Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Little Altars to a Sweet New Year

I am a ritual maker, and late Monday afternoon found me in traffic near a local synagogue. It was the new year. Not that night of revelry and midnight fanfare near the start of winter, but the acknowledgement of the renewal of an inner perspective. Moved by old memories of challah and candles and honey, I began to weave a plan.

I was on my weekly journey to a neighborhood in the city where I meet someone that I shall simply call my listener. For an hour each week we take our seats and enact a familiar but inevitably surprising ritual of self-exploration and attention. The end of each session finds me having said things that I had not realized I needed or wanted to say.

I know what I had been thinking earlier in the day that I would talk about. I had been thinking of a time almost exactly a year ago. I had just discovered that a visitor to a blog that I had kept for over two years was systematically mining my text for information to use against me. She had already written letters to the powers that be and telephoned all sorts of offices. With little choice and no guarantee of security, I deleted the entire blog.

Why, I wondered later, would people read a blog unless they were somehow in sympathy with what the writer was attempting in it? Each post on a blog is like a little altar, and the writer is the priest at that altar. Usual ways of talking give way temporarily to another form of communication. It always requires an act of trust on the blogger’s part to craft a reflection in words and pictures, to share a piece of music or a video, to offer an observation, to reveal a thought. Who would visit a blog and break that trust?

With the breaking of that trust, however, I eventually felt myself unmoored in a way I had never believed possible. Nothing significant actually changed in the external circumstances of my life, but old certainties and patterns had been disrupted. Without admitting it to anyone or even understanding it myself, my emotional landscape was changed.

So what was the plan I began to weave driving