Close to Home

I guess that title could also refer to our renewed search for a permanent dwelling place (prayers for that, please!)…

but this poem hit close to home, considering what we’ve been through during the last six months.  So I thought I’d share it.  Thanks to poets.org and their poem-a-day project for bringing it to my attention.

The Things That Count

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Now, dear, it isn’t the bold things,
Great deeds of valour and might,
That count the most in the summing up of life at the end of the day.
But it is the doing of old things,
Small acts that are just and right;
And doing them over and over again, no matter what others say;
In smiling at fate, when you want to cry, and in keeping at work when

          you want to play—
Dear, those are the things that count.

And, dear, it isn’t the new ways
Where the wonder-seekers crowd
That lead us into the land of content, or help us to find our own.
But it is keeping to true ways,
Though the music is not so loud,
And there may be many a shadowed spot where we journey along

          alone;
In flinging a prayer at the face of fear, and in changing into a song a

          groan—
Dear, these are the things that count.

My dear, it isn’t the loud part
Of creeds that are pleasing to God,
Not the chant of a prayer, or the hum of a hymn, or a jubilant shout or

          song.
But it is the beautiful proud part
Of walking with feet faith-shod;
And in loving, loving, loving through all, no matter how things go

          wrong;
In trusting ever, though dark the day, and in keeping your hope when

          the way seems long—

Dear, these are the things that count.

A Poem for Mother’s Day

The Lanyard – by Billy Collins

“The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly-
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”

I don’t recall ever giving my mother a lanyard, but I fear there may have been more than one macaroni necklace.
Thank you for everything, Mom, and I love you!

Resonance. Yes.

“It’s been crazy but also strangely wonderful to have the arrival of my daughter and the release of this book coincide. I’ve spent the last few months in this wintry baby cave—spending all hours of day and night with this tiny creature, learning the exquisite rhythms of her being, her milk breath and shuddering sighs and fluttering eyelids when she dreams about… what? What are her dreams? I am so close to her in these bodily ways, so swollen with love, and yet so much of her is a mystery—and language doesn’t quite summon much of what we are experiencing. That said, I have been so hungry for other peoples’ stories of childbirth and early motherhood, in a way that only deepens my faith in how much narratives matter—which is so much of what this book is about, and so much of what my desire to be a writer is about. Of course, the world is full of narratives about motherhood and writing as antagonistic forces, hell bent on destroying each other—I want so much to believe in all the other ways they can intersect.”

-Leslie Jamison

You can read more of the interview I snatched this from (not G rated but so thoughtful) on LitHub.  And thanks to Image for bringing it to my attention.

The Family: School of Mercy

atphoto_gallery_map_488_333_1507738586027317266664.jpg

 

“The family is the hospital closest to us: when someone is sick, they are cared for there, where possible.  The family is the first school for children, it is the unwavering reference point for the young, it is the best home for the elderly.  It is the first school of mercy, because it is there that we have been loved and learned to love, have been forgiven and learned to forgive.”

-Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy

Review: Coraline

CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I put off reading this book for years. YEARS. I don’t particularly like scary books, so I thought it wasn’t for me.
I’m ready to read it again tomorrow. Gaiman is a master story-teller, of course. I love that just when you think everything is over…there is one more challenge to conquer. Coraline is smart and brave, and almost unbelievably steadfast. Single-minded. If I have a complaint about the book, it’s that she never wavers in her purpose to save her parents and defeat her adversary.
A taste of the depths of the creepiness of Gaiman’s writing:

“Why does she want me?” Coraline asked the cat. “Why does she want me to stay here with her?”
“She wants something to love, I think,” said the cat. “Something that isn’t here. She might want something to eat as well. It’s hard to tell with creatures like that.”

And the gems:

“Coraline wondered why so few of the adults she met made any sense.”

Coraline is a scary book. And sooooo good.

View all my reviews

Trying to Say God – Reading List

It’s been quite a weekend.  I have had the privilege of visiting the University of Notre Dame (also known as “my old stomping grounds”) for three days.  By myself.  It was great.  

So before I gush about how excited I am to hug my kids again, you might want to know what on earth was so exciting it could get me on an airplane for the first time in 10 years?

