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Open to mystery

John Leland and the Rev. Will B. Dunn were my father’s favorite Baptist preachers. Only one was real, however, and it wasn’t the “deep-friend Southern preacher” of cartoonist Doug Marlette’s imagination.*

Leland, on the other hand, was very real: a religious leader in the new American republic of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He came to mind recently when a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian quoted the Baptist preacher on the need for a broad and tolerant approach to religious faith.

Experience teaches us that men who are equally wise and good may differ in political as well as in theological or mathematical opinions.

A strong supporter of the separation of church and state, Leland also warned Americans: “Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, when choosing your representatives.”

We clearly need a sense of history in today’s discussions of religion and theology.

The Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (2020) by Jon Meacham is a devotional work that reminds us, “The work of discerning — or depending on your point of view, assigning — meaning to Good Friday and the story of the empty tomb is a historical as well as a theological process.” There is no better guide through this process than the Canon Historian of the Washington National Cathedral and the author of several seminal books that look at religion’s impact on American society.

In a context-setting prologue Meacham provides the reader with his personal beliefs established as a lifetime Episcopalian who is “in no sense an evangelical.” He doesn’t share the view that faith in Jesus is the only route to salvation and Meachum is no proselytizer. In support of that position, he provides the useful commentary of Leland and Thomas Jefferson (who were friends) as to the validity of other perspectives.

Meacham personally adheres “to the broad outlines of the Christian faith as it has come down through the Anglican tradition.” His hope in writing this slim volume is to provide illumination to readers so that they may make more sense of the cross “in a world too much given to the competing forces of hostile skepticism, blind acceptance, or remote indifference.”**

Meacham freely admits that why God would need to redeem his own creation — the central tenant of the crucifixion and resurrection — is a mystery. But so is the reason “why He would create a world in the first place and, having created it, why he would populate it with human beings whose free will would lead to sin and suffering.” Meacham references the assertion of the distinguished rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that God “did not make it easy for us to have faith in Him, to remain faithful to him.” Whatever one thinks of Christianity, Meacham suggests, Jesus gave birth to a lasting vision of the origins, nature, and destiny of human life, “a vision drawn from the religion’s deep roots in Judaism.” In that vision,

Humility was essential; generosity vital; love central.

History is horizontal while theology is vertical, writes Meacham, and “their intersection is a motive force behind our religious, national, and personal imaginations.”

The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we love, and how we live are furnished and fired by the factual and the fabled. … Fact is what we can see or discern; truth is the larger significance we extrapolate from those facts.

In seven short meditations, Meacham takes the reader from “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” to the final, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Not all of the meditations — beginning with the first — take a traditional approach. Meacham is interpretive rather than literal, reminding us that the gospels tell stories in language that was foreign to Jesus. While most interpretations of those first words speak of absolution of the world’s sins, Meacham asks us instead to focus on the concerns of St. Luke, the gospel writer, who was seeking to bring as many souls into the fold as possible. Luke’s words of forgiveness help make the faith more accessible and appealing.

When Jesus speaks to one of the two men being crucified alongside him, Meacham reminds us of the history of crucifixion, and that it was reserved by the Romans for insurrectionists against the state. These two men were not mere thieves.

“If anything, the account of Jesus’s redemption of the insurgent at Golgotha” — today you will be with Me in Paradise — “should give anyone claiming to know the mind of God enormous pause.” Paradise, a Persian word signifying a garden or enclosed park, symbolizes the “gift of everything.” The meaning is far beyond our “control and comprehension.”

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” leads Meacham into the heart of the matter. Only the gospel writers Matthew and Mark include these words, and Jesus, in their telling, is more of a tragic and ultimately human character. When asked how he can believe in such a God, Meacham replies that his belief is based “on the same evidence” as with his belief in love. “Both are invisible forces with visible effects.”

Throughout this thoughtful work, one of our most celebrated historians grapples with the intersection of history and theology. Facts lead him to accept as truths the belief that we should …

… love one another as we would be loved, take care of the least of these, keep the feast in remembrance of Our Lord’s sacrifice, and remain open, always open, to the mysterious grace of God.

More to come…


*Some Will B. Dunn humor…

Will B. Dunn
The Rev. Will B. Dunn as featured in Kudzu by Doug Marlette

**My beliefs on theology and religion are closely aligned with Meacham’s, who writes, “Literalism is for the weak; fundamentalism is for the insecure.”

The problem with arguing from biblical texts, of course, is that the books contradict themselves. Fighting verse to verse is like a guerrilla war that never ends.

The Weekly Reader links to written works I’ve enjoyed. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry. 

Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Rome, by DJB


Journeys are literal and figurative, temporal and spiritual. Nowhere is that more evident than with the time two people spend together over a lifetime as partners.

Today is our 41st wedding anniversary, and Candice and I are on a literal journey for a few days of celebration. When we were married in 1982, I was a poor graduate student in Atlanta. We found time during my spring break to get married and take a honeymoon trip to Prospect Hill — a 1732 farmhouse bed & breakfast outside Charlottesville that has since gone upscale. Over the years, we’ve taken literal anniversary trips back to Prospect Hill and then to Mohonk, Copenhagen, Rome, and last year — for our 40th — to France.

At Prospect Hill in 1982
The newlyweds – on our honeymoon at Prospect Hill

But we continue on the figurative and spiritual journey that began back when we were oh so young. A journey that has gone through the inevitable twists that come when two very different people come together after recognizing — in Conrad Aiken’s beautiful words — that …

Music I heard with you was more than music, and bread I broke with you was more than bread.

Journeys are often about finding either something we’ve lost or discovery of something we’ve never seen before. And when we’re lucky, a journey with a lifetime partner is one of extraordinary discovery.

I’ve been very lucky.

You find out things about each other that are unexpected. As one version of the saying goes, “When you search for a needle in a haystack, you come to know the haystack.” When you search for love with one person over decades, you come to know that person.

Neither one of us is perfect. We often disagree. The enduring challenge is to love across differences. Alain de Botton said in Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,

The person we are best suited to is not the person who shares our every tastes (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in tastes intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement.

Candice is good at disagreement, in that she never makes that disagreement personal, hurtful, or permanent.  To paraphrase de Botton, she tolerates differences with generosity.

Popular culture suggests that “knowledge makes love less compelling,” notes author Kathryn Schulz with a nod to scholar and activist bell hooks. “Yet knowledge — a deep, intimate, sometimes hard-won understanding of both one’s partner and oneself — is ‘an essential element of love.'” And yes, indisputably, love is mysterious.

Love, like life, like all truth, is paradox.

In a short poem by Robert Frost called Devotion, Schulz notes that what we really want is more of the same.

The heart can think of no devotion

Greater than being shore to the ocean —

Holding the curve of one position

Counting an endless repetition.

The luckiest of all conditions “is to wish only for what we already have.”

Yes, in spite of myself I’ve been very lucky.

Happy anniversary, my love. Let’s continue on these journeys together.

More to come…


With appreciation for the writings of Madeleine L’Engle and Kathryn Schulz about love and journeys.

Photo of Candice and David in the gardens at Giverny on our anniversary trip to France in 2022. Credit: Claire Holsey Brown

Celebrating Doc

Doc Watson died in 2012 just one month after I saw him at the 25th anniversary of MerleFest, the music festival named in memory of his son Merle. Everybody’s guitar hero, Doc would have turned 100 on March 3rd of this year. To celebrate the enduring and wide-ranging legacy of this American treasure, I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100 is being released on April 28th. You can preorder the album today.

Photo of Doc Watson: Jim Gavenus

In the pre-releases posted to YouTube, Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal play a simple version of the title track, with a tasty guitar break by Leventhal in between verses.

Dolly Parton reimagined Last Thing on My Mind, a Watson concert staple written by folksinger Tom Paxton in the 1960s. While Parton has recorded the song on several occasions, most notably with Porter Wagoner, she sticks most closely to Doc’s version on this new album. Parton and Watson performed the song together at MerleFest 2001.

“Doc Watson is everyone’s hero and a great guitar player,” Parton said in a statement. “Some say he is the absolute best, and I was honored to get to work with him a few times in my career.”

Here’s the full track list:

1. “Shady Grove” – Jerry Douglas
2. “The Last Thing On My Mind” – Dolly Parton
3. “Am I Born to Die” – Nora Brown
4. “Alberta” – Jeff Parker & Matthew Stevens
5. “Make Me a Pallet” – Steve Earle
6. “I Am a Pilgrim” – Rosanne Cash
7. “Florida Blues” – Jack Lawrence
8. “How Long Blues” – Corey Harris
9. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – Ariesen
10. “Handsome Molly” – Valerie June & Bill Frisell
11. “Doc’s Guitar” – Yasmin Williams
12. “Little Sadie” – Chris Eldridge
13. “Reuben’s Train” – Lionel Loueke
14. “The Lost Soul” – Marc Ribot
15. “Your Lone Journey” – Bill Frisell

There are many top-notch musicians involved in this project, but I’m especially looking forward to hearing the young Washington-area guitarist Yasmin Williams play her version of that finger-busting classic Doc’s Guitar. Here’s the blind guitarist playing the 1960s original version.

