Thursday, February 6, 2020

A Month Home from Rome

The time you might most want a guidebook is on your return from a destination.

The questions of what you will do there and where you will eat and how you will get from and to the airport no longer need answers. Other more important questions may.

The guidebooks I am finding most useful a month after my return from Rome, however, are unexpected ones.

One of them I began writing myself over twenty years ago when I was about to see Rome for the first time. Sitting at the airport gate in 1997, I looked down at a new leather-bound journal and determined to put the nearly inexpressible into words. I would find several occasions in the following days to open the journal again. Rome was all around me, I kept telling myself, and how could I possibly be the same? It was a time for "letting certain fears surface -- the fear of wasting this time in Rome, the fear of dying one day while Rome went on being Rome, the fear of not wanting enough to waste time with God." It was a "strange wonderful week of graces and pilgrim moods and tasks" before the arrival of my partner and the launching of two more weeks of sights.

Other guides for this time of return are early textbooks still on my bookshelves. Sometimes not anything I ever used in my own Catholic high school classes, Latin textbooks with my older brothers' names on the front pages had fed a young curiosity of mine. "Latin Still Lives!" began one cultural reading: "At every moment, somewhere in the world, a priest stands at the foot of an altar and says, in Latin, 'Introibo ad altare Dei,' 'I shall go in to the altar of God.'" Line drawings of Christian martyrs and Roman soldiers, black-and-white photographs of the Forum, a rare color plate of the Colosseum gave shape to what I might look for as an adult in a later Rome.

Another volume in my bookcase is a copy of a book I first discovered in a public library in the neighborhood where I grew up. This Is Rome, published in 1960 when I was nine years old, features the TV celebrity Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in dramatic black-and-white images by Canadian photographer Youssef Karsh. The idea of the book had been to show this handsome silver-haired cleric in his sixties walking the Appian Way, saying Mass in the catacombs, striding a Vatican corridor lined by Swiss Guards. A nine-year-old great nephew of Sheen's accompanied him, and the avuncular tone of their interactions became the focus of many a scene in Baroque churches and ancient ruins. Did I, silver-haired in my late sixties, treading down the Via del Corso, threading my way through the streets of Trastevere, betray even a bit of clerical gravitas?

Within a few days of our return to Boston, Jim and I had a good friend over to dinner and shared tales of our trip. In her early eighties, this woman has an academic background which enabled her to visit Rome again and again during her career. On a sudden, I took down from my shelves still another volume, a paperback copy of the Odes of Horace that I had purchased during my sophomore year of college. One afternoon a friend and I had attended a campus lecture on the structure of the four books of the Odes; I had gone directly afterwards to the college bookstore and found the English translation by James Michie, the Latin text on facing pages. Not a classics major, I nevertheless found myself drawn into this lyrical world with its Sabine farm and the snow-topped Mount Soracte. Having the book again in hand and resting it on our dining room table, wine glasses and learned conversation all around, made me feel a familiar tug.

What does that tug do to people? I found at the Boston Athenaeum more than one book that addressed the question. Repeatedly translators' introductions undertook to explain how Horace could come alive again after a long-ago classroom introduction to the Odes. There are standard biographies of the poet that show up on most bibliographies, but it was a book by another poet that has done the most to immerse me in the psychology of Horace. Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet is part biography, part personal memoir, part literary analysis, part translation, part travelogue. Harry Eyres has a journalist's sense of how to explore a strange phenomenon -- a befriending that takes place through a text, a venerable text by a writer who must have guessed he could end up being known as much as his poems did -- given the right reader.

It was an ambitious project Horace had set himself as a lyrical poet. It might have cost him an easy popularity. It might also have provided the kind of freedom that a freedman's son could value rightly. There would have been a lot of quiet for a writer like Horace distancing himself from Rome. Most evident was his ability to measure wisely the kinds of company he most wanted -- even if it did not arrive at his door with frequency and predictability.

Rome memories are fresh, and the pictures we took a month ago are not going away.

How did I ever hope to be standing again in front of so much of my life?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Podcast Thing I Did in 2019

With the arrival of 2020, I woke up to the memory of conversations from the previous year.

Someone who customarily trusted the written word to help me find out what I was thinking, what I wanted to say, what I needed to say -- I had composed not a single blog entry in a year.

There is no 2019 on the Writing Cabin.

On the other hand, I accepted a number of invitations for significant conversation.

Here's what I sounded like on one of those occasions.

Feel free to listen.