A number of equally excited people joined me in South Bend this weekend for the “Trying to Say God” conference…basically a bunch of Catholics-who-happen-to-be-writers and writers-who-happen-to-be-Catholics (and people who consider themselves to be both with equal ferocity) trying to scratch out a vision for what “Catholic literature”* was, is, and will be.

*This is maddeningly hard to define, and I’m not going to try.  If it includes some component of “Catholic” and some component “writer,” for now, it counts.

I will not bore you with the details…yet.  First, the take away.

If you looked into any of the essays I posted here, you know the debate.  If you didn’t, here’s the jist:  Why isn’t anyone today being Flannery O’Connor???  (That means: writing literary, challenging fiction with Catholic sensibilities and themes which is published by the major publishing houses and read by the multitudes.  No pressure.)

There are myriad answers to the question, but I’d like to focus on a different angle of it.  What we found this weekend was that the writers are out there.  I think the readers are out there.  At least, I know a few in my own small friend group.  Why can’t the writers and readers find each other?

Well, here perhaps I can help.  For the eight or so of you who still read this on occasion, I will share some of the amazing authors I met or heard about this weekend.  I will make the effort to find the small Catholic presses, the literary journals, and yes, the chapbooks of whoever is working toward goodness, truth, and beauty in their writing.  

Will you join me?


So that’s my manifesto…and here is installment #1.  Probably the longest one I’ll ever do, since I have three days worth of awesome to lay out for you.  So here goes.

Novels

I was privileged to hear a reading by Randy Boyagoda from his forthcoming book Original Prin.  It included pickleball.  I was sold.  The bad news is, it doesn’t come out until Fall 2018.  I will be holding my breath.  He does have two previous books, Governor of the Northern Province and Beggar’s Feast.

After hearing Suzanne Wolfe speak, I’m also ready to pick up Confessions of X.  And get a subscription to Image, to which I arrive at shamefully late.

I am currently working on Valerie Sayers’ The Powers and loving it.  Be aware it is not as fast-paced as some novels, but I fell in love with the grandma at once, and was bowled over to read about the Catholic-worker wanna-be and his encounters with Dorothy Day.  Who writes about that?!?  Valerie Sayers does.  I’m only three chapters in…but I’m recommending it anyway.

David Russell Mosley’s On the Edges of Elfland sounds like a party to me.  Starting to realize I may have all my reading for the rest of the year planned out after this post…

A great surprise was to find that my friend from Baton Rouge, Karen Ullo, was not only at the conference, but on the panels and selling her book.  It’s not for the faint of heart, but Jennifer the Damned follows an orphan vampire raised by nuns.  “Why a vampire book?” I asked.  “Because no one deals with the importance (and implications) of the Church in these vampire stories.”  Karen does.  Be warned: it is scary.  I might let Craig read this one.  But if you want horror with depth, this might be the book for you.

 

Poetry

I have been trying to add poetry to my diet, but wasn’t sure where to look.  Problem solved!  The bookstore sold out of Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, so I am ordering it.  I was on the verge of tears three times listening to her insights from studying images of the Annunciation, and the poems which they inspired for her.

I skipped it, unfortunately, but many people were blown away by Natalie Diaz’s talk.  Check out When My Brother Was an Aztec.

 

Children’s/ Middle Grade/ YA

Amy Cattapan has written a highly-acclaimed book on teen suicide, Angelhood, which she hopes will succeed in opening up conversations about such a difficult topic between teens and their parents.  Again, haven’t read it (yet), but Amy is amazing.  Excited to get to this one.

 

Non-Fiction

Heather King delivered a beautiful, encouraging, kick-in-the-pants address for the conference.  I can recommend her post here unabashedly, and I can’t wait to read more of her gorgeous writing in Parched, Redeemed, or Shirt of Flame.  

Ken Garcia has a memoir coming out soon called Pilgrim River about finding God in the wilderness.  His reading at the conference included a geologist who cursed in geological terms…my favorite might have included the words “tiny precambrian brain.”  I was rolling.

