Thursday, September 15, 2016

75

When I was turning five and six and seven, my oldest brother was already fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. I could not have concerned him much.

I was all eyes for the first-grade teacher who walked up and down the aisles of the classroom, occasionally leaning close by our small desks. It did not occur to me to watch my oldest brother too closely; his was a teenager’s determination to deflect as much attention as he could. I cringed when one of my parents mentioned topics that he clearly wished could remain private.

Who was Shirley? What was jazz? How did you flick a lighter and hold it to a cigarette?

There was a radio repair store on the Jefferson Highway not far from where we lived. My brother’s part-time employment there was one of the chapters in his moving beyond us, beyond the tile floors of the bathroom that my father scoured clean every Saturday morning, beyond the slipcovers that my mother had sewed for the sofa and chairs in our living room.

When I was turning sixty-two and sixty-three and sixty-four, my oldest brother was already seventy-two, seventy-three, seventy-four.

It is a long time since my brother has stretched out his legs under a kitchen table and tapped a cigarette out of a fresh pack at the end of dinner.

A picture I took of him with Dave Brubeck at the 1978 New Orleans Jazz Festival is prominently displayed in his home.

It is unclear whether he has ever told his three grown children the entire episode with Shirley and her mother.

My brother, at times as much Latinist as physicist, soon completes another quarter century.

The wife and children who carefully prepare the upcoming celebration must be in awe of him.

I know I am.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Backdrop


Backdrops are not the action. They are not the story. The way the word COFFEE looks on a storefront window to a customer waiting inside for someone to arrive is not the story. It is not what the customer is really looking at. Pedestrians pass, then cars, then nothing at all.

There needs to be coffee still left in the cup in front of him when that someone arrives. This Sunday afternoon is not about ordering coffee and then drinking it. It is a process that needs to work backward. The coffee needs to point to a time not that long ago when the customer was not yet a customer, when he had just parked his car and walked up to the coffee house because someone had suggested it.

The coffee needs to point to someone who was not yet waiting the way he is waiting now.

The coffee needs to look like something that can easily be finished in a future close by, the cup pushed away, resignation disguised, disappointment masked, or maybe even relief smudged into indistinctness.

Unless a hand has turned the day.

Another hand on the table.

And then drinking became something to remember to do.

And remembering became something to do.

The way the six letters of the word COFFEE had looked to a customer waiting for just this someone to arrive.

The way they may always look now.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Another Kind of Vermont

Sometimes a writing cabin is not a place. It is the time that no one knows I have.

It is the time I did not know myself that I would have until the phone call.

Having barely seated himself beside me in the passenger seat of my car, a traveling companion takes a call, a puzzled look overriding the polite excuses he would normally offer me.

A four-hour car trip is looming ahead of the two of us. Heavy grey clouds may make it a slower trek up into Vermont than I had foreseen.

The call is from Frank, a man at least in his seventies whose morning companion has not shown up. A routine Wednesday visit is an hour late in beginning, and no call has alerted Frank to expect that delay. The routine visitor is someone with whom my traveling companion shares his living space and who left their building some hours earlier. There is no work schedule for this man to follow and no habit of carrying a cell phone on these early morning ventures.

Instead of heading north, the car begins a circuit of neighborhood sites customary for such ventures. At times I go up a dead end street and wait while my traveling companion searches a nearby parkland area, his umbrella open now against the occasional rain.

We visit Frank's neighborhood and leave after affirming that Frank is all right, despite his anxiety over his friend.

The rain continues. The uncertainty continues. The decision seems inevitable -- this Vermont trip will be a solo one if it happens today.

I drop my friend off at his building and head home. I will at least have lunch and make up my mind whether I am up to four hours driving alone for the sake of a reservation at an old inn.

Another phone call and I learn that the earlier search is ended. My friend is taking care of a man overtaken by illness during his walk and still disoriented but otherwise safe.

The preparations for an overnight away are all still in place as I enter my apartment. The cat barely raises her head. The shades remain drawn.

No one expects me here in the city these two days. No one expects me to answer emails or respond to text messages. Unaware of my morning, no one is poised to offer invitations or suggest alternatives, as kind and as welcome as they would inevitably prove.