A number of other musicians have been performing concerts and posting special videos in honor of Doc’s 100th.

Fiddler Mark O’Connor released a video of The Last Thing on My Mind, featuring O’Connor, Doc and Merle Watson, and T. Michael Coleman on bass and harmony vocals from the 1980s. Merle has a wonderful finger-picked guitar break, and O’Connor adds some sweet fiddle in another break and in backing up the vocals.

The Fretboard Journal also got into the act, posting the Billy Stings version of Doc’s classic Tennessee Stud with the following note:

Back in 2017, Billy Strings came by the Fretboard Journal to perform a pair of classic Doc Watson songs. Strings’ take on “Tennessee Stud” has since become the most-watched video we’ve produced with 3.5 million views.

It’s staggering to think of how many people first heard this tune when Doc played it on Will the Circle Be Unbroken…and now how many young people have found it through Billy and this YouTube video. If you somehow missed it, give it a listen.

The Fretboard Journal also added this gem to the mix:

Doc didn’t write “Sittin’ on Top of the World” but he definitely raised its profile when it appeared on his self-titled debut album in 1964. This old Mississippi Sheiks song has since been covered by everyone: Cream, Jack White, and this all-star group of performers at our first-ever Fretboard Summit in 2015. Trust me when I say this is the only time you’ll ever hear Bryan Sutton, Courtney Hartman, Matt Munisteri, Joe Henry, Bill Frisell, Scott Nygaard, and Blake Mills jamming together. Thanks, Doc. 

Of course, Doc is well known for his long association with Gallagher Guitars, and I’ve written about Gallagher here on More to Come. I own a G-50 — serial number 954 with a Sitka spruce top and mahogany back and sides — that I bought from J.W. Gallagher on November 21, 1977. G-50 #954 cost me $540!  The hard-shell case was another $100.  Throw in the tax and I took home this beauty for $676.30.  Today’s retail for a G-50: $4,100.

The company has changed ownership, but the new owner — David Mathis — uses all the original forms, many of them built by J.W., and he’s dedicated to keeping the brand alive and well. Here’s a video tribute concert by J.P. Cormier that includes a short history of the Gallagher’s by David Mathis.

I’ll close out this remembrance with a live version from 1979 of Doc’s most famous work, the fiddle tune Black Mountain Rag, played here by Doc along with flatpickers Norman Blake and Dan Crary and fiddler Sam Bush.

Doc, your friends and fans still love you and miss you. Rest in peace.

More to come…


A questioning faith

Is it okay to question God? The Israelites, wandering through the desert, questioned, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Hundreds of years later the Psalmist recorded that the Lord’s anger remained: “For forty years I loathed that generation.”

Yet Jesus asked essentially the same question from the cross. In one instance, there is a testing, a demand that God respond on our human timeline. In the other, the thirst is much deeper than mere water. Questions out of fear cloud our judgment. Yet we can ask in a spirit that frees us to see more clearly.

AMEN? Questions for a God I Hope Exists (2022) by Julia Rocchi is full of wisdom, vulnerability, and questions asked in an open and seeking spirit. Julia’s is a questioning faith where she invites the reader to join in her journey. Essays, quotations, poems, and prayers probe the mysteries that make up life. One reviewer sees in this honest and hopeful exploration, “a psalter for the post-modern, exhausted age.” Julia writes of a God who is imminently approachable and ready to answer our deepest questions.

I was delighted when Julia, a long-time friend, enthusiastically agreed to answer my questions about her new book.

DJB: Julia, would you tell us why community is important in your spiritual journey?

JR: Though I had a manuscript for AMEN? in place before COVID-19 struck, its reshaping all happened during pandemic, a long period where I was isolated at home with my husband and two small children, unable to participate in the activities that gave our lives texture and meaning, such as time with dear friends or regular church attendance. (I’m a practicing Roman Catholic.) As I constantly reread work I’d written in the “before times” when I never had to question the availability of tangible love, support, and connection, I realized just how deeply I missed, craved, and needed community.

Experiencing such bone-deep disconnection and loss ultimately gave me a greater affinity with my hoped-for audience — people who want to journey with others to encounter God but are struggling to find those fellow souls in an American society that is steadily moving away from traditional religious affiliation. And I found myself asking: If we can’t gather physically right now, how can I extend a spiritual invitation to an ongoing conversation where questions are not only welcome but encouraged?

Doubt and mystery play an important role in your search for meaning, beginning with the book’s title. How important is it to recognize and support questions and doubt in our spiritual quests?