The Strange Pilgrims blog duo, Jessica Mesman-Griffith and Jonathan Ryan are coming out with Strange Journey: How Two Homesick Pilgrims Stumbled Back into the Catholic Church.  Again, the reading was wonderful, and I’m looking forward to the rest.  This is not your grandmother’s come-to-Jesus story.  

 

Other Stuff worth checking out

Film: In Pursuit of Silence (forthcoming)

Commonweal (magazine)

Image (literary journal)

Dappled Things (literary journal)

Sick Pilgrims (blog thingy)

Wiseblood Books (publisher)


So.  I guess that’s a start.  Looks like I will be busy.  There are amazing, holy (well, mostly holy – like any of us!), engaging writers out there in the Catholic world.  Come, read their stories with me, and be transformed!

Summer Planshttps://www.tryingtosaygod.com/

I fear this blog is digressing into writing conference memoranda and book reviews.  

I guess it could be worse.

On that note, my summer plans include a visit to South Bend for a Catholic Writer’s Conference:

Trying to Say God

So it turns out that I’m not just lacking in talent for finding Catholic publishers…there are very few of them out there.  And few reviewers.  And few “Catholic” writers who claim the title and write with a “Catholic” worldview.

Why the “quotes”?  I’ve been doing the suggested reading to prep for the conference (see below), and this is one of the big questions: what does a “Catholic” writer look like and write about in 2017?  It’s easy to look back (Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Tolkein, and friends are mentioned constantly) but that’s not particularly helpful when faced with the challenge of how to address our current challenges and a church, as writers, and as readers.  So what’s a budding children’s author to do?

Thus the conference…maybe I’ll have some answers afterwards.  But if you need some reading (including lists of the American Catholics authors you may or may not have missed in your public high school American lit class), check out the links below, courtesy of Kenneth Garcia, who is hosting the conference.

And seats were still available last I heard…come join me!

 

Dana Gioia,  “The Catholic Writer Today,” Dec. 2013, First Things (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/12/the-catholic-writer-today)

 

Paul Elie, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?”  New York Times, Dec. 19, 2012  (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/books/review/has-fiction-lost-its-faith.html)

 

Kaya Oakes, “Writers Blocked: The State of Catholic Writing Today,” America, April 28, 2014 (http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/writers-blocked)

 

Randy Boyagoda, “Faith in Fiction,” First Things, August 2013 (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/08/faith-in-fiction)

 

Francis Spufford, “Spiritual Literature for Atheists,” First Things, November 2015 (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/11/spiritual-literature-for-atheists)

Review: Kristin Lavransdatter

Kristin Lavransdatter
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel silly trying to review this book. Maybe not silly, maybe more like out of my league. This was my second time through (and if you haven’t read it, look at the page count and be impressed). It was good to read it again…the first time I kept waiting and hoping for the Disney fairy tale ending. But it’s about Norway in the Middle Ages. So there are things like war, and snow, and the plague. The first time through I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a “happy ending.”
However, on the second read, minus the edge-of-your-seat quality of wondering what could possibly happen next, I was able to appreciate the beauty, struggle, and joy of life. A hard life, a complicated life, and a sinful life, but life tied to the church and the saints, tied to family, driven by love. Kristen and her father make the same point, which I think sums up my take-away the second time through the book: as hard as life is, in the end they both found themselves grateful for both the joys and the sorrows, and reluctant to imagine existing without the full measure of both.
Kristen Lavransdatter is gripping, immersive, and full of thanksgiving for the stuff of life. You should read it…preferably at least twice.

View all my reviews

Review: The Bear Who Wasn’t There

The Bear Who Wasn't There
The Bear Who Wasn’t There by LeUyen Pham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit, I have a weak spot for books that are self-aware. It cracks me up when a book calls itself a book and laughs about it. Like The Bear Who Wasn’t There. You spend the whole book searching for the bear the book is supposed to be about (including hunting down the author to see what she has to say about the situation) and hilarity ensues. I found the art clever, and while it’s one of those books that’s a little clunky to read aloud (word bubbles and such), it’s well worth it. My kids were laughing out loud. As was I, actually. And I think the octopus gets the best line in the book. Now you’re curious, aren’t you?

View all my reviews