Walk in a Relaxed Manner, by Joyce Rupp

I know Joyce Rupp a little because we’re both part of casual, ever-changing local writers’ group. She is a keen world traveler; I’m a stubbornly reluctant traveler. Once at a writer’s gathering, she took me aside to give me quiet advice about packing for a trip to Italy. I would describe her as elegant, yet sturdy. Reserved, yet kind and willing to share.

The fact that she did not plan to share her experience of walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but meant it to be a very private pilgrimage for her own spiritual growth, is perhaps what makes the book feel so authentic and accessible. If she had walked all of September and most of October over five hundred miles of northern Spain knowing she was going to write a book at the end, surely she would have been shaping and filtering as she went. She would have been taking photos and making notes. Documenting. Planning. Instead, she kept a small, private, journal.

In her introduction she shares how her determination to keep her Camino experience private changed. In a moment of synchronicity after her return, right after she had expressed once again her determination not to write about it, she was confronted with Joseph Campbell’s—whom she admires—conviction that the returning pilgrim (hero) has an obligation to gift the community with an account of the journey.

And so she did.

In the Contents, she lists 25 life lessons she learned from the Camino: Go Prepared, Live in the Now, Experience Homelessness, etc. These lessons are learned from the cacophony of snores of fellow pilgrims, the beauty of the Pyrenees, and vineyards heavy with purple and green grapes. From blisters wrapped in duct tape, bathroom noises, poetry, and puddles of vomit. From a fox running through the chestnut trees and a cockroach swimming in the hot chocolate. From sharing scarce food, taking the time to watch ants, and finding fellow pilgrims who also love Barbara Kingsolver books.

From her privations and blessings, she feels what it means to be food insecure, to be suspected of being a shoplifter, to live without being clean as the homeless sometimes must do. From her exhaustion comes clarity. From a September 15 journal entry: Today I realized it has taken me many days of walking to finally reach a clearness inside that is allowing me to contemplate all I see. It was gradual—beginning with the magnificent grapes in the vineyards. Now I can look at this old bench I sit on, rusted green, bird poop, highway noise nearby, and I can be still inside. I can look at the shape of the bench, the holes, the patches of corrosion and “see” it with my “special eyes.” I need to “see” people’s faces more, to read the sacredness there, too.

Over the years, I’ve recommended and/or loaned this book to several people who are neither particularly spiritual nor adventurous, and it has been valued by all as a good and important read. As a reluctant traveler, I will never walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. But echoing Thoreau 😄 : I have travelled much in West Des Moines because of wonderful books like this. I’ve come to know we are all pilgrims, every day. And it is good to Embrace Beauty, Live in the Now, and Walk in a Relaxed Manner.

— Sharelle Moranville

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I started this book with a bunch of trepidation because of the strange title. Who would have thought of a story about a snail? Who would have thought that watching a snail go about its daily life would help someone get through a devastating illness? Who, also, would have completed so much excessive factual research into a small, relatively insignificant animal?

I mean, how interesting can a snail be? Entirely captivating, as it turns out. Enjoying reading the book slowly, I found that perhaps there’s something to be said for moving at a snail’s pace. I found the book to be a fascinating glimpse into the life of an animal most of us ignore or even dislike, and ended up with a new-found appreciation for a miraculous little creature that I never thought much about before — except that I hated them eating my hostas every Spring. 

In a work that beautifully demonstrates the rewards of closely observing nature, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s account of her uncommon encounter with a common woodland snail (she never gave it a name) when she is bedridden with a mysterious pathogen she contracted during a trip to Europe. She withstood long months unable to even turn over in bed without exhausting herself, spending those months in a room with a window she couldn’t see out of and surrounded by plain white walls.

But, one day a friend brings her a pot of wild violets with—of all things—a snail in it. The mere idea of the responsibility for this is almost overwhelming for Elizabeth, but the quiet, slow, peacefulness of the snail gradually wins her over. What started as a bizarre unwanted gift became her main focus and companion.

Spending long hours watching the snail, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing a candid and engaging look into the curious life of this underappreciated small animal. She found that a snail’s world is far more interesting than one might imagine as they get by with only three senses—smell, taste, and touch. She became fascinated and intrigued by the snail’s molluscan anatomy, clear decision making, hydraulic (slimy) locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities (e.g. Romantic encounters between a pair of snails can take up to seven hours from start to finish!)

Set over the course of one year, she and the snail share an intimate journey of survival and resilience. With a naturalist’s curiosity, and told with wit and grace, Bailey delves into a wealth of gastropod literature, filling her chapters with fascinating mollusk biology (They have thousands of teeth! They can mate with themselves!)

Author Bailey reminds us that every living creature is here for a reason. Her book is well-written and is one of those sleeper books that could become a classic. The only thing that would have made it better would have been color photographs.

— Kenn Johnson

How the Word is Passed, by Clint Smith

This is a remarkable book unlike any other than I have read as I have explored over the past two years books on racism, anti-racism, caste, mass incarceration, the realities of slavery. This book is in many ways a travelogue. But a very specific travelogue, exploring sites all over the US – and one in Africa – that illuminate our history with enslavement and its aftermath. Smith visits and talks to other visitors and guides at:

  • Jefferson’s home at Monticello, Virginia, where he takes a tour that not many others take, seeing the realities of Jefferson as a slave-owner and as the father of enslaved children;
  • Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, which is the only plantation devoted to looking at life from the perspective of the enslaved;
  • Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest and one of the most brutal prisons in the United States, built on the site of a former plantation, where African-Americans represent 76% of the incarcerated population;
  • Blandford Cemetery in Virginia, the resting place of over 30,000 Confederate soldiers, where he attends a Sons of Confederate  Veterans (SCV) commemoration celebration;
  • Galveston Island, Texas, where the last enslaved people were finally informed of their freedom after the end of the Civil War and where the Juneteenth celebration was born;
  • the Wall Street area of lower Manhattan in New York City, most of which was built by enslaved persons and which housed a thriving slave auction site until 1762; and
  • Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, where 33,000 people were chained and passed through the House of Slaves and the Door of No Return to be loaded into the holds of ships for the “Middle Passage” cross-Atlantic trip to permanent enslavement in the colonies and the emerging United State; this is a place where today the local population grapples with how to teach their history to their children.

What is remarkable about this book to me is Smith’s gentle courage. He manages to talk directly, but without accusation, with those who do not see life through the same lens. We hear from organizers of the SCV celebration, the tour guides and gift shop proprietor at the prison in Angola, along with many others. He hears their stories and then gently asks them to see things from the Black American point of view.

In a beautiful epilogue, Smith talks with his grandparents. They tell of stories received from their grandparents who were enslaved. They remember their own stories of the Jim Crow south.

Smith’s prose evokes clear images of the places he visits and the people with whom he talks. This is a beautiful book. If you’re interested in dipping your toe into some of the recently published books on “our original sin” and its aftermath, this is an excellent place to begin.

— by Jeanie Smith