long ago. She has learned what is worth caring about, and what she can easily ignore:

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.

This is what I need to learn, amid my distracted and often scattered life, amid my commute and my day job, amid the relentless pull of social media and relationships online and offline. I need to learn to pause, on my front porch or in the park or even on the subway platform, and pay attention to the
natural world, to the details that astonish.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine again today, sharing my thoughts on Oliver’s poetry. Please click over there to read the rest of my essay.

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where the sidewalk ends chatham ma

What I read on vacation, and what I’ve been reading since we came back:

Bertie Plays the Blues, Alexander McCall Smith
The seventh 44 Scotland Street novel finds Matthew and Elspeth welcoming triplet boys; Domenica and Angus preparing for marriage; and Bertie, age six, pondering how to get himself adopted. I loved revisiting these characters again – as ever, this series is quirky, amusing, gently meandering and so much fun.

Smart Girls Get What They Want, Sarah Strohmeyer
Gigi, Bea and Neerja are straight-A students and best friends who fly mostly under the radar at their Boston-area high school. They’ve never been bothered by their lack of social cachet, but as their sophomore year begins, each girl vows to take on a challenge that scares her: Gigi runs for student school board rep, Bea rejoins the ski team and Neerja auditions for a play. This was a smart, funny read with wonderfully real characters – and as a smart girl myself, I was cheering them on the whole way. (I also loved the scenes set in Harvard Square – my workplace neighborhood.) Smart girls unite!

The Apothecary, Maile Meloy
It’s 1952 and Janie Scott has just moved to London with her parents, whose jobs as TV writers place them under scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee. As Janie adjusts to her stiff new school, she meets a mysterious apothecary and his son, who must prevent an old and valuable book from falling into enemy hands. A fast-paced, fun story with a bit of magic, a lot of action and a bit of romance. Wonderful. I can’t wait to read the sequel (just out).

More Things in Heaven and Earth, Jeff High
Fresh out of medical school, Luke Bradford reluctantly takes up a post as the town doctor in tiny Watervalley, Tennessee. He longs for a research job in a large city, but gradually finds himself warming to his new staff and patients (including his sharp-tongued housekeeper, Connie). The novel follows his first six months in Watervalley – including a baffling flu epidemic – and sets the stage for a new series. Reminiscent of the Irish Country Doctor series (though I didn’t find it quite as captivating). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 1).

Also Known As, Robin Benway
Maggie Silver, daughter of spies, is a top-notch safecracker who’s lived in multiple countries. But when her family gets an assignment in New York, she has to go to high school – and befriend a cute boy whose father may be plotting against her parents. Maggie is cocky, snarky and a little melodramatic, but she’s determined and good-hearted (I loved her friendship with ex-mean-girl Roux). Fun and fast-paced, in the vein of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girl series.

Aimless Love, Billy Collins
Collins is my favorite living poet. This collection of new and selected poems is shot through with his signature whimsy and depth. I loved revisiting poems from four previous collections, followed by a bounty of new poems. He takes the everyday and makes it luminous, turning it like a prism so its different facets are visible, making me look at the ordinary in an entirely different way. It’s a rare gift. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 22).

Her Royal Spyness, Rhys Bowen
First in a series of mysteries starring Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, (known as “Georgie,”) 34th in line to the British throne, in the 1930s. Penniless, single and bored, Georgie escapes to London to make something of herself, going undercover to start a cleaning service. But then a Frenchman (who’s been trying to steal her family estate) ends up dead in her bathtub, and she must use her wits to solve the mystery and clear her family’s name. Witty, light and fun. I’ll be picking up the sequel.

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links. And I’m participating in the Twitterature link-up over at Modern Mrs. Darcy.

What are you reading?

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Apr 2013 010

A Dangerous Fiction, Barbara Rogan
Literary agent Jo Donovan, widow of a famous author, is living her dream life in New York City. But when an overeager client begins stalking Jo and a dozen of her clients fall prey to a hacking scam, her carefully constructed life begins to crumble. When a friend and client is murdered, Jo finally goes to the police – and encounters an old love, Tommy Cullen. Fast-paced, witty and sharp, full of deftly drawn characters, this fun literary mystery provides a fascinating glimpse into the NYC publishing world. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 25).

Letters from Skye, Jessica Brockmole
When Elspeth Dunn, a young Scottish poet, receives a fan letter from a college student in Illinois, she never expects it to change her life. But though her correspondence with David Graham provides a bright spot in the shadow of World War I, it has disastrous consequences for her family. Years later, as the German bombs fall on Edinburgh, Elspeth disappears, leaving her daughter with a yellowed letter and few clues to her mother’s, and her own, history. Beautifully told in warm, witty letters, in the tradition of Guernsey and other epistolary novels. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9).

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, Alexander McCall Smith
Changes are afoot in Scotland Street: marriage (and an adventurous honeymoon) for Matthew, cub scouts for six-year-old Bertie, an unexpected basket of puppies (courtesy of his dog, Cyril) for Angus Lordie. But the humorous everyday interactions, and the gentle absurdities arising therefrom, remain. So much fun.

A Beautiful Blue Death, Charles Finch
When a young housemaid turns up dead, Charles Lenox, Victorian London gentleman and amateur detective, is called upon to help solve the mystery. I enjoyed watching Lenox spar with Scotland Yard, track suspects and clues through London, and despair of ever getting properly made boots. A fun introduction to Lenox and his circle of friends (including his brother Edmund and neighbor, Lady Jane). Not particularly suspenseful, but an interesting mystery.

Red Bird, Mary Oliver
I love Oliver’s work, though this wasn’t my favorite volume of her poetry – some of it felt preachy, some a bit vague. Some lovely lines, though, and I like the poems about her dog, Percy. And I love the poem “I don’t want to live a small life” (which is why I checked out this book in the first place).

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox, brilliant architect and slightly unhinged wife and mother, disappears from her Seattle home (a crumbling former girls’ school) without a trace. It’s up to her Microsoft tech-genius husband and her smart, savvy teenage daughter, Bee, to piece together the series of events that led Bernadette off the deep end. Told in letters, emails, texts and other documents, this novel is at once wildly funny, sharply satirical and genuinely warmhearted. I loved it. Recommended by Shelley.

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

What are you reading?

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cambridge ma forsythia yellow spring

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
Adam Zagajewski

My friend Kari posted this poem last week, and that night, I came across it in the last section of Caroline Kennedy’s lovely poetry anthology She Walks in Beauty. Then it showed up in Shelf Awareness on Friday, as all of Boston waited with bated breath for the police to catch the second bombing suspect. I have been thinking about it ever since, as I move through this world we live in, so beautiful and yet so broken.

Life is, mostly, back to “business as usual” in Boston. This is a tough town, as the new city motto – Boston Strong – indicates. It will take more than a bombing to put it off-kilter for long. But alongside the displays of strength and courage, the grief lingers.

On Monday afternoon, I gathered with colleagues in the small garden next to our building for a moment of silence, as many others across the city did the same. Our dean read the names of the fallen, and then we all stood still and silent as the church bells began to ring. Above us, the sun skittered in and out of the clouds as we stood huddled in our coats. The weight of our grief was palpable. And yet I felt profoundly grateful to be there, sharing this moment with my community.

Our world is beautiful, and it is broken. We cannot always prevent or heal the brokenness, but I believe we can find solace in praise.

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