From early on in my writing process, I developed a deep attachment to the question mark in my book’s title. For me, this simple punctuation captured the essence of what I was trying to communicate — that when we ask questions of God, the Universe, whatever it is that we believe to be bigger than ourselves, we do so not to arrive at answers, but to inspire still more questions. As a goal-oriented completist, I used to shiver at this approach, but as I grow more comfortable with mystery, I’ve come to see questions and doubts as cairns on a winding, unmappable journey — little signposts asked and shared by others so we can grapple with unknowing, together.

AMEN? contains essays, reflections, quotations, prayers, and poems written during various periods of your life. What did you discover as you shaped them into a book?

Often during the course of writing and editing this book, I cursed Past Julia — the younger, childless, swinging single Julia — for not using all her beautiful, unbound time to write AMEN? sooner! But the truth is, Past Julia — several different versions of her, in fact — did create this manuscript over the course of months, years, and moments. It was wild to run into my old selves on the page and align them with who I am and what I believe today. And what a tremendous opportunity it was for contemplation and grace, to give my life thus far a narrative arc and to bear witness to my own faith journey.

Another thing that struck me in my writing/editing process was how universal my feelings were across different ages and stages of life. As I reconnected with my old selves, so much of their lived experience still resonated, and they gave me insight into things I’m living today. It powerfully demonstrated how life may twist and turn, dip and rise, but our very cores — our souls, our Imago Dei, the way we are made in God’s image — are constant, protected, and sacred. 

What is prayer to you?

I have an entire chapter of AMEN? devoted to prayer, and that’s because I haven’t fully answered your question for myself yet! I will say that my concept of prayer has expanded over time; it’s no longer simply “words I recite as I squirm on a kneeler,” but rather a never-ending dialogue with Mystery itself. This expansive view opens up many more opportunities for divine communion, be it through meditation or movement, nature or art, grief or laughter.

If that sounds too diffuse for you, consider author Anne Lamott’s more concrete definition captured in her book title, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Her distillation in this slim but potent book reveals how, whether you believe in God or not, cultivating vulnerability, gratitude, and awe in your life will enrich the precious time you spend earthside.

What books do you like to read?

Despite AMEN? being nonfiction, I am first a writer of fiction, and I most willingly disappear into well-crafted novels and short stories, preferably ones with strong voices and unique points of view. In the past few years I’ve made a conscious effort to vary my literary diet, fiction and non, with works by more diverse authors outside the traditional canon. In short, any story that reveals a different facet of the world and illuminates a new corner of the human experience for me wins the day.

Bonus points if it also makes me laugh, because lord above, I don’t think we laugh enough these days.

Many thanks, Julia!

I’m honored that you invited me, David. Keep asking questions!

More to come…


The Weekly Reader links to written works I’ve enjoyed.

Turning gratitude into thankfulness

A thoughtful online post entitled Always Read the Acknowledgements Page by Grace Bialecki recently caught my eye. Bialecki, like me, is a fan of the acknowledgements authors often include in their works. I read them to understand the writer’s “artistic family tree.” She reads them for that reason and to gain information about networks and contacts. But Bialecki also suggests that we can learn language that gifted writers use to thank others, to the benefit of our own gratitude practice.

Acknowledgements are one form of saying thanks, yet not every author includes them. A spirit of thankfulness is recognition that no one creates or acts in a void. It also contributes to our personal well-being. Yet many have dropped the simple practice of saying thanks. Some may have trouble finding the right words. For others, it simply never rises to a level of importance in their busy lives.

Max De Pree — the long-time CEO of the design pacesetter Herman Miller — wrote that, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

Let’s set aside reality and servanthood for the moment and focus on saying thanks.

The kindnesses that often accompany expressions of thankfulness have deepened my appreciation for the power of this simple gesture. And their potency took on even greater significance for many of us during the isolation of the pandemic.

If you feel the need to hone your skills at saying thank you, here are four tips I’ve used to build my own radically grateful practice of thankfulness.

First, be intentional.

Richard Rohr suggests an attitude of gratitude is necessary to be thankful in difficult times, a deliberate choice of love over fear, a desire to be positive instead of negative. If we are not “radically grateful” every day, resentment can take over. Fighting the power to see the worst in the world takes constant effort.

Gratitude comes when we are fully aware, writes David Steindl-Rast. We see something that connects us to things beyond ourselves and to a sense of belonging. That, in turns, leads us to think in terms of giver, gift, and receiver.

Gratefulness turns into thankfulnessGratefulness is full awareness; thankfulness is thoughtfulness.

Second, study the language of great writers.