If I want, I can let a kind of space open around me. It is a silence to which I can become accustomed these two vacation days if I am careful not to dismiss it or disparage it or undo it. It is key for me not to fix something if it is not a problem.

Suppose I just walk into this space as I might into a writing cabin.

Suppose I just write.

Just for a little while.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Forty-five Years Ago

My father and my mother were in their late fifties when I left home.

Entering the seminary forty-five years ago this summer, I had definite ideas at the time about what I would be doing. I had notions about how I would be spending my days those first two years of novitiate. I had done my reading of vocation materials, pored over drawings and photographs in brochures and books, talked to some of my high school teachers who had taken the same step ten and twenty years earlier.

I knew I would be sitting in classrooms during part of the time. I knew I would be kneeling in lots of chapels. I knew I would be taking meals in a refectory with thirty, sometimes forty, sometimes even more residents and visitors to the house. I knew I would work alongside other young men from around the country, hearing their stories of growing up and of leaving home in just the way I had.

What I did not know was what the experience would be like living alongside men in their late fifties who were not my father and mother. Of course I knew these men had not married or raised children. I just had not known first-hand how routines uninformed by my parents’ values and histories might end up looking and feeling. What did these men do when they got the flu? What did these men do when they missed something they had really been looking forward to? I knew what my parents would do. What did these men do?

What I did not know entering the seminary at age nineteen was that I was going to have the experience of living alongside men in their sixties and seventies as well. It would be their day-to-day living – their walking down a hallway to breakfast, their carrying their laundry downstairs to the washing machines, their taking a walk to reflect on something important, their putting postage stamps on envelopes for the letters they had written, their using a bookmark to keep their place in volumes borrowed from the community library – that day-to-day living would prove the ready-to-hand model for some of my own living as a single man in my sixties.


That had been not simply information I was gaining during those years of novitiate forty-five years ago. It had been formation I was undergoing.

And not exclusively apostolic formation, either – it was as much personal formation. Formation of ways of proceeding. Formation of ways of setting expectations.

Whether or not I would continue on to priestly ordination – and I actually did not – I had eventually gotten the look down, the feel down, of what it might be like not to be a family man.

Or is the reality, I ask myself, not as simple as that? Are there lots of ways to be family, lots of ways to be a family man? The summer is a good time to ponder.

Friday, July 15, 2016

In a Summer Garden

It is a warm Friday evening.

It is the midpoint of the month of July, and I sit in an open white shirt, half-linen half-cotton. A floor fan moves the air. Ice cubes jostle slices of lime in a glass on the end table beside me.


For the third time I have picked up the arm of a phonograph and placed the needle back at the first band on the long-playing record. Until a month ago the 1969 recording of In a Summer Garden was in a box six miles away on the floor of a small shop stocking vintage vinyl.

The original owners had taken care to keep the atmospheric music of Frederick Delius relatively free of scratches. The open windows of my second-floor apartment are not going to occasion a disturbance to neighbors if I keep the volume in the middle range.

What Delius wanted to suggest about his 1909 garden in a small town in France soothes this summer evening in New England over a century later.


Meanwhile across town a friend has been working on a garden all day. The garden gives a colorful symmetry to part of the lawn of an historic home. A Loyalist family walked that lawn mornings and evenings in the years leading to the American War of Independence.

An event a month ago brought a group of historical reenactors to the same lawn. They walked up and down the beds of the garden, mulling the issues of a family over two centuries gone from the property. Political turmoil would send them away from a home they had worked to maintain in order and loveliness.

There is no Delius playing for the friend at his volunteer work in that garden tonight. Nothing will soothe his summer evening until he makes his way on a bus to his basement apartment. There a shower will help him get clean enough to fix a meal and go to bed.

