Friday, June 16, 2017

What It Will Never Look Like Again

This evening will be the last time to sit in this room.

This room with these furnishings retreats permanently into memory by the end of the day tomorrow. By that time a young couple will have helped Jim and me to consolidate our households and taken away a couch, an armchair, a side table, a dining room table and four chairs.

By day's end they will be sitting in a room a few miles away and for the first time they will be able to look up and see these items arranged around them. The empty spaces that had become theirs at a closing less than two weeks ago will retreat into memory. The energy of the rooms will change with each repositioning of chair and couch and table.

When they walk into other rooms in their new home, they will find an oak rocker, bedside tables, a console with framed mirror, even a washer and dryer. Slowly I will need photographs to remind me what each of those items looked like when they filled the spaces that I will exit by the beginning of July.

Sometimes new chapters in a life start simply. Other times they appear only after pages of carefully plotted foreshadowing.

Sometimes we know what we are doing.

Sometimes we couldn't even have dreamed it up.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Paris Neighborhoods

It was the year of the millennium, and the airplane tickets I placed in the hands of a man on the evening of our anniversary were a surprise that I had planned with the help of his boss and my own supervisor at work. Repeated visits to Pennsylvania that year to relieve his sister in the care of their mother had been taking a toll on my friend. Providing him with his first view of Paris was the relief, the restorative that I managed to arrange for a long weekend in May.

He and I were able to arrange that same relief, that same restorative to his sister the following year. We became her tour guides to a Paris she had never seen. One of her best friends pledged to visit daily the nursing home where their mother had recently taken residence, and another of her best friends joined us for the week-long visit to Paris under grey March skies. Watching my friend’s sister revive – at her own pace, on her own timetable – was a lesson for me of the power of the Paris horizon to open spaces within to face the inevitabilities of life.

I have just sketched what are two key chapters of the interior guide book out of which I advise friends who are about to visit Paris for the first time. These chapters are full of sidewalk cafés and museum strolls and subway tickets and café crèmes, hotel breakfasts and long, long walks and boat rides down the Seine. They are chapters full of postcards and restaurants and blisters and jetlag. In these chapters, votive candles get tenderly lit in the darkness of Notre Dame.

There is another chapter, however, to this Paris guide book, a chapter I seldom explicitly reference when I talk about Paris. It tells the improbable story of a summer month in Paris without one visit to a café or restaurant. It tells the story of a young student for the priesthood whose breakfasts included not croissants but ends of stale baguettes dipped in bowls of café au lait. It tells the story of routines – daily Mass in the community chapel of a residence in the fifteenth arrondissement, responses like “Saint, saint, saint Dieu de l’univers...” and a cycle of readings from the Gospels according to Luc and Matthieu and Marc and Jean. It tells the story of pilgrim places, the tiny church of St.-Julien-le-Pauvre in the shadow of Notre Dame and the chapel commemorating the spot on Montmartre where the first Jesuits took their vows in the sixteenth century.

Paris had been home to me for a summer month in 1974, a month that had less to do with logging tourist sites and more to do with opening my American eyes to a world outside the familiar landscapes of my life. I befriended a Polish seminarian in that residence in the fifteenth arrondissement and wondered how to trust my halting French to communicate with him. There are neighborhoods in Paris through which I remember walking that summer as a young man still mystified by his heart and how it responded to another man and what it longed one day to say to someone, to some man, who would want to hear just those things from me.

I hope one day to walk those neighborhoods again.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Things

Someone planning to move is aware of living among things.

Someone packing to move is aware how the things we own take up time – initially acquiring them, deciding a place for them in our home, keeping them clean, securing them for transit to a new home.

Things outrage some part of each of us.

The moment of their first delight, the magic of their discovery, the solace of our possession of them can pall with their persistent claim on our space and time.

Things insist on being taken into consideration.

With luck we grow to love some of them. Their claim on us is a welcome one. We balk at the prospect of perhaps one day losing them – because by losing them, we might be helpless to recover what they had managed to define about us.

Someone packing to move can forget the inevitable in-between time when boxes will stand, block, hide one another, baffle our attempts to recall exactly what was in each of them.

Someone planning to move can consider whether there is an opportunity awaiting in which finally to discard things. True, even discarding things, ridding ourselves of them takes time and can claim a last bit of space from us.

How long will it take someone to be able to stand in a new home, look around, and find that the attention and effort it took to move things has been forgotten?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

New Neighborhood


I walk through a new neighborhood from time to time these days.

I have gotten married in recent weeks.

The blending of households will take place gradually over the coming months. Until then I spend one night a week in what will become my new neighborhood.

Without being impulsive, the November decision to marry was nothing I would have been ready for a few months earlier. The ceremony in mid-January was simplicity itself – the guests few, the officiant someone of our choice. Neither decision nor ceremony was out of character – not for me, not for the man who has become my husband.

Several months’ steady exchange of emails and text messages had preceded the November decision. Lots of writing. Lots of probing. Lots of careful reading. Lots of creative ways to say more and more. Increasingly there was only one audience that mattered, only one writer whose words mattered quite so much.

I did not know with any assurance what else to take time to write. I did not yet know what there might be to say about how my days were getting to feel, what my nights were becoming.

The new neighborhood was something I got to glimpse regularly through a bedroom window at two o’clock on a Saturday morning. The routes that my car followed to the parking spot in front of a hundred-year-old house became Friday routine. I learned the smoothness of the banister as I came down for weekend breakfast.

