Messengers of Encouragement: Stories to Help Us Listen, Support, and Believe in One Another and Pax

By David Hagstrom. Dancing Moon Press, 2021. 150 pages. $14.95/paperback.

By Annie Lighthart. Fernwood Press, 2021. 90 pages. $16/paperback.

To read two books back-to-back that both give heart is a welcome experience for me. David Hagstrom’s Messengers of Encouragement: Stories to Help Us Listen, Support and Believe in One Another and Annie Lighthart’s new collection of poems, Pax, were two such works. They have enriched my life and strengthened my spirit.

With a foreword by Parker J. Palmer, Hagstrom’s Messengers of Encouragement is both gentle and wise. It focuses on the value of listening with the heart: both to others and to one’s own inner calling.

Drawing on different eras of his life—from farming to teaching in and administering schools in Alaska, through a number of medical encounters–-Hagstrom illustrates the power of a story to create deeply meaningful communication with others. Each small story is a vignette that shaped the author’s larger self, and it is that larger self that reports out to us with the understanding and wisdom he has gained from his experiences.

As Hagstrom shares his stories, we hear the voice of one who lives with compassion and courage. His increasing ability to live with “the luck of the draw” teaches him and us ways to nurture and encourage others with deep listening and calm, quiet humility.

One story that especially moved me is about Hagstrom’s discovering a brain tumor that had to be removed, and how the 16-hour surgery damaged his auditory nerve. With the help of an encouraging nurse, Hagstrom learned to listen in a new way:

My ears have considerable difficulty perceiving sounds these days; however, my heart has become a deeper, more trustworthy source of hearing. There’s a song strong in my soul. I hear my song—and other people’s too. I listen with my heart.

With each story we grow in admiration for Hagstrom’s ability to accept what fate has presented him: how he learns from each event to be more compassionate, more appreciative of the gifts of his own life, more able to encourage and thus nurture others. From paying close attention to his own experiences and interactions with others, Hagstrom finds:

These days . . . I try to first listen, refraining from adding my perspective just to get my two cents in. In conversation, I try to ask an open and honest question, rather than leading someone into my predetermined directions, I try to watch their expressions directly instead of gazing away.

Hagstrom’s stories lift us up with kindness and wonder, which we come to discover is the essence of encouragement—a way of inviting others to “come in out of the cold.” His stories teach us the power of simply being with another and listening. They teach us that careful listening is encouragement. Indeed, it is an act of love.

Just as Hagstrom uses storytelling to share the important lessons his life has offered him, Annie Lighthart uses poetry to share the understandings she has gained from paying attention to the small details of the world around her. Pax is a collection of poems rich with wisdom and generosity, and blessedly not at all self-conscious about reminding us how awesome and sacred life can be.

The first poem in the book, “Conditions of Happiness,” suggests to us that “when you do not measure time, / each day is a little year . . .” which enables us to hear “the birds sing all morning, you have what you need.”

Poem after poem offers us “A New Way to See Stars” and reminds us to welcome the light, which reveals itself to us like stars that “land among mouths / and are eaten by day.” Throughout, Lighthart’s poems tap into the elemental wisdom that can be gained from engaging with the experiences life offers. The poet acknowledges the shadows but foregrounds the beauty and awe in our lives:

When we look long at one another,

we soften, we relent, listen
might forgive. We allow for silence
and . . .
suddenly we are in a free place.
as if out of the pupil and the iris
of that momentary kingdom.

These poems offer a lens of gentle gratitude through which we can celebrate even the things we are taught not to do, like “[n]ot to eat the candy found in the road” and not looking “at people frankly and say[ing] what one thinks.” Over and over, she shows how to “pick oneself up off the floor.”

In our complex world, where voices of anger and fear too often find their way to our ears, Lighthart’s poems are graced by a voice of wonder and gratitude. They suggest that “[i]t is enough to lie down in safety and let the darkness take form,” and they remind us to ask ourselves how we will wake the “stubborn sleeper” of ourselves back “to life.” “Yes,” she writes in her poem “Autumn.”

Yes, gravity wants to win, but we still live in a world
of levity—eyes opening, hope hoisting us
up from bed . . .

The beginning of the last poem in Pax, “Lantern,” pretty neatly sums up a core message that is woven throughout this book: “Some evening, almost accidentally, you might yet understand / that you belong, are meant to be . . .”

When so much we read these days seems to encourage cynicism, these books by Lighthart and Hagstrom urge us to pay attention to the gifts that offer themselves to us daily. Neither writer denies the shadows that keep the written word whole and authentic, but both serve to remind us that blessings abound.

I highly recommend these books—for yourself and as gifts for others. I am a better person for having read them.

Michael S. Glaser, poet laureate of Maryland, 2004–2009, is a professor emeritus at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He has recently relocated to Hillsborough, N.C.

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