I guess I'm back.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Hometown in December

You lock the front door. You have left your house on a morning in December. There have been preparations because you are walking away from a lot — a basket of greeting cards, strings of lights that you made sure to unplug, a back room where wrapping paper and tape and ribbon and scissors may well have been used the night before.

Until fifteen years ago the morning in December would have been a few days before Christmas, the destination a family home — either my own or a partner’s. With 2004 and the passing of the last of the parents, with 2005 and the devastation of Katrina, the routines of the holidays began to change.

A couple of weeks ago I decided on an impulse to plan a trip back to my hometown of New Orleans. The fares I found favored what I wanted — two or three days walking through old neighborhoods with a husband who had never seen New Orleans. And then back to our own home in Boston with a few days remaining before Christmas Day.

No guidebook will be needed. I am guessing that I will have the answers to the most important questions that my husband could ask as we make our way down block after familiar block.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Before Routines

I am not ill but I am home in the middle of the day.

I could have gone out for lunch (I will tomorrow) but instead I counted on the kitchen to provide a simple this and that, a slice of bread for the toaster, a small container of refrigerated leftovers for the microwave. A glass of water.

It is a sunny October midday.

There is no noise of a television left on in another room.

An armchair in our upstairs bedroom feels like the best of home right now. The bed that I made this morning after Jim left for work has its smooth coverlet dotted by an open journal, a card with a quotation from a favorite author, a paperback book of jottings that I have read at different times over the last forty years.

A space heater is purring at a medium setting.

No part of the house is really uncomfortable but the heater is a nod to the reality of New England seasons.

There is nothing wrong.

No schedule portions out the rest of the afternoon.

Nothing has to be different in an hour’s time but likely something will be without any planning on my part.

For now, however, I can remember the housework that my mother used to get done even when one of her children was home sick from school. Her day was not bounded by the quiet of a sick room.

But I am not ill. I am older than my mother would have been while her children were still enrolled in school.

I know that there is nothing that has yet become routine in these first four months of retirement.

It is simply time to be aware.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Pen to Paper in the Boston Athenaeum

I used to have a fairly accurate sense of how long it would take me to write something worth posting.

Sometimes it depended on the time of day that I first put “pen to paper,” so to speak. If I started composing within an hour of breakfast, I could have a worthy product by ten o’clock. It did not necessarily matter what other tasks I might have had to handle within those hours. Sentences were ready whenever I got back to the laptop or desk monitor. The ways that the logic of a written piece might progress seemed to resolve themselves more quickly, the closer to day’s start I made the effort.

Sometimes the place where I made that effort had the decisive influence on how long I needed to keep working on a piece. My office at work — when I had an office and there was work to go to — was ideal; I was used to assuming a posture at my desk that was effective in keeping distractions at bay. I galloped ahead! The couch at home made certain factors in my life unavoidable; the quieter the room, the more familiar the furnishings, the harder it was not to allow myself the time it took to be honest in what I was getting “on paper.” I realized that I had to live with the kind of person my words revealed me to be.

All that needed to happen today, though, was to use the time I had and the new place I could go and hear what I might say. Would I recognize the voice? Could I own it?

I am ready to move beyond the three-month silence with which retirement has begun.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Plans for Next September

I am going to a monastery in early September.

I know this because I went online this morning and booked four days of retreat at a nearby Trappist monastery.

This is an abbey sixty miles west of Boston, and a stay at the guest house used to be notoriously difficult to arrange. It used to require a phone call no more than six months before the proposed visit. On the first of every month, the single land-line to the guest master’s office would be consistently busy during the afternoon hours when hopeful visitors were directed to call.

Luck was never with me. I subsequently resigned myself to an occasional car ride out to Spencer, Massachusetts, in time for one of the midday services that the monks chanted in their chapel.

How quiet it used to be when I would pull off the state highway and drive the several minutes to the entrance gates of the Trappist property.

A one-time student for the priesthood, I always prided myself on my readiness for these cloistered settings. I considered them natural places for me to want to spend time exploring. Long, slow, contemplative walks were a specialty of mine. How easily I could settle down with a journal and pen my reflections.

The silence over the monastery fields would take me by surprise every time, though.

I felt out of my depth.

There were men here, I felt compelled to admit, who could do something with this silence that I had not yet learned.

For the first time this coming September, I will be away from a work setting where I have been one of the people who knew best how to handle the start of a school year. Instincts trained over the past thirty-seven years of working in the same school may find it hard to quiet down.

I have chosen to take myself away. I have chosen to find something different to tackle and listen to.

Retirement for an educator needs time to figure out what it might be about.