Every adult novel I pick up these days gets put down again. Too dark. Too much tragedy. I already know this story. Too much drinking. I don’t care.
But I can pick up my volume of Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems (2005), and I am instantly in a world I understand and want to be in. I’ve liked Jane Kenyon since I first learned about her, but right now I feel like she is a true kindred spirit.
Here’s a poem by her to make us think about summer again.
Peonies at Dusk
White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.
Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They’re staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.
The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it’s coming from.
In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one’s face.
— pg. 254
On a rare solo meander through the nonfiction stacks at my library, I pulled out this book by David Elliot Cohen: One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind For a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children (1999). As warning bells sounded in my head (such as, hey, you shouldn’t even be reading about stuff that might make you envious), I decided to read it. Because I have three kids. Because I like round-the-world adventures. Because it sounded brave.
And it was brave! And funny. And poignant. David Elliot Cohen, his wife, their nanny, and their three children aged 3, 7, and 8, took off for places like Zimbabwe, Paris, Australia, Thailand, and Italy. They failed at homeschooling, but really, what was this for the kids except a giant history and social studies unit? And although they were worried about spending so much time together as a family, they pulled through. They survived each other. They became closer!
I ended up liking this book just for its own merits. But the analytical part of me wonders why I really picked it up. I think I know that I will never take trips around the world. It’s quite possible I will never fly in an airplane (haven’t yet!). It’s not that I have anything against world travel. On the contrary, I find it fascinating. It probably has more to do with how I experience things best. Probably, although I haven’t tested it, I would prefer reading about a trip to the African wilderness than actually taking one.
Was there one place Cohen went that I would like to go? Maybe the houseboat in Burgundy, France. That’s my style of adventure. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Great Coral Reef in Australia, but is it actually something on my bucket list? Nah. I know I won’t get there. And anyway, my husband absolutely doesn’t want to fly in an airplane, and if I did drag him along somewhere against his wishes (and that would be pretty much anywhere), he’d drive me nuts. He’d console himself with large quantities of food. He’d talk. Constantly. What would I do to console myself, I wonder? Hmmm. I’d probably bury my nose in a book.
Sometimes, when I feel the need for something stronger than prose, I search in vain for a poem that sounds good and beautiful and meaningful. I don’t think this means most poems are bad. A lot of them are, but I think what’s really happening is that I’m looking for a poem that says what I’m feeling but I’m not able to express in words. And that’s hard to find, but not impossible. Tonight I turn to Wendell Berry, who is a kindred spirit.
I went away only
a few hundred steps
up the hill, and turned
and started home.
And then I saw
the pasture green under
the trees, the open
hillside, the little ponds,
our house, cistern,
woodshed, and barn,
the river bending in
its valley, our garden
new-planted beside it.
All around, the woods
that had been stark
in the harsh air
of March, had turned
soft with new leaves.
Birdsong had returned
to the branches:
the stream sang
in the fold of the hill.
In its time and great patience
beauty had come upon us,
greater than I had imagined.
— Poem IV from 1992, A Timbered Choir (1998)
Seasons happen in my life, and not just four times a year. Sometimes more often, sometimes less often. But all seasons have a stark, harsh time, a waiting period, an unfolding of beauty, a time of singing, and a time of leaving off. This is the way the world works. Why should I expect it all to be the unfolding of beauty time? Why should I be impatient and hurt when I know I only need to wait and things will change? And why should I expect my seasons to look like all the others? For all I know, my best season on earth may be a day or two of incomparable joy that is enjoyed in the privacy of my own heart, and is then immediately drawn into the time of leaving off. And that’s okay. That’s how it works.
School goes better with read-aloud books. We get our other subjects done, too, but the read-aloud books are the heart of our learning. Sometimes the books are assigned from our history unit study, and other times I pick books somewhat randomly from the library. The book we finished today was one I’d never read before, but it was in the Newbery Award section of the library, so I gave it a try.