As Bialecki writes, “The language authors use to thank their friends and family is inspiration for both thank-you cards and daily life.” Consider, for example, Major Jackson’s poetry collection Hoops:

Jackson’s acknowledgment comes just after the table of contents. This is a sign that his appreciation is front and center, even before he writes, “A traditional bow is owed to many friends and colleagues without whose penetrating comments, critical conversations, and lasting encouragement I would have remained enthusiastically in awe yet speechless. They include…”

“Jackson’s poetic version of an Oscar speech,” she adds, “is a wonderful example of how words can express thanks.”

Third, learn from mentors.

It wasn’t until I was in my forties and worked directly with Richard Moe, the President of the National Trust, that I came to focus on both the language and deep impact of saying thanks.

Dick writes with a sincerity and depth that conveys appreciation for the work of others. As I began drafting reports for our office, I studied his thank you notes — and Dick wrote a lot of thank you notes — to pick up the rhythm of the sentences, favorite words, and the values that served as a foundation for his work. At various points along the way I adapted pieces of his voice for my own.

Finally, just do it.

My grandmother believed in saying “please” and “thank you.” She taught my father to write thank you notes and he followed her advice until he died at age 90. My parents taught their children the same lessons. I’ve always written thank you notes and believe anyone can take up the practice.

No matter where you are in life, you can start your personal “radically grateful” practice today. Write someone a thank you note.

You’ll both feel better for it.

More to come…


Image by Marcel Elia from Pixabay

Carrying Irish history with them

In anticipation of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day weekend, we’ll highlight the music of one of Ireland’s best-known folk groups, Dervish. The band came together in 1989 when four of the founding members met while playing informal sessions in the pubs of Sligo: Shane Mitchell (accordion), Liam Kelly (flute/whistle), Brian McDonagh (mandola/mandolin) and Michael Holmes (bouzouki). They were soon joined by Roscommon-born singer and bodhran (drum) player Cathy Jordan, and later by all Ireland Fiddle Champion Tom Morrow in 1998.

Through the years the band has played around the world, “carrying Irish history with them,” as one reviewer wrote.

At the end of 2019 Dervish received a prestigious lifetime achievement award from the BBC, a fitting tribute to the band after over 30 years of recording and performing all over the world. Described by the BBC as “an icon of Irish music”, the band have played at festivals from Rio de janeiro to Glastonbury. They accompanied the Irish President on state visits to Latvia and Lithuania and Prime Minister of Ireland on a trade mission to China as Cultural Ambassadors taking time out to play an impromptu session on the Great Wall of China. Dervish have a line-up which includes some of Ireland’s finest traditional musicians, fronted by one of the country’s best-known singers, Cathy Jordan.

I Courted a Wee Girl features the original Dervish lineup and comes from the 1996 album The End of the Day. The band noted that this was …

The first song we heard from the singing of the late Mrs. Sarah Makem from Keady, County Armagh. We incorporated a piece of music into the song called ‘Josefin’s Waltz’ which we got from the Swedish group Väsen. The idea of blending the two together came about in a dressing room in Stockholm! The story of the man being rejected by the woman in favour of a richer husband is very similar to another song – “The Lambs on the Green Hills'” in Colm O’ Lochlainn’s book Irish Street Ballads.

It remains a fan favorite and may bring tears to your eyes.

The raucous Jim Coleman’s Set comes from the band’s earlier days, and it was included on the 2001 retrospective album Decade. Here is the tune as performed on the Live in Palma album from 1997.

Fair Haired Boy, written by songwriter Brendan Graham, is from A Healing Heart, the much quieter 2005 album “released in response to a demand for the more plaintive and relaxed Dervish tracks.”

The Swallow’s Tail, shown here with the band in performance live from Dublin in 2010, displays the group’s amazing musicianship.

Dónal Óg is surely one of the most moving Irish love songs. A song of betrayal, obsession and grief – a young girl’s cry of desolation left pregnant and abandoned by her lover Dónal. There are many versions of this song written originally in Gaelic but this one was translated by Frank O’Connor.

Just before the pandemic hit in 2020, Dervish was joined for the Celtic Connections concert in Glasgow by guests including Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck, Heidi Talbot and Brian Kennedy. The group played The Galway Shawl, which requires audience participation in the chorus … and those in attendance played their role with gusto!

I’ll end this celebration of Dervish and St. Patrick’s Day with two tunes featuring the band and another of my favorite roots musicians, singer Kate Rusby. The first is from the 2010 Celtic Connections concert and is titled As I Roved Out, while the second, Down by the Salley Garden, probably dating from roughly the same period, is from The Late, Late Show. Both are beautiful, with the Salley Garden ending spinning off into a wonderful minute-long bit to get the feet tapping.

