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A Final Assortment

Starting off with titles that are mentioned in the epigraphs of To Drink from the Silver Cup. The epigraph for the entire book, “You cannot disown what is yours. Flung out, there is always the return, the reckoning … perhaps the reconciliation. There is always the return. And the wound will take you there. It is a blood-trail.” This is from Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? which, by the way, is what Jeanette’s mother, whom she always refers to as Mrs. Winterson, said to her regarding her decision to live as the lesbian she is. I guess an epigraph for a book should encapsulate the book, and this one pretty much does, so one could ask why I bothered to write it. As I’ve often said, and then elaborated on at readings, “Because I had to.” (from the front material)

The Prologue, entitled “Leaving: 1964” has its own epigraph from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel: “…a stone, a leaf, a door…O lost, and by the wind grieved…” It’s little wonder that I connected so powerfully with Look Homeward, Angel that for years I called it my favorite book. Certainly there was the prose poetry, a literary phenomenon on which I once wrote a paper. But it was more the theme of loss and grieving, which is what the Prologue is all about—a sharp presentiment of what I would irretrievably lose. (p. 3)

The epigraph to Part I of To Drink from the Silver Cup, called “Communion,” comes from Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name: “…when he reached the small villages, the little portable altar was set up in the school house or a private dwelling, a hymn or two sung with someone playing the accordion, or the banjo. It was always the same. It was not fine sermons they sought now in the long cruel winter. It was communion.” This is the story of a young Episcopal priest, sent to minister to indigenous people in the distant, rural Pacific Northwest—sent because, unbeknownst to him, he is dying. Here he finds a Native community that sustains him. Part I is about what I would eventually lose—community. Communion. (p. 9)

The epigraph to Part II “Exile,” comes not from a book but from a poem, “Home,” by Warsan Shire:

“no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath”

We sometimes refer to exile as voluntary, and my exile from home and church could have been considered that, but it was self-imposed exile due to rejection that I couldn’t continue to tolerate. Voluntary exile is rarely truly voluntary. If it is desired, it is because circumstances—the blade burning threats into the neck—have pressed one beyond endurance. (p. 99)

Neither is the epigraph to Part III “The Experiment” from a book. Rather, it comes from an old hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” lyrics by Robert Robinson: “And I hope by thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home.” After forty years of exile, forty years of trying to find my way back to a faith community I could call home, when I began The Experiment, it was my fervent hope that I could arrive safely. Or even simply arrive. (p. 193)

And now the books that are found in the text, in order of appearance. A few are less about the story of the journey; rather they are there to provide context. Nevertheless, I include them because they are books I find interesting, and you might as well. I mentioned The Man Who Killed the Deer by Frank Waters in connection with my first reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I read Things Fall Apart because my then partner was teaching it to a class of Navajo educational assistants working on their degrees. She also used Waters’ book in the class, and I commented that, although The Man Who Killed the Deer is about a Taos Indian who runs up against the rules of the colonial powers, and although the students were also Native, they related more deeply to the African story of tragedy under colonization than to this one. I speculated that it was because Waters is white, writing about Native unlived experience, and Achebe is a black African writing about his direct experience of the tragedies of colonization. (p. 111)

In my exploration of Judaism, I read a lot of Jewish literature, much of it fiction, but also nonfiction. I only mention two of those books by name. The first is The Promise by Chaim Potok. I have read and reread every one of Potok’s books because I found myself and my spiritual country of origin in them. I was also always looking for new ways to understand what I had been taught—freeing ways. What I ate up in The Promise was the generosity of an orthodox Jew as he accepted alternate ways for the nonorthodox to still practice Judaism, to even call such practice a blessing. The inclusiveness of that. (p. 155)

The Sabbath by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is the other book I mention. I had grown up on very restrictive rules about what we could and mostly couldn’t do on Sundays, and we referred to those rules as Sabbath Observance. Heschel’s book gave me a completely different sense of the Sabbath as a time (or rather in his words, a space) for celebration and rest, a joyous rather than what had amounted to a punitive time. Clearly I was looking for ways to be part of the faith I’d practiced as a child, without all the restrictions that made no apparent sense. (p. 170)

Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty by Muhammad Yunus tells movingly how very small loans, made mostly to women for entrepreneurial projects, changed the economy of one of the poorest countries in the world—Bangladesh. Loans are made, not for projects the lender thinks are necessary, but for ones that the borrowers know from lived experience are needed, ones they know how to embody. The default rate on paying back the loans is negligible, and the return is plowed into new projects. I got very excited, wondering if and how we could apply this model with the poor in the US. (p. 238)

Bless Me Ultima is the novel by which Rudolfo Anaya became known as the father of Chicano literature. A classic in New Mexico, and required reading in most high schools, it is a hauntingly beautiful coming of age tale. When Ultima, a curandera, a woman who heals with herbs, magic and story, comes to live with young Antonio’s family, she begins his education into things of the soul. Ultima delivered him into the world, and in the story she will be the one to deliver him into the world of the spirit. This is one of the books I mention to provide context—to describe an afternoon on the llano, the high grassy plains in northern New Mexico where Bless Me Ultima takes place. (p. 244)

Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal by Rachel Naomi Remen played a hugely significant role in the chapter entitled “Panic Saturday.” This was a day when I was paralyzed by self-doubt and spiritual angst about my decision to join a church—specifically St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. I couldn’t get out of bed that day, but I finally decided that I could at the very least reread a chapter in Rachel’s book that I might use as a springboard for the column I needed to write for the Gallup Independent. I ended up rereading several additional chapters, one of which had the effect of altering my fearful mood and enabling me to think about my decision in a different way. Backing up a bit, I first read Kitchen Table Wisdom as a selection for our book group when I lived in Cuba, NM. When the person whose turn it was to pick our book suggested this, I thought, “Oh no! Not a self-help book.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is a book I’ve returned to many times for its profundity on life’s journey. (p. 268)

After my many years away from church, there are Christian concepts that I don’t just accept at face value the way I did as a child. As the Apostle Paul might say, this amounts to putting away childish things. Requiring more of my faith, my decision to believe. In To Drink from the Silver Cup, I mention The Man Who Died by D. H. Lawrence as a novel that offers an alternative explanation to Jesus’s resurrection. It’s just one reference I mention as an explanation for why it’s not hard for me to accept the resurrection, though there are other, related concepts that I have more difficulty with. Substitutionary atonement is one of them. You might have to look that one up. (p. 281)

The Illuminated Rumi, translations and commentary by Coleman Barks, illuminations by Michael Green, may be the most beautiful book I’ve ever laid hands on. One year, close to Christmas, I visited my dear friend, Alysza VanTil, someone who grew up in the CRC and became a Unity minister. She surprised me with a copy of this book, and it’s another one that I return to again and again, often using it to inspire my meditations. To the end of my life, I will never have grasped everything there is to learn from Jalal Al-Din Rumi or to be newly delighted with the mind boggling beauty of the illuminations. Rumi is unquestionably my favorite poet. (p. 297)

The Diary of Anne Frank is another book I mention for context, in this case to compare its popularity to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl’s book is second only to Frank’s diary in sales of books to come out of the Holocaust. The two books have in common that they are extraordinarily positive responses to the horrors that both of these people witnessed and the unimaginable losses they sustained. Both books are often required reading in high schools and colleges. If you haven’t read it, you are missing something of value. (p. 311)

One book is mentioned in the Acknowledgements of To Drink from the Silver Cup, and that is Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story. Without this book, mine would literally not be what it is, for whatever that’s worth. Your Life as Story is hands-down the best book I’ve read on the subject of writing a book, and I’ve read quite a number of them. It is instructive without being prescriptive. It is beautifully written, replete with examples from literature and from Rainer’s writing students at UCLA. It is spiritual without being religious or sentimental. It is simply a fine book that helped me with my most difficult area of writing a book and sometimes an essay—how to organize my material. If you write, if you want to write (even fiction), if you just like to read beautiful, meaningful books, you can’t go wrong reading this. (p. xi)

And now…drumroll…one bonus book—my Number One Book of All Time, not mentioned in To Drink from the Silver CupStones from the River by Ursula Hegi. Taking place in an imaginary town in Germany between the World Wars and during the Second, its main character is a little person who collects and disseminates gossip from the pay library she owns with her father. Gossip is the currency she uses to belong as an outsider. There is, of course so much more. This book is my gift to you. You're welcome

This ends the series “Books on the Journey.” Thank you for accompanying me. What is your Number One Book of All Time? Do tell!

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