Summer Reading

Some highlights and recommendations from the summer (aka Reading Season) so far:


This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider

The Sacred Enneagram by Christopher Heuertz

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger


Joy” by Zadie Smith

On How to Grow an Idea” by Jenny Odell

The Last Days of John Allen Chau” by Alex Perry

If You Should Find Yourself in the Dark” by Debbie Weingarten


From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee

Poem to My Child, If Ever You Should Be” by Ross Gay

The Voice” by Jeanne Murray Walker


The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Getting Involved with God by Ellen Davis 

Tijuana Book of the Dead by Luís Alberto Urrea

Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Spanish Lessons

One of the best Spanish idioms I know (not that I have a whole roster tucked up my sleeve, ready to deploy at the opportune moment) is the dismissive, vaguely religious, and appropriately morbid (I did learn it in Mexico, after all, a country with a fondness for dark humor), “Tú no tienes vela en este entierro.” In English: You don’t have a candle at this burial. I’ll get to what that phrase implies, but first, the background.

My Spanish instructor Alberto starts at the very beginning, as he likes to do, by talking about the verb velar. Literally translated it means “to ensure.” But back in the day—I mean centuries ago—it meant “to look after” or “to care for” (someone, something), with the specific connotation of caring for this someone or something at night. In the daytime, your brother would watch over your aging and infirm abuelo, Alberto explains, pulling his lips over his teeth to suggest a doddering, toothless grandpa. But at night, it was your turn to velar por abuelo.

The Spanish word for candle is vela, still used today, which also comes from the verb velar. Picture watching over grandpa’s bed in an earlier century, your candle sinking lower in its wax and spilling over the sides of its holder, which of course has a finger loop for you to grab so that you can slip out of the bedroom once he began snoring and sneak back to your room in your night shirt, dressed like Ebenezer Scrooge (or perhaps like me as a child in my Felicity-the-American-Girl-Doll-night-dress ensemble, which I loved very much and wore with the ribbon cinched tight around my throat).

“But, uh oh!” Alberto says now, eyes widening. “One night you forget to velar por abuelo and—que triste—he dies.” Alberto drops the toothless grandpa impression and invokes a mourning Mexican mother, pulling an imaginary black shawl around his head. “So you have a wake at the local church, a mass for the body, and if you’re a family member, you bring a candle—a vela.”

Picture it: Everyone is standing around mourning abuelo, preparing to put his worn-out body in the ground, where the following October it will be led back home to your family’s altar on Dia de los Muertos with a trail of marigolds and all of abuelo’s favorite foods set out so that his spirit can snack on pan dulce or tamales or tlayudas or whatever it is abuelo loved most to eat in life. At the mass and subsequent burial—Spanish word: entierro—one would be able to tell family members from non-family members based on who held velas. And so when a busybody neighbor or ex-lover of abuelo’s or second cousin thrice-removed steps into the huddled circle of vela-toting family members and tries to assert their opinion about coffin style or funeral hymns, abuelo’s widow could turn on them and hiss, with those round vowels and snapping consonants native to Spanish, “Tú no tienes vela en este entierro!”

Which is to say, You don’t have a candle at this burial! Which, more to the point, is to say, It’s none of your business! And which is why this phrase is still employed today even when there are no velas or abuelos or entierros in sight.

Childish and Grateful

One of the most potent human pleasures is sitting outside, en puro sol, preferably on a warmed rock wall above a body of water, and eating ice cream, preferably on a cone to preserve that childish summer delight of holding a treat by hand instead of using utensils/plates/napkins (and probably, sitting at a table rather than that warmed rock wall above water).

There it is: sun warming the top of your head, wall heating your thighs from below, peanut butter ice cream softening in the heat and cooling your tongue with each lick, the water cerulean and glittering beneath your feet which—I hope—you are kicking back and forth against the wall, back and forth like playground swings, heels making satisfying contact that zooms each foot forward again, looking like the happiest six-year-old that you, in this moment, are.

The delight of a pawpaw grove, in addition to its groveness, which is also a kind of naveness, is in learning how to spot the fruit, which hangs in clusters, often, and somewhat high in the tree. This encourages pointing, especially if you are not alone, a human faculty that deserves at least a little celebration, something I realized when I pointed toward a grape I had tossed in the direction of a dog to no effect, and then a few days later pointing at a bird for a baby to notice, same result. The pointing skill, pointing and following the point, is acquired (I wonder if there is a pointing stage), and is a miracle of cognition. A miracle to know there is an invisible line between the index finger and that barely discernible trio of fruit swaying way up in the canopy, blending into the leaves until they twist barely into the light, and out of it. There’s one, you whisper, lest they fly away.
— Ross Gay, The Book of Delights