Give a listen, perhaps over a pint of the black stuff, and enjoy!

More to come…


Photo of Dervish by Collin+Gillen+1 credit

A lie never lives to be old

Deep down we know that yes, everybody lies. Few of us do it with the frequency and democracy-crushing impact of the admitted liars of Fox News. But we all tell lies.

There are many different types of lies, of course. Friedrich Nietzsche once suggested, “The most common lie is that which one lies to himself; lying to others is relatively an exception.” Lies undermine confidence, trust, and relationships. Lies, as everyone knows, are the bread-and-butter of murder mysteries.

All of which brings me to this month’s selection in my quest to read twelve crime novels this year.

Eight Perfect Murders (2020) by Peter Swanson is full of lies. The trick is figuring out who is lying, and to whom they are lying. Swanson’s book is so full of plot twists that it isn’t an easy task. Almost impossible, one might say.

Early in the book we find out that bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw once wrote a blog post for his store’s website that listed the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack. He titled it Eight Perfect Murders and his selections included Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne’s Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox’s Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald’s The Drowner, and Donna Tartt’s A Secret History. He is surprised when an FBI agent shows up in his Boston store to ask questions about the list. She has studied a number of unsolved crimes and has a hunch that someone is working their way through the list and leaving dead bodies in their wake.

It turns out that someone else is interested in the list and in Malcom. A killer is around, and he or she seems to know much more about the bookseller’s life than he’s ever told anyone, including his recently deceased wife. In his investigation into who is committing these murders, Malcolm — to his horror — finds death in places where he didn’t expect it. The plot keeps twisting, and the reader is brought along to see if the killer can literally get away with murder.

It was the Greek tragedian Sophocles who said, “A lie never lives to be old.” And true to form, the lies told in the commission of the eight murders are eventually uncovered. Swanson, who appears to write a new murder mystery every year, is adept at the form, using many of the tools of the trade in this work including the unreliable narrator.

Recommended by a friend who knew of my quest, Eight Perfect Murders is a page-turning thriller where I often gasped out loud at the introduction of some new nugget of information. Swanson has written a real puzzler that satisfies.

More to come…


To see reviews of the other books in my year of reading mystery novels, click here for January and February.

The Weekly Reader links to written works I’ve enjoyed. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry. 

Image by Amy from Pixabay

Wood that rejoices in transmitting music

Stringed instruments have an often unique and mysterious personality — a soul, if you will — that some find difficult to understand. How that personality is acquired is a complex story. Musical traditions and the work of composers and musicians who contribute to that tradition most certainly play a role. Sometimes part of the instrument’s personality flows from that of the musician. Violinist and conductor Pinchas Zuckerman can point to his famous Guarnerius violin and announce that “this is a complete extension of my being.”

And yet the soul of these instruments comes from more than just the musicians who play them so skillfully. Luthiers work a lifetime striving to perfect an instrument’s voice. Foresters select and cut the music trees.

Most important of all are the rare and vanishing forests that produce old trees and the wood that rejoices in transmitting music.

The words of a poet driven by wonder and curiosity.

Masters of Tonewood: The Hidden Art of Fine Stringed-Instrument Making (2022) by poet and author Jeffrey Greene is dedicated to exploring how those mysterious personalities we admire when a fine stringed instrument is skillfully played are acquired. It is a pleasing and illuminating deep dive into a fascinating world, skillfully written with the clarity of a poet and the love of an artist.

Most non-musicians have heard of stringed instruments made by Stradivari and the other celebrated luthiers such as Amati and Guarneri from the Golden-Age of Cremonese instrument builders.  What Greene does in Masters of Tonewood is take the reader beyond the single instrument and the famous names to help us understand the key resonance wood used in Europe for stringed instruments such as violins, violas, cellos, contrabass, piano, classical guitar, and harp.

The wood for the tops of many of these instruments comes from a very common tree, the Norway spruce. Yet the pieces chosen in crafting a great instrument only come from very old spruce trees that have grown in rare mountain forests at approximately 4,000 feet, “with unique soil composition, disposition to the sun, and prevailing weather patterns.” Wanting to see the birthplace of these magnificent instruments firsthand, Greene takes us on a delightful tour of the seven key European “musical forests” located in Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Along the way he visits with the musicians who create musical art on these instruments; luthiers who take carefully selected pieces of wood and craft them into prized pieces of art in their own right; tonewood millers who carefully cut and prepare the logs for sale around the world; and the foresters who tend to these “renewable gardens” that are under attack by multiple forces in the modern world.

In an interview for France Today, Greene helps us understand the key role of the tonewood.

