The Source of Peace and Joy

I adore the following excerpt from The Book of Hours, a compilation of works by Thomas Merton:

“Keep your eyes clean and your ears quiet and your mind serene. Breathe God’s air.

Work, if you can, under His sky.

But if you have to live in a city and work among machines and ride in the subways and eat in a place where the radio makes you deaf with spurious news and where the food destroys your life and the sentiments of those around you poison your heart with boredom, do not be impatient, but accept it is the love of God and as a seed of solitude planted in your soul.

If you are appalled by those things, you will keep your appetite for the healing silence of recollection. But meanwhile – keep your sense of compassion for the men who have forgotten the very concept of solitude.

You, at least, know that it exists, and that it is the source of peace and joy.

You can still hope for such joy. They do not even hope for it any more.”

My family & I hiked up Pine Mountain in Kentucky’s Blanton State Forrest Nature Preserve last month. It’s one of only 13 large old growth forrest tracts left in the Eastern United States. The view from Knobby Rock was breath taking. Truly a place to find solitude and marvel at the beauty of our world.

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Flight Behavior

Barbara Kingsolver grew up in Carlisle, Kentucky. I remember talk of her Kentucky connection when the novel The Poisonwood Bible became a best seller. I never got around to reading that book, or any other Barbara Kingsolver novel, but as I was browsing Half Price Books I saw Flight Behavior in the clearance section. I read a little from the first few pages and picked it up on a whim (the first chapter is really beautifully written). After finishing the book I think I now know why it was in the clearance section but still think it is a book with merit.

The story intertwines a woman running away from the dissatisfaction of her marriage with a group of Monarch butterflies that suddenly appear near her home, spending their winter months in the Appalachian Mountains instead of their normal winter home in the mountains of Mexico. I thought Kingsolver’s use of the analogy between the two events made for a different and interesting story. A juxtaposition between what happens when a marriage goes wrong and what happens when the climate of Earth goes wrong.

I liked that Kingsolver tackled the topic of climate change and how it is viewed by some in the South. I’ve certainly met a few climate change deniers here in Kentucky but more than anything else, I meet people who are struggling to take care of themselves. It’s not that they don’t care about climate change, they just can’t see past the struggle of their day to day life to even contemplate making changes for the future. As Kingsolver also portrays, too often there is an “us versus them” mentality to things as significant as even climate change. We need to connect with one another, pushing ourselves to discuss the topic, spread awareness, and do better for our planet.

This book, however, was too long. Not in the “I don’t like to read long novels” sense (because I absolutely do if the story is enjoyable) but in the sense that parts should have been edited. I have a theory that after an author gets famous editors no longer push them to edit their work. Kingsolver spent half a chapter, and they were long chapters, on a trip to the second hand store. This part of the story portrayed the wastefulness of people along with the poverty of the main character but it went on for far too long. We didn’t need a play by play of everything she picked up and saw. Other sections of the book were weighed down in a similair fashion. The author was making a point but then the point was beaten to death over the course of too many pages.

It’s unfortunate because I believe that’s why this novel wasn’t as successful as Kingsolver’s other novels. The core story was beautiful and thought provoking, a story we need to be telling, but it got lost. Much the same way climate change gets lost in all the noise of our everyday lives.

I will read another Barbara Kingsolver novel. I look forward to the voice she gives to the various topics her books portray.

Blackberries, Blackberries

This is another one of those books that I just could not put down. Crystal Wilkinson’s collection of short stories is full of vivid characters, each distinct in their own way but all shining with the truth of life.

There are stories of yearning: Music for Meriah follows a young woman aching for a chance to connect with her favorite local musician and aching to break free from her mother’s dependencies. The Awaking is a brief glimpse into the day a middle aged woman decides to break the rules.

There are humorous stories: Chocolate Divine shows what happens when two “players” begin dating one another. Peace of Mind is the story of a single mother just trying to enjoy the time she has alone while her children are at camp.

There are stories of sorrow: Humming Back Yesterday is the heartbreaking story of a woman filtering out the memories of her abusive past as they pop into her everyday life. Mules depicts two young cousins grappling with how to handle sexual abuse.

And there are just plain ‘ol good stories: Tipping the Scales was one of my favorite, about an independent woman’s journey to love. Waiting on the Reaper tells the life of a woman who is sure death is following her.

These are only eight of the 18 stories in the book. I enjoyed the whole collection. It’s simplicity is understated, hiding in the pages of this short read is some amazing writing. Crystal Wilkinson has gained a new fan. I’ve quickly added her books The Birds of Opulence and Water Street to my “to read” pile. Wilkinson is from Kentucky and continues writing and teaching at Kentucky universities.

The view from The Pinnacles, a hiking trail near Berea Kentucky.

Earth Day

On Earth Day there is no better Kentuckian to quote than Wendell Berry, the foremost contemporary keeper of our land. The following except is from his essay A Native Hill which can be found in The Art of the Commonplace, a collection of Berry’s agarian essays:

“Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest – the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways – and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in – to learn from it what it is.”

One morning at our old house in Greenup, Kentucky the sun peeked through the trees just as the fog was burning off the hills. It was a view truly inspired by The Beatles song Here Comes the Sun.

Thoughts in Solitude

Thoughts in solitude could be more a euphemism for the last two months of my life and less a review of the book by Thomas Merton. I began reading this book with the hope of reconnecting to a faith that my grandparents so strongly felt but with which I had lost. By the time I finished the book I had found more faith than I have ever known. But the journey was not at all what I expected.

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who resided at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. Merton was not a native Kentuckian but he made this land his home for decades. He wrote many books, sharing his thoughts not just on faith and religion but also on a wide range of topics. His extensive contemplations gained favor across many faith based communities.

In Thoughts in Solitude Merton outlines the importance of solitude to our soul. Originally published in 1958, the relevance of this book continues to grow. Our American society keeps moving forward at a faster pace, leaving behind everything that can’t be consumed in a sound bite. We barely give ourselves enough time to rest let alone to contemplate. Merton theorizes that this behavior is a path towards violence:

“When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate. No amount of technological progress will cure the hatred that eats away the vitals of materialistic society like a spiritual cancer. The only cure is, and must always be, spiritual. There is not much use talking to men about God and love if they are not able to listen. The ears with which one hears the message of the Gospel are hidden in man’s heart, and these ears do not hear anything unless they are favored with a certain interior solitude and silence.”

Is is any wonder that our country is filled with violence when we as a society are so disconnected from our souls?

Which brings me back to my soul. I believe there is a reason I was reading this book at the time my uncle died unexpectedly last month. Like my grandfather, Uncle Tony was a man of faith and Christian principles. As a child I took for granted the love and steadfastness of these two men in my life. They were always there, a smile on their face, true to their families. As an adult I realize just how rare these qualities actually are.

At Uncle Tony’s visitation I sat watching my Aunt Donna hug and talk tenderly to every single person who came through the line to pay respect to her husband. A steady stream of people for over three hours was given the gift of a small story or remembrance from my aunt regarding her husband’s love for them. The generosity and faith of Aunt Donna and Uncle Tony was evident with each interaction that day. These are the characteristics that I have respected and wanted to emmulate. The people I have loved the most have all been people of faith. It is time for me to set my foot back on the path they have laid before me. These are my thoughts in solitude.

The Peace of Wild Things

A poem for my weary soul from Kentucky’s preeminent author Wendell Berry:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Several years ago my husband & I took a weekend to escape and bring our troubles to the wild things. This little lake was close to our cabin near Zachariah, Kentucky.

Eli the Good

Eli the Good is the wholesome yet thought provoking story of one summer in the life of a ten year old boy. Though everything seems to be figured out in Eli’s life – parents who love each other, an older sister who dotes on him, and a best friend with whom he shares everything – the events of the summer forever change these relationships. Family secrets, a life threatening illness, and his father’s PTSD all bring Eli face-to-face with adult problems while he’s also dealing with the normal growing pains of friendship and life as a preteen.

I loved this book. Silas House weaved Eli’s tale with beautiful scenery and a well paced story. It was the right blend of life’s big problems and the child’s prospective. The subject matter wasn’t over simplified nor was it too intricate, making Eli the Good a book both parents and their middle school aged students can enjoy.

As a Mom it’s often difficult now for me to find books to recommend to my 12 year old son. I’m excited to share Eli the Good with him. Not only do I think he will find similarities with himself and the main character but like Eli, my son has a father who has been to war. Eli’s father went to Vietnam while my husband served in Afghanistan but the repercussions for the whole family, unfortunately, are timeless.

Quote from Eli the Good. Picture taken from the entrance of my tent as dusk settled at Blue Licks State Park in Kentucky.

The Anomalies

At first the characters gave me a Third Rock from the Sun vibe. A group so outlandish that they may be aliens trapped in the bodies of varying aged humans. As I settled into the story I was able to pinpoint exactly what it reminded me of – a Christopher Moore novel. The characters are unbelievable but it adds eccentricity to the story. This is not your run of the mill novel about small town misfits that start a band. The ridiculousness, however, masks an astute exploration into the thoughts of those who feel like they don’t belong in mainstream society. Goebel’s characters may be out there but their profound statements hit home. These statements would not have been believable had the novel followed a cookie cutter story line. Here are a few of my favorites:

“You hear people talking about wavelengths. I reckon I have one of those wavelengths that’s hard to pick up on.”

“If you want to be with a real person and experience that person’s essence, you must be alone with them. The eyes and ears of any additional persons subtract from his or her essence.”

“After all, he’s only human, and the older I get, the more I find that tired cliche of an excuse to be appropriate.”

“If you are not nervous, you should be. Cowardly are the cool. Coolness comes from lies that people give themselves – that they are in control, that everything is going to be all right, that they belong wherever they are.”

I did have a problem with Goebel’s portrayal of a gay character but overall I found this book an enjoyable quick read.

Joey Goebel was born and raised in Henderson, KY.

Photo of a face in the rock that I found while hiking at Lower Howard’s Creek Nature Preserve near Winchester KY.

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