If these words suggest a summer evening in 2016 New England, they might create the kind of atmosphere that sometimes arises from music. They might also give the flavor of soil being worked and roots being watered and beds being readied for a night's rest and the morning's freshness.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Seasons with Edwin Way Teale




Will it ever happen?
Will I ever get there?
Will I ever see it? Will I ever stand in front of it?
Will I ever reach that point?
Will I ever know what it sounds like and feels like?
Will I ever…

Will it ever happen again?
Will I ever get there again?
Will I ever see it again? Will I ever stand in front of it again?
Will I ever reach that point again?
Will I ever again know how it sounds and how it feels?
Will I ever again…

If it happens again, will it be at all the same?
If I get there again, how might it be different?
If I see it again, can it ever be the same?
If I stand in front of it again, how different will it be?
If I reach that point again, will I be different?
As long as I experience again how it sounds and how it feels,
does it really have to be the same?

Isn’t it the nature of things regularly to look different and sound different?

Isn’t it the nature of things to want to be there again?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Pride 2016

A train had left the Brookline Village station a little less than ten minutes earlier. Looking up from time to time for the friend who would be my dinner companion, I walked along Lincoln Street within sight of the Newton Highlands station. The tracks along which the train would approach were below street level in this quiet old suburban neighborhood.

The sunlight that early Friday evening blazoned the nearby storefronts. I had already watched one group of commuters emerge to start their weekend, backpacks slung over their shoulders. At that hour of the day, it was a rare car that came to the stop sign at the intersection with Walnut Street. I settled on one of the sidewalk benches that faced the intersection.

I was ready to start an early June weekend. Pride weekend, as it turned out. This quiet old suburban neighborhood felt an odd place to begin the observance. The vegan and vegetarian restaurant to which I would shortly be heading provided carefully seasoned dishes to an informed clientele, women wearing their gray hair with ease, men smiling gently and nodding wisely. All fine but not what I would call a typical Pride venue.

Though "out" for decades, the man I was meeting for dinner had a spare history with regard to Pride celebrations. Articulate, intellectually acute, well read, symphony subscriber and balletomane, museum-goer and gardener, my friend selected the cold beet soup appetizer so readily that I followed suit. With no need to sound an opening Pride note, he set his gaze on me and settled into hearing my stories of the day and into telling his.

His stories growing up had not always been easygoing ones. Well, whose are? Here he was, though, only slightly my senior, launching his Friday evening alongside mine. We each raised a soup spoon carefully to our lips, savored the flavor of cucumber alongside the beets, and kept rhyming mood and pleasure and relaxation at week's end. The voices around us became for the next hour or two the sound of our village.

Wasn't this it, though? Two men in their late twenties sat at the table next to ours, immersed in some version of being a couple that needed the occasional note of petulance to be convincing. Andrew and I, meanwhile, felt the air around us and above us and smiled that so little was needed to make this evening as fine a Friday as two men could ask for.

At my apartment later in the evening, we slipped a library-loan DVD into my archaic Sony. Undertow was not a first viewing for either Andrew or me, but we may have been starved for the kind of message this 2004 film delivers about the kind of falling in love that two men can sometimes expect. With the great sigh of tears at a certain point from one of us, the comforting hand of the other reached out.

I call that pride. I call that Pride.



Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Guest Room

Pulling sheets off furniture, pushing curtains open, dispelling the chill of a long-closed room with a new-laid fire – these are commonplaces in period dramas on television. Getting a guest room ready on a BBC production makes for good theatre. In a few well-choreographed seconds, the clear message is given of the arrival of something or someone after a long absence.

When Mr. Rochester returns to Thornfield Hall, for example, the new governess Jane Eyre witnesses the energy of the household staff preparing the venerable mansion for his arrival. Something is happening – or happening again – after a length of time during which the hope of something happening had languished.

If I am honest with myself, a guest room was not common in the homes I visited as a child. When I saw one and knew it for what it was, I was usually in the home of married relatives without children. The order and the neatness of the room were not inviting. I could tell that something was missing that was natural in my own home, simple and few though the rooms were. Space in the home where I grew up was never without its practical use and its appointed caretaker.

So there is no easy explaining the comfort I derived once I left home and entered seminary and over the years had the frequent occasion of being assigned still another room where I could hang my clothes and make my bed for a night, for a week of retreat, for a semester in graduate studies.

There was something satisfyingly adult about being entrusted with the mismatched hangers in a strange closet, the scratchy facecloth and bed linens, the walls beyond which I might hear someone else making a space his own for a night, for a week of retreat, for a semester in graduate studies.

