Wednesday, November 29, 2017

My Listener Has Died

If all had gone as planned, I would be preparing to walk down to my car and drive across town to a regular Wednesday appointment. A reminder from my phone’s calendar just rose into the center of the screen as though out of nowhere. As though from the dead.

When once I write about him, I told myself a few weeks after his death this past summer, I am that much closer to never writing about him again.

When once I write about the office and the routine and the chairs facing one another, I am that much closer to not needing to ever again.

When once I write, I am that much closer to silence.

When once I write, I am that much closer to a silence that no one, it seems, could possibly have a way to change.

Except…

He had been the one to write each Wednesday – quick occasional notes during session after session. Those notes have entered the silence for which they had seemed always to be destined.

The notes were not the substance – the listening was. I would look up. Because his writing was not constant, it caught my attention at those moments when he put pen to paper.

I hear now that three other clients of his have received in the mail the files he kept of just such notes. His family, it seems, is making an effort to get the session notes to the clients involved. They will not know where to send mine, however, unless I notify them of a change of address.

Our regular Wednesday session the last week of June fell exactly between the Monday when professional movers had been scheduled to clear my apartment and the Friday I needed to leave those rooms broom clean.

On that last Wednesday of June, a printed notice hung in one of the windows flanking the door to the office waiting room across town: “All appointments have been cancelled.”

I met the silence of the listener to whom nothing more can be said.

I feel like leaving those session notes in the same silence.

Monday, November 13, 2017

C9 Christmas Lights

I arrived early in a neighborhood where a friend and I had agreed to meet for dinner. It was a cold evening two years ago, and the darkness had settled. Pedestrians whose paths I crossed were moving along the sidewalk faster than I was. I had time to kill before the Groupon restaurant opened, and I had not wanted to sit in the car.

I passed down several blocks of Boston triple-deckers whose windows were dark. I could see holiday wreaths on some doors and occasional orange light bulbs topping old-fashioned plastic candles before pull-down shades. The decorations had an effect. They had the distinction of being something where there could very well have been nothing to set off the season.

There were pockets of retail establishments in this residential darkness. From time to time a laundromat, a hairdresser, a convenience store spilled light onto the sidewalk. It was the display window of a hardware store with its aisles of crowded shelves that got my attention. Amid shovels and bags of rock salt stood an artificial tree with one string of large C9 Christmas lights threading its branches.

I was helpless to explain the draw of those bulbs; they might have come from the front porch of the house I grew up in. My mother used to direct my father in December to hang a string of such large multi-colored lights around the front door with its side panels. Each night before dinner one of us would go out onto the screened-in area and insert the plug at the end of the string of lights into an outdoor outlet.

The cold air on that porch would suddenly get bright red. Our hands and faces took on the color as well.

My mother was earnest about her simple decorations.

Two years ago I went into that hardware store and passed displays of screws and nails and extension cords and paint brushes. I found the boxed Christmas lights in a back corner of the store. I stood for a while with a C9 string in my hand.

This past weekend I located the still unopened box amid the last items to unpack in a second-floor back room. When I got downstairs, I popped the individual bulbs out of a plastic webbing that had kept the string safe in its packaging. I stood on a chair next to the sliding glass doors in the kitchen and tucked the string of lights behind four nails evenly spaced along the top of the door frame. The ends of the string hung down evenly on both sides of the door jambs.

 I inserted the plug into the outlet.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Friendship Thing

In my experience there is an old-fashioned kind of novel that mines the intricacies of friendship.

A Separate Peace was an early favorite of mine, introduced to me in my first year of high school, a few years after the book’s publication in 1959. It is about loyalty and jealousy and the delight of being openly acknowledged as the choice another has made for best friend. Once a year until I was well into college, I reread the same paperback copy of the John Knowles story of adolescent affection at a boys’ prep school. A certain New England landscape became familiar to me even while I lived in New Orleans.

In the past twenty-four hours I have entered upon a third reading of The Fires of Autumn, another 1959 publication, a novel by Helen Howe. The first chapter opens on the day after Labor Day and an afternoon gathering of friends around a fireplace on Mount Desert Island. They have just said goodbye to children and grandchildren who had been summering with them. Here are five women whose long ties to one another are complicated by how they carry their lives as widows. The fall they see arriving in the coastal Maine village around them brings them closer to the reality of the fall within.

What kinds of friends do people need? What kinds of friends can they expect in the normal course of their lives? Does the way they looked for and made friends in adolescence bear a resemblance to how they find and maintain them late in their lives?

In my sixties I catch myself from time to time sensing a friend closing the valves of attention. I seldom know immediately what to do when that happens. I can too readily suspect that an underlying problem with a long history is behind the quiet emerging between us.

At other times I am the friend closing the valves. I know that time may pass and the avenue to contact might reopen. I am seldom happy about the quiet settling between a friend and myself. I can jump to the conclusion that there is something faulty with my emotional wiring.

I suspect that there are people who do the friendship thing better than I do.

I suspect, at the same time, that I could be wrong in harboring such a suspicion.

There are writers to warn us off reducing friendship to any one need or motivation, any one formula, any one history.

Friday, September 1, 2017

When to Stop Watering a Garden in Fall

The first day of September hardly registers as fall by any official calendar. In New England, however, an early morning walk on a day like today is able to surprise. A long-sleeve shirt can feel not quite enough when the walk goes past a first half hour.

The sidewalk in front of more than one house was still wet from early sprinklers this morning. No high arcs of water to walk around and avoid at seven o’clock, I was able to slow down near borders of perennials. The open faces of the newest blossoms reached up, still wet.

The trees on either side of the street were summer-full, thick and leafy. The air beneath where their branches met was shadowy and moist.

There was no doubting that summer had done well by the gardens down this street. No doubting, either, that the seasons were moving forward. Such walks a month or two down the line might require a first donning of flannel and corduroy. The borders of perennials will start wearing winey hues.

At some point homeowners down this street will discontinue the early morning sprinklers. We will all of us resort to an alternate wisdom about what growth requires. We will grow into that wisdom.

When do we do things differently?

How will we know when to stop watering our gardens in the fall?

When do we start living differently?

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?