You might wonder how a small instrument like a violin can rivet a whole concert hall with so much sound, even “grab an audience by the throat” with the range of its emotive voice. Of course, the virtuoso musician gives the soaring expression to great compositions. But anyone who lives with creaky wood floors, like the ones in my Paris apartment, or listens to a woodpecker, knows that wood fibre possesses the remarkable property of conducting and projecting sound.

The musical forests of Europe, like similar stands of trees around the world, are stressed today by climate change, extraordinary storms that can destroy centuries of growth in a single event, and illegal logging, among other threats. Greene helps the reader understand what the countries of Europe are doing to maintain this universal treasure.

Near book’s end, the author looks at the extraordinary story of the guitar with detours to France, Spain, the Mississippi Delta, and beyond. He recognizes the role that the United States has played in popularizing the instrument.

And Greene also takes a delightful look at luthiers using alternative sources of wood, such as floorboards, backyard trees, and lumber that has been submerged in water for decades. He finds George Youngblood in Guilford, Connecticut, building a guitar using Sitka spruce, a popular tonewood in the U.S.

This particular material, however, was Native American-cut and recovered from old fish traps in the Pacific Northwest. Alaskan fish traps used to be made with weighted spruce logs. Without oxygen, the wood doesn’t rot and the minerals from the bottom of rivers and lakes replaces the sap, making it stiffer and a prized tonewood. And yet, sinker wood divers can disrupt decades-old and delicate ecological systems that support rich wildlife and plant communities. Luthiers such as Youngblood have to continually hunt for appropriate — and legally obtained — materials. Greene quotes the builder as reporting on “carcasses in the basement. There’s a whole pile of broken guitars I call ‘organ donors.'”

Running Dog Guitar Ought-3
My Running Dog Guitar Ought-3 (photo credit: Running Dog Guitars)

Masters of Tonewood connected many threads in my life. Several times while reading Greene’s love letter, I stopped to admire the beautiful Bearclaw Sitka spruce soundboard and Camatillo rosewood body of my Running Dog Ought-3 guitar, built by luthier Rick Davis, as well as the curly koa back and sides of my Running Dog parlor guitar.

Koa back of my Running Dog parlor guitar

Greene’s book is also one of a growing number of books on the interconnectedness of nature that I’ve absorbed over recent years, including Peter Wohllenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, and David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen. Much like these authors, Jeffrey Greene has injected a sense of wonder — and more importantly, a wonder-filled joy — into this vibrant and lovely work.

More to come…


Image by Samuel from Pixabay

From certainty to mystery

Today marks the beginning of my annual trip around the sun. In thinking about what could possibly lie ahead, I looked for inspiration to Things Other People Accomplished When They Were Your Age.

Sixty-eight, it turns out, is a pretty sparse year for accomplishments.

At age 68, the English experimentalist William Crookes began investigating radioactivity and invented a device for detecting alpha particles. And at the same age, French President Charles de Gaulle, who resigned 12 years earlier out of impatience with party politics, made a political comeback.

I am neither a scientist nor a politician, so I don’t feel any great pressure to add my name to this list with some never-before-seen discovery or outstanding accomplishment.

Everyone is different. Our desires, energy, ambitions, setbacks, opportunities, values, and perspectives shift, grow, or diminish in different ways through the years. What we sought in our 20s usually differs markedly from the dreams of our 60s. As folksinger Carrie Newcomer wisely writes,

I’ve traveled through my history.
From certainty to mystery.
God speaks in rhyme in paradox.
This I know is true

From certainty to mystery is a perfect description for my history. It is surprising just how much I’ve forgotten since I was sixteen and knew everything.

Now that I’m sixty-eight I worry much less about career and workplace accomplishments, focusing instead on living more fully in the wonder of this remarkable life. I try and take on the advice Mary Oliver has given to writers: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

Birthdays are an especially good time to stop and pay attention. There are important lessons that are slowly revealed as one gets older; lessons I’ve either just discovered or have resurfaced in recent years. For instance:

  • Most of the time everything you need you already have. The rest of the time it doesn’t matter.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Keep good company. Drop the complainers and drainers from your life. Draw energy and inspiration from the visionaries and creators.
  • Choose sympathy over outrage.
  • Life is too short to not enjoy the things you love. 
  • Be humble.
  • Gratitude goes a long, long way. 
  • The ordinary is nothing but extraordinary.

Like everyone else on this planet, I don’t know how much longer this life will last. If I’m like my mother, I have less than 52 weeks. If I am so fortunate as to live into my nineties like my father, I have about 1,000 weeks left.