For the first five years I lived in my present apartment, I allowed one room with all the makings of a fine guest room to languish. It began and remained a place where random accumulation happened – happened with such regularity that it took a week each summer to restore order and to find enough manila folders to file away bank statements and insurance policies, gas bills and lab results.

Last summer I met a friend whose recent cancer surgery made travel difficult for a while. If he could not count on finding a place where he could rest during visits to friends, he wisely kept his ventures closer to home. I discovered in those circumstances a motivation I had needed for five years -- I would finally do what I had vowed to do from the first April I watched springtime sun flooding my apartment.

I emptied. I cleaned. I purchased a guest bed. I introduced my cat to still another place where she could feign ownership and autonomy.

I learned another way to mark the turnings of the years by making space for others.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Restoration

A little over ten years ago I was standing only a few feet from the casket where my mother lay. It was the morning that she would be buried, and the people surrounding me were my brothers and their families, cousins and a few childhood friends of my parents.

I knew that one of the defining moments of my life was before me.

 When I looked up at one point, two friends from Boston were coming up to me. I had not known that they would make the trip down to New Orleans for the funeral. As they walked toward me, I felt a familiar life walking toward me, the way of being myself that operates most days, an adult me with a long history.

Those two friends restored me to myself. They let me move through the next few hours with greater freedom and less fear. By being there, they told me that I had not died even if my mother had.

This morning I am traveling with those two friends to another funeral. Here in Pennsylvania, we will walk up to a friend of many years as she approaches a defining moment in her life.

She will come into focus for us in a way she does not in our day to day life in Boston. She will be flanked by her husband and sons, surrounded by her brothers and sisters, called with them to represent the father who will be buried later this day.

All the logistics of hotel accommodations and breakfast rooms, interstate highways and exits, garment bags and suits and overcoats are in service of greater freedom and less fear for a friend.

Not far from her father's casket, she will look up at a point this morning and see us walking toward her. It will be a familiar life walking toward her, the way of being herself that operates most days, an adult life and its long history.

We are hoping to play some part in restoring her.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Love Letters

Two principal dancers stood before an after-show audience gathered in the lobby of the Boston Opera House. A young man and a young woman, exhausted from over two hours’ dancing in Eugene Onegin, did their professional best and from the steps of the grand staircase looked into the upturned faces of their fans. The dancers tried to do what they had agreed to do, to speak about their understanding of the ballet in which they had just performed so gloriously. One dancer pulled a white pullover closer around her; the other stood at ease in his jeans, hands joined behind his back.

From time to time in the next fifteen minutes, the ballerina put her hand on her chest, looked up into the air above her and said haltingly, “I'm sorry. I'm just emptied right now.” It was an apology, a plea for our understanding of what she had poured out for us through her dance.

In two different scenes in the ballet, each of these principals tears a letter into pieces. In each case we understand what the letter had said, what it had offered of the heart, of the world in which someone smitten lives. In each case the returned letter is at first refused; the writer of the letter will not touch the letter even when it is thrust before them. The unwilling recipient must then shred the letter before the face of its writer if a clear refusal is to be understood.

Love in 1820s Russia was not easy.

The journalist interviewing the two dancers asked about the significance of love letters. Do actual letters, she asked the dancers, have power in them that can be matched these days by email or text messages?

The young man thought not; he confessed, however, with a smile that he had never written a love letter.

At greater length the ballerina replied that the communication of love in a written letter, a hand-written letter, is flowing from the heart through the arm into the hand that writes it. The material object, the very paper on which the message is written, is soaked in the love of the person who has written it. Nothing similar, she thought, could happen in an email, a text message or a tweet.

The audience laughed, smiled, nodded, agreed; there was nothing we would not do for this ballerina at the end of the evening.

Amid half-regretful applause, we allowed ourselves ready. We would head out. The evening was over. If the two dancers were exiting by a different door from those by which we issued onto a cold February sidewalk, the dancers likely checked their phones as automatically as we did.

We made our ways into our histories. All of us.

Which one of us had ever torn up a love letter?

How many of us would get to write one again?