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.

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.