‘Cause leaves don’t drop they just let go
And make a space for seeds to grow
And every season brings a change
A tree is what a seed contains
To die then live is life’s refrain

Whatever is left of the journey, I want to give up trying to control my life. In its place I want to embrace life’s paradox and liminality.*

And, yes, there are a few things I want to accomplish in whatever time is left. I want to enjoy more drinks and meals with friends. To be more generous with my time and talents. To work where I’m effective to support democracy, equality, and justice. To read more books. To smile more often. To continue to travel as long as I’m physically able. To walk more, and to walk more in nature. To listen more. To talk less. To make sure that the people I love and care about know that without question. To be gratefully aware, not just every day but every hour in a way that leads to true thankfulness.

To try to be nice, but always to be kind.

I can’t wait to see what’s ahead!

More to come…


*Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “There is nothing like paradox to take the scum off your mind.” I agree. And yes, liminal is my new favorite word (and I’m not alone). I first heard it used by Krista Tippett.

Image of street sign in Dundee by DJB

The books I read in February 2023

Each month my goal is to read five books on a variety of topics and from different genres. Here are the books I read in February 2023. If you click on the title, you’ll go to the longer post on More to Come. Enjoy.

The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise (2023) by Pico Iyer is both an external odyssey and an internal journey to paradise. In a series of memorable essays, Iyer takes the reader from “the wrathful Old Testament landscape of Broome, Australia,” and the mosques and gardens of Iran to the lakes of Kashmir and the Hindu holy city of Varanasi. In each he leads the reader with skillful and expressive descriptions of the physical places. But he also calls upon a rich array of literature to flesh out the meaning of these shrines while examining the conflicts — open and hidden — often found there. Paradise on earth is a paradox. Often located in unimaginably beautiful landscapes or containing great holy shrines, these cities and sites have also seen incalculable suffering. Perhaps that’s because we are looking in the wrong places, Iyer reminds us. In the words of Franciscan priest Richard Rohr: “Our goal in life is not to become more spiritual, but to become human.”

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2021) by Oliver Burkeman begins with the simple fact that we won’t live forever; 4,000 weeks, in fact, if we make it to 80. We all know this intellectually, but we buy into productivity gurus who push us to make almost infinitely ambitious plans. We are frenetically doing tasks instead of experiencing the wonder of life that is all around us. Burkeman, the self-described “recovering productivity geek”, reminds us of the truth behind the paradox of limitations: the more one confronts the facts of our limits — and works with them, rather than against them — the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes. Things just take the time they take. The sooner we accept that fact and admit that the level of control demanded by the efficiency experts will never be attained, the sooner we can live the only life we have more fully.

A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France (2023) by Janet Hulstrand is a delightful memoir where the author takes us from her grandmother’s hometown in Iowa to her current home in the French countryside. Janet is a long-time friend whose adventures include working as Caroline Kennedy’s editorial assistant and living in a gypsy caravan outside Paris. We learn much about Janet’s journey, including the complicated relationship with the two women who fueled her love for learning, exploration, and writing. In my blog post, I interview Janet about this testament to family and the writing life.  A Long Way from Iowa will interest those who seek to understand the people and places that shape the path they choose.

Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch (1991) by Eileen Spinelli is — to put it simply — the best Valentine’s Day book ever. Mr. Hatch is the loneliest man in town. He would leave his brick house at 6:30 sharp every morning to walk to the shoelace factory, where he worked. At lunchtime he would sit alone in the corner, eating his cheese and mustard sandwich and drinking a cup of coffee. Sometimes he brought a prune for dessert. But one Valentine’s Day Mr. Hatch discovers that he has a secret admirer. By book’s end, Mr. Hatch learns who loves him. And it is more wonderful than he ever imagined.

Dead Man’s Folly (1956) by Agatha Christie is a mystery where no one is quite what they seem. The owners of an estate in Devon are hosting a charity fete for the local village. They decide to stage a mock murder for their guests and ask the famous crime writer, Ariadne Oliver, to organize the hunt. After developing the plot and clues, Mrs. Oliver calls her old friend, the world-renowned, mustachioed Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot, and asks him to join her for the party. Without a full understanding of the request, the self-proclaimed “greatest detective in the world” nonetheless accepts her invitation and arrives by train, where he learns that his friend feels something sinister is afoot. Her suspicions are confirmed on the day of the party when they find the young village woman who had been tapped as the victim in the drama actually murdered and lying in the boathouse — just as Mrs. Oliver’s plot had outlined. And that’s only the beginning of the puzzle!

More to come…


NOTE: Click on the month to see the books I read in January. Also check out my Ten tips for reading five books a month.

This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry. 

Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash