Column: A space where I can imagine, learn and be inspired

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  • Dallas Morning News illustration -- Dean Hollingsworth

For the Valley News
Published: 10/24/2020 10:40:11 PM
Modified: 10/24/2020 10:40:09 PM

Mornings are best when they include time with meaningful books. Being retired, I’m no longer the early riser who brews coffee and sequesters in a study with reading material, paper and pencil during the hours before dawn. The day still starts soon enough, but with yoga and walking first, followed, as cool temperatures arrive, with hot cereal and a mug of coffee. In the sacred time that follows, my holy trinity consists of a book-of-the-moment, a notebook and a fountain pen.

After our recent move from a spacious house to a cottage in a retirement community, the first thing I organized was my new workroom. Like the cottage, it is small — as well as sunny, well-planned and perfect. My modest writing table with its wrought iron legs is in a corner with windows on two sides. There are days I want to rush home from walking to make breakfast, close the door and get started.

While my morning reading is wide-ranging, the selections are not all-embracing; they are always nonfiction or poetry. Over the years, this choice has been essential, and I can almost explain why.

At least in a surface sense, fiction tends to offer pleasure or entertainment and is better saved for afternoon or evening. Essays and poetry are often more serious; they require thought and analysis. They can also be disturbing or provocative. Reading choices at this time of day are books I learn from or ones I’m drawn to for their inspiration, wisdom, questions or authority.

In earlier years, when morning reading and writing often did occur in the predawn hours before heading out to work, I focused, more often than not, on inspiration. My job then, as a teacher of writing and literature, provided ample motivation for all other kinds of reading. In the quiet moments before I left home, I wanted something else.

Many of those older books remain on my shelves. Among them, Judith Lasater’s Living Your Yoga is still invaluable in urging me toward perspective and patience, and a book of Yeats poems is always close at hand. Opening it just now to The Lake Isle at Innisfree I am again transported to Yeats’ cabin, where “peace comes dropping slow” and “evening (is) full of the linnet’s wings.”

Never will I be finished with Maxine Greene’s Releasing the Imagination, a compelling reflection on the arts and their essential roles in teaching and living. The arts, Greene says, “move us into spaces where we can imagine other ways of being … and resist the forces that press people into passivity and bland acquiescence.”

Poet Jane Hirshfield, in her essay collection Nine Gates, goes further with this idea of the imagination. “In the wholeheartedness of concentration, the world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” It is this quality of concentration — of world and self cohering — that is the essence of my most vibrant mornings of reading and writing.

One recent choice stands out: The Source of Self-Regard, a 2019 essay collection by the late Toni Morrison. It is informative, inspirational and wise. I have a long history with Morrison the novelist, both personally and as a teacher. One of her earliest works of fiction, The Bluest Eye, is still a controversial choice for high school students. For me, it was worth fighting to include it in a class I taught on works of Black authors. Even then, without the label, reading that book led to a clear realization among my students and me that Black lives matter.

Morrison herself selected the essays for The Source of Self-Regard. Their arrangement represents her thinking over the years. Her subjects include her reading, her advocacy for her race, her views of other writers, and her ardent defense of the arts and writing. In the first piece, “Peril,” Morrison comments, “Those writers … who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured and protected. ... A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” Elsewhere she observes, “Art reminds us that we belong here.”

And tomorrow? I’m eager to begin Vesper Flights, a new book by Helen Macdonald, who wrote H is for Hawk not long ago. Also waiting for me is the recent Synthesizing Gravity, in which former poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Kay Ryan has gathered a group of essays probing, among other subjects, “the mind in pursuit of art.”

There will be pleasure ahead.

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt. Email her at

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