The book is Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan W. Eckert, 1971. I’m not going to pull a quote because it’s all so intimately intertwined. In fact, if I had to describe this book in one word, it would be “close.” This is a psychological thriller for children. The reader becomes psychologically close to a female badger in the prairies of Canada, and the reader also becomes psychologically close to a small six-year-old boy who gets along with animals better than humans. There are parts where the closeness is almost too much. When a character is stuttering with emotion, it’s pretty difficult to keep myself from crying as well. And when the contents of the badger’s lunch is described in great detail, it’s gross. Yet, I’m not complaining. It’s a unique book with great characters, and even the villain isn’t two-dimensional. Plus, it has lots of great nature lore, and it could be read for science class. I know much more about badgers now than I did before.
Hmm. I wonder which book we should read now?
The human face does not always reflect the beauty that may repose in the soul.
— from Shannon by Frank Delaney (2009)
Also, the weakness of the title character in this book–Robert Shannon–does not reflect the quiet strength that runs through this story. Robert Shannon was a young priest, a chaplain in the US Marines during WWI, and he came home damaged, a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. As a questionably-unwise part of his treatment he is sent alone to Ireland, his homeland, to search out his ancestors. His journey takes him up and down the banks of the swiftly-flowing Shannon River.
I love the slow way the book moves forward, accelerating as Robert himself heals. There are scary war scenes I don’t appreciate much (especially right before bedtime), and the politics of the Catholic Church isn’t something I care much for, but the characters themselves are fabulously complex and richly drawn.
This is my second Delaney book, and while I don’t think I can read two in a row (they are a slow sort of book that need time to settle), I’m definitely open to reading more someday.
On a Christmassy note, doesn’t the above quote work well for baby Jesus? Lots of beauty there even though He probably looked like an ordinary wrinkly-red baby. The quote also makes me think of Mary treasuring up these things in her heart. Are the things I treasure up beautiful? Do I keep lovely things stored up inside? I should work on that more!
Here’s my new favorite Thanksgiving book: The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower or John Howland’s Good Fortune by P.J. Lynch (2015). It’s a picture book with big, detailed, dramatic illustrations. It’s a history book with lots of great info about the Pilgrims, their voyage, their landing, and their community in the new land. It’s a story about one passenger of the Mayflower: young John Howland, indentured servant to John Carver. And yes, he did fall overboard. It gives perspective to the varying attitudes of those on the Mayflower – those committed to making a new place to live in the new land, and those there only because their work brought them there – and how those attitudes can change (or strengthen) under dire circumstances. My children also enjoyed this book; I caught them studying it later on their own.
Here’s an excerpt from near the beginning of the voyage:
“You’re the boy that runs the messages, ain’t you?”
“Yes, sir, I am…. John Howland’s my name….”
“Never mind that! Just get below and tell your boss that Bob Coppin – that’s me, the first mate – orders that the passengers are to keep down ‘tween decks now we’re under way. We’ll let you know when you can come up for air. And keep it quiet with all that praying!” With that, he stomped off, laughing.
“I’ll be pleased to take your message, Master Coppin,” I called after him. “You will find, sir, that we are a civil people, and we hope to give no offense to God or man. We hope only for a measure of civility in return!”
The first mate stopped laughing. He turned around and looked long and hard at me. Then he gave me a nod and said, “Right you are… Master Howland.”
The following excerpt is from a prose poem by Robert Bly entitled “Fall” (1962). It reminds me of the farm I grew up on, which is vastly different from the farm I now live on (even though I’m only a quarter-mile northwest). The seasons always seemed a little more pronounced on my dad’s farm. Here a woods to the west of the house blocks parts of the world.
The dusk has come, a glow in the west, as if seen through the isinglass on old coal stoves, and the cows stand around the barn door; now the farmer looks up at the paling sky reminding him of death, and in the fields the bones of the corn rustle faintly in the last wind, and the half moon stands in the south.
Now the lights from barn windows can be seen through bare trees.