“At Random” column for July 28, 2013

BY DANNY HEITMAN

My daughter’s high school, like many others, assigns a couple of books for students to read over the summer. The end of July is when she and many of her classmates realize that there’s little time left to finish summer reading. School begins soon.

Although I no longer answer to the school bell, I’m reminded at the close of each July that my summer reading season is ebbing away, too. We never read as much in summer as we think we will.

Sobered by experience, I started including at least one short book on my summer reading list last year. Finishing a bite-size title gives me the satisfaction of completing something on my night stand and returning it to the shelf before football season starts.

At 102 pages, Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow” is slender enough to fit into my back pocket, and I’ve been carrying it around this summer, ready for the odd moment in a bank teller line or dentist’s office when I can scan a few pages of Lamott’s thoughts on prayer. The title comes from Lamott’s idea that the three essential prayers come from supplication, gratitude and wonder.

“Amazing things appear in our lives, almost out of nowhere — landscapes, seascapes, forgiveness — and they keep happening; so many vistas and so much healing to give thanks for,” Lamott tells readers. “Even when we don’t cooperate, blessings return to our lives, even in the aftermath of tragedy.”

Lamott’s words have been a tonic for me in this summer of discontent, as wildfires and murder trials and Washington strife darken the headlines.

I’ve come under the spell of another small summer book, W.D. Wetherell’s, “On Admiration: Heroes, Heroines, Role Models and Mentors.” Wetherell’s charming little paperback is a kind of memoir in which he recounts his life by remembering public figures he’s admired. He includes everyone from Henry David Thoreau to Dwight Eisenhower, and his book is an answer to modern cynicism, arguing that although no hero is perfect, some people are still worth holding up as standards of human possibility.

When I want to remind myself of what is possible on languid summer days, I also dip into “A Thousand Mornings,” the latest chapbook of poems by Mary Oliver.

Like seashells cupped to the ear, Oliver’s little books of poetry give us the sound of the world in the palm of our hand.

A lot goes on in just a few lines of an Oliver poem. In “Today,” we meet bees and fish and gnats, each tugged by some urgency of a summer day, but the abiding theme is stillness.

What Oliver says, without quite saying it, is that the best part of summer can be staying put. “Today I’m flying low and I’m / not saying a word,” she writes. “I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.”

Summer doesn’t often allow that kind of stillness, which is why few of us will finish all the books we planned to read this season.

But then again, that’s what autumn is for.

Danny Heitman can be reached at dheitman@theadvocate.com.