“Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless. Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.”
This is the start to “Prayer at Winter Solstice,” a poem by Dana Gioia and included in his new book, Pity the Beautiful. On Thanksgiving, he recited it on American Public Media’s program, “Giving Thanks - A Celebration of Fall, Food and Gratitude.” My husband and I were in the car at the time, chatting but also listening along to the program of interviews and music, but then hushed up quick when Gioia started talking, particularly when he began this poem. Originally titled “Thanksgiving,” the poem is about being humble in and grateful for life, no matter what it brings. And sometimes, often even, what life brings is hard.
“Blessed is the pain that humbles us. Blessed is the distance that bars our joy.”
You can listen to the entire interview with him and his recitation of the poem in its entirety by clicking this link to the Thanksgiving program. You’ll find a 2-hour and 1-hour program option. If you choose the 1-hour option, Gioia’s interview starts at 24:43 and the poem starts at 25:43. You’ll also hear him in the 2-hour program, but there you’re on your own to find the minute markers.
“Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light. Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.”
For a review of Pity the Beautiful, see also "Redemption Songs" by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell in America magazine.
The current issue of The Atlantic (Dec 2012) has a story about Ann Patchett's new bookstore in Nashville. The story, written by Patchett herself, is titled "The Bookstore Strikes Back," but interestingly the issue's cover refers to the story as "Me vs Amazon," which is really the story of every independent bookseller these days. Patchett and her business partner, Karen Hayes, opened Parnassus Books after Nashville's only two bookstores closed. It's a great story about the angst of living in a city with no bookstore, the wild idea they worked out over lunch one day, and the work of turning the idea into a brick-and-board reality.
"Maybe it’s working because I’m an author, or maybe it’s working because Karen toils away like life depends on this bookstore, or because we have a particularly brilliant staff, or because Nashville is a city that is particularly sympathetic to all things independent. Maybe we just got lucky. But this luck makes me believe that changing the course of the corporate world is possible. Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions; the people can make them, by choosing how and where they spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: We grab hold of it. We change ourselves."
I applaud Patchett and Hayes. I can't imagine living in a city with no bookstore. The metropolitan area in which I live (Minneapolis/St. Paul) is blessed to have a number of book-buying options, including two author-owned bookstores. Birchbark Books is owned by Louise Erdrich, whose novel "The Round House" just won the National Book Award for fiction. Common Good Books is owned by Garrison Keillor.
Keillor's store recently moved from one of the greatest corners in St. Paul to another location, which I haven't been to yet, but the last place was filled with nooks and crannies where you could sit and ponder a stack of books before making your final purchase.
Birchbark Books is nestled into a residential neighborhood down the block from one of Minneapolis's finest lakes, Lake of the Isles. It is small, cozy, and filled to the brim with books and has a wonderful children's section complete with a little reading fort. The restroom is plastered with poetry cut out from magazines, and the staff could not be more helpful or generous with their reading suggestions. Once I got into a conversation with the woman working there (who I think is the manager and I regret now not knowing her name) about something and she found me a few minutes later and gave me a related article that she had just printed off after finding it online.
We also have Magers & Quinn, which is fabulous and the largest bookstore in the area. It frequently has author readings and sponsors literary events throughout the city. On the north side of St. Paul is the lovely and classic Micawber's. Since it's a bit of a hike, I don't often get there but when I do it's always an inspiring visit. Plus we still have a number of Barnes & Nobles, which I also much appreciate. Such good fortune, to live where there are bookstores. I'm grateful to the owners and management staff who work so hard to keep the doors open.
This is Weiner’s default question in his book The Geography of Bliss. Books on happiness abound but this one is unique in that it is geographically pursued and organized. Weiner visits ten countries with varying statistical rankings in the World Database of Happiness. Yes, there is such a database, in the Netherlands. Each country gives Weiner (pronouned “whiner”) multiple pegs on which to hang musings and research about happiness according to the factors for or against happiness in each of his host countries.
Everywhere he went he asked, “Are you happy?” He made appointments with people and met them in coffee shops, visited their homes and places of work to ask that same question. I like the idea of being on a mission to understand something, to have a default question to ask that is of some heft.
He visited Reykjavik, Iceland in winter, defending his timing with the news that in general, people who live in colder climates are happier than people who live in warmer climates. I liked this chapter the best and made a mental note of the fact that Icelandic Air allows free multi-day layovers in Reykjavik on their transtlantic flights. Reading about this culture’s appreciation for mystery and imagination, language and beauty reminded me to listen to more Sigur Ros, an Icelandic band one of my son’s introduced me to.
I really enjoyed the book. Weiner has an easy-breezy style of merging narrative, research, and reflection in one steady stream that is fun to read and before you’ve read too far you realize you’ve learned a thing or two. By the book’s end, you can’t help but look at your own geography and start to figure its bliss factors, pro or con. Minneapolis certainly has the cold factor in its favor.