A man who lived a few trailers down from ours in East Sullivan, Maine advertised “Used Bicycles, Vegetables, Sea Treasures” — a job description which used to make me smile; these days I claim it for my own. In the mornings, I’m a writer. Later in the day, I’m a potter and sometimes-jobbing musician. I design gardens for people. I work as a spiritual director, mostly with young ministers trying to escape their congregations for an afternoon.
Here are the books which make up a kind of inner circle, the ones I pencil in constantly, and with which I have a daily companionship. They’re listed in the order we met.
* Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions, 1961)
* Anon, The Cloud of Unknowing (Doubleday, 1973)
* Louis Bromfield, Malabar Farm (Harper, 1948)
* Helen and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life (Schocken, 1970)
* Henry Beston, Northern Farm (Ballantine, 1964)
* Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience (Penguin, 1983)
* John Woolman, Journal and a Plea for the Poor (Citadel, 1972)
* Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land (North Point, 1981)
* Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower (Random House, 1978)
* M.C. Richards Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person (Wesleyan, 1964)
* David Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous (Random House, 1997)
* Clary Illian, A Potter’s Workbook (University of Iowa, 1999)
* Bill Mollison, Introduction to Permaculture (Tagari, 1991)
* Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (Chelsea Green, 2000)
My family did not own many books, nor was there a public library near by. They were readers, but they lived in small spaces and followed what I think must have been the nineteenth century habit of reading the same books over and over. Those writers had to stand up to time: Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Lord Tennyson (as an American child, I thought “Lord” was his middle name, or a nickname like those of blues musicians I listened to on the radio after hours). The books had to answer, as well, to a variety of readers, maiden aunts through young children, because there not many books written especially for children in those days, once you outgrew Ferdinand the Bull and A Prayer for Little Things (though actually I still have not outgrown either of those). There was the inevitable family Bible, illustrated with grisly decapitations and Jael busy with her tentpegs, fascinating to a sheltered child). I malingered at home for long stretches of my early school career, so I read the family books again and again, memorizing good and bad literature indiscriminately.
I was attracted to short stories, perhaps because I thought they were aimed at children, and my mother’s old college texts offered Henry James, Katharine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, Jack London, and a particularly large selection of American regionalists. One that had profound consequences for me was Wilbur Daniel Steele’s story “For They Know Not what They Do.” Perhaps I was a rather solitary and strange child, growing up before the invention of psychology, but it was clear to me early on that my parents thought I was a suspicious character. Our family had been profoundly marked by the vivid insanity of a few of its members, and they were scanning me for signs. I didn’t fit in well at school, being precocious at things like singing and worthless at what everyone took for granted. I couldn’t do arithmetic because I thought each number had a personality. I only wanted to deal with two, five, six and eight. I had an antipathy to three and seven. I was more than usually dubious about myself, likely with reason.
So this story of Steele’s saved my bacon, or gave me the life I have, anyway. It’s the story of a romantic, passionate boy who uncovers his family history of hereditary insanity and begins, with a kind of sinister and joyful determinism, to act out the violence of his father and grandfather. His mother saves him by revealing that he is the illegitimate son of a musician, shaming herself in his prudish eyes. His mother is lying, as he later discovers, but meanwhile the boy has taken up his “real” father’s cello and put down the rusty knife. In fact, the story plays out back stage at the Philharmonic, where the boy, now a famous musician, is musing to a friend about how playing the cello channels the drives that would otherwise make a man insane.
This story was perhaps the first inkling I had that family is not destiny, that art is a path to sanity, that you had better be careful what you believe because it will determine many outcomes.
My work in the world has led me to poise — and sometimes pratfall — between empirical and contemplative inquiry. This is where poets are likely to hang out: those who have meant the most to me are Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Galway Kinnell, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, and– two younger writers who may not be household names– Todd Davis and the Irish poet Kerry Hardie. All the writers in my inner circle claim some kind of liminal space: David Abrams, both phenomenologist and working magician; Clary Illian, who acknowledges the intricate technical decisions a potter must make in order to engage a mystical dialogue with space, volume, and time. The anonymous fourteenth-century monk who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing passes through it on his way to God. For him it is a condition of wordlessness, where he loses the holy names his culture has given him and cannot yet articulate new understanding. John Woolman, an 18th century Quaker journal-keeper honored this ground as “the place where words come from,” as though it were a spring in the forest from which language flows instead of water.
I like words that come from this well, new, cold, and telling stories about inner space; but I also like the formulas of tradition, science and craft. An Edo bowl has much to say. I play the violin two or three hours a day, remembering my friend the soil scientist Francis Hole, who committed his retirement to learning Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Francis thought about this music as a kind of nutrition for brain and bone, vital as carrots or compost.
My children and I say that we practice the Religion of Food and Beauty. Music, these days, is enough silence for me. And, otherwise I am in the world, making gardens or pots. Thoreau seems to have taken a similar journey, moving from spiritual inquiry to botany, if we are to judge by his late journals. One might think he had abandoned the search for God; possibly, he had found him.
Mary Rose O’Reilley writes poetry, essays, and fiction. Her books include Half Wild and The Love of Impermanent Things. Her poem “The Plain Speech,” her second to appear in Orion, was published in the March/April 2009 issue. She lives in St. Paul.