Shelf Talks is a series of interviews in which writer and librarian Oleg Kagan asks interesting people questions inspired by the contents of their bookshelves. Leia Smith is a Catholic Worker in Orange County, CA.
OLEG: The first word that comes to mind when I look through your books is “contemplative,” almost like it belongs in an ascetic’s study. If you could drop your books into any place in the world and some mysterious force could ensure that they were read and studied. What would that place be? With which book would you want locals to start?
LEIA: Hmmm…I don’t know that I would wish these books on a certain place, but rather on certain people within any place. I feel that the contemplative urge is in everyone, and can be and is found everywhere by any person. The place is irrelevant as there are always beautiful, awe-inspiring, horrible and startling things and people to contemplate everywhere. Maybe it is because I have felt so rooted to this one place – and all the dimensions and complexities of this place- that I find it hard to think that this library would benefit one place over another.
What one book would I want locals to read? Probably The Freedom Manifesto [by Tom Hodgkinson]. It is a call to a simpler life and to break the chains of systems that we live under that limit our joy. It is a quirky little book and quite revolutionary. My home is a community which hopes to reflect the joy of a simple life, and this book encapsulates that so well.
I feel like where I live (Orange County) there is so much pressure and competition to achieve that we have lost much of the structures of community and simplicity.
OLEG: I know a little bit about Orange County from friends and newspapers. In the latter, it’s typically characterized as a bastion of conservatism, with a few cracks in the wall. Admittedly, that’s a sadly narrow definition. What roots you to Orange County?
LEIA: Oh, for certain, my life here at the Orange County Catholic Worker community. Living with folks who find themselves unhoused, and building relationships of care and mutuality with them and those in the larger community who are connected to their desire to love and encounter other people means that I have seen deep suffering and such beautiful human care and connection. This house is one of the little islands of a radical (back to the root) life, a place of liberation, a community of refuge from the harshness and materialism in the county. In front of my house our street is lined with very old camphor trees, probably 100 ft tall, that have seen our neighborhood change from houses of the wealthiest to the barrio — and yet they grow, and shade, and delight, as they always have — and they also are deeply rooted in the OC soil.
OLEG: Here’s a bit of a swerve, do you believe in the statement “A place for everything and every thing in its place” (and do you think it can apply to people too)?
LEIA: Yes, I think to the degree that we can understand the nature of a thing and how we intend to use it, and within the context of our own space, that I am not one who likes disorder of things in my domestic sphere. Having said that, I think living beings — and that term I use broadly — should not be seen for their utility and are inherently mysterious, and therefore invite curiosity. So I don’t think that it holds true as a maxim in general, and particularly not for people, who can’t be designated a place that they have to be put. But there is comfort in belonging to a place for many of us, and there is also delight in the unexpected turning up. For me that is the delight of a analog versus digital life- so much more delightful to encounter the unexpected. But if I need my scissors, I want to find them. If I am looking for a certain book, it would be nice to find it, even if I might be seduced by a volume nearby. But a person is always a holy encounter – so much I will never know, and therefore, a potential delight wherever they may be. Likewise a butterfly, a flower, or other sentient being.
OLEG: I really love the line “…A person is always a holy encounter…” If you could meet any author among the ones on your shelf, who would it be and once you’re introduced and sitting together, maybe watching the steam rise from tea, what would you ask?
LEIA: Diane Ackerman would be the author I would love to sit with. I would ask “Do you love the beauty of the natural, sensory world because you are a poet, or are you a poet because you love the beauty of the natural, sensory world? Your writing is filled with delight in nature and pulls me into the sensuousness of life, but there is also intimacy with words as playful living elements. How they work together to enliven you?
OLEG: That’s such a deep question, tumbling with big topics like nature vs. nurture, the essence of creativity, and the relationship between art and life, among others. Breaking it apart could produce the table of contents to a book of essays! I’ve really enjoyed this interview, Leia. For my final question: If you could will a book into existence that would provide a definitive framework for solving any one of humanity’s wicked problems, which problem would you choose?
LEIA: Our delusion that we are separate in any real way from one another- all of humanity- and from the animals, plants, water, all of nature- from the stars and the galaxies. The wickedness is the willful forgetting that we are all made of the same stuff- and if fact are swapping atoms all the time- and that we all return to to the same stuff. And it is in between, in the connection that we are real and truly alive – I would say that is where God is.