This landscape will not be rushed. These joys are new. They come as they do.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Seasons of Grace

I was walking through the Longwood medical neighborhood of Boston. I had the address of the clinic where I would have my first appointment with Josh.

The people with whom I shared the sidewalk that early afternoon may well have been medical personnel, visitors to patients in the nearby hospitals, or individuals (like me) referred to a specialist by their primary care provider.

Less than a month from my sixty-fifth birthday, I did not want to resemble too closely either of my parents twenty or thirty years ago. At least not yet. How many visits to New Orleans had included a visit to a clinic or hospital, a doctor’s appointment for which I would drop off one or both of my parents while I parked the car. Each of those appointments had defined a day for my parents – the time they would shower that morning, the kind of lunch they might plan, the length of nap required for the recovery of energy.

I had taken time off of work for this appointment with Josh, and I had driven myself to the busy Longwood neighborhood. I was wearing the kind of tie and sport jacket that I frequently wear on campus. I wanted not to appear lost or bewildered or – for gracious sake – in any way frightened as I looked at street numbers on the buildings I was passing.

No matter how many prescriptions I had on automatic refill, I did not want to think that my health was becoming my main work this early in my life.

As though I had any control over that.

The further down the sidewalk I walked, the more the suspicion grew that I may have inadvertently passed my destination.

But, no, there it was – an old-fashioned medical building with columns across the front. I pushed the handle across one of the wide glass doors. It was a busy but sunny lobby into which I walked, and somewhere above the to and fro of passersby was the sound of notes being plucked on a harp.

Believe it or not, I knew immediately who it was playing her harp in a hospital lobby in the middle of a workday. A friend my age has a music ministry that she exercises in hospitals up and down this one street. I may not have expected her in just this building on just this day, but who ever expects that just what they need will be there – abundantly and beautifully – at just the moment they need it?

Over the past few years any number of people have walked into hospitals and clinics where Nancy is playing. They stop, some of them, on their way to a doctor’s appointment. They stop, some of them, after a long night at the bedside of a dying parent. They stop for the music and the way it reminds them of what they might have momentarily forgotten about their lives and the things that are important and grounding in them.

Neither I nor any of the other people who stop and listen to Nancy every day have any control over what good people like her might be ready to offer them.

We have no control over what life is ready to offer.

In the language of the churches, the experience is called grace.

I can hope to be ready for all those things in the weeks and months ahead over which I have no possible control. I bet a lot of them are good, though.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Barcelona

If your hand hovers over a volume on a bookstore shelf, does it matter if the city beyond the nearby display window is Barcelona?

The friend with whom I will be travelling to Barcelona in two months has three previous visits to show to my one. We will each of us have climbed once before into the architectural intricacies of Sagrada Familia, and I venture to say we will head there again. But will we follow the patterns of our developing friendship and search out establishments for the distinctly lettered, aisles down which we can each wend our way, lured by paper and binding, paragraph and chapter?

Will we get to experience even in Barcelona the silence within which we each reach out for a title along a spine?

When we exit a bookstore, we will no doubt be alert to other places where hope is occasionally born in a similar silence. We will know to recognize in the coffee shop along a carrer just the sort of setting where lives can change without warning – and not because of the coffee bean ground or the china cup served on a marble-top table. Experience tells us there are other things that people get to see in that setting on the most random day.

We will be attentive, I suspect, to other places in Barcelona where consolation can loom, places where some delight – intellectual, aesthetic, even theological – awaits the earnest and the reflective. There are so many flavors of contemplative life that coexist in a city as old as Barcelona. There are so many times in its troubled past when holiness would have been a goal sought and glimpsed and encountered amid the simple and the unassuming.

Beyond the everyday diversions of paella and sangria, we will want all the food and drink of Catalonia. We will look up again and again – from a meal, from a museum bench, from a sunset, from a bus seat – and wonder together at how life can taste when there is time to be nourished by surprise and routine.

Why travel if we do not recognize our own lives better at trip’s end?

Friday, September 30, 2016

Old Cycles, New Cycles

It was an early afternoon meeting for which my colleagues were taking places around a horseshoe of conference tables. I had arrived before three-quarters of the others – a weekly meeting that someone else was in charge of convening.

The young woman who took the seat to my right crisply opened her laptop, slanting the screen so that it was easy for her to read under the ceiling fixtures. To the right of it she had her smart phone, propped so that she could catch an alert from her child’s day care or a text from her husband. A binder in which she kept the printed agenda for each meeting that had met so far this year was open before her. She took up her pen and waited.

No laptop in front of me, my smart phone face down, I straightened my stack of recent agendas and looked around me. No one within ten years of my age had a laptop on the table.

No one within ten years of the age of the young woman beside me had failed to bring one. The expressions on their faces sometimes coincided with a comment just offered by a member of the group; sometimes the expressions were cryptic, smiles hovering as they eyed their slanting screens.

The tap of keyboard punctuated the cordial meeting over the next forty-five minutes.

Later that evening I positioned a disk of vintage vinyl on the turntable in my apartment. Music composed by Aaron Copland for the 1940 film Our Town played in the semi-darkness. Without needing to hear the family names of Gibbs and Webb, I was imagining the characters that Thornton Wilder had created for the stage. New Hampshire everydayness felt very close. Its slowness. Its cycles. Its predictability.

Some cycle is opening up for me these days. I want to be among Gibbs and Webb families more often. I have less care for the agendas that others create and print and distribute.

I want to open windows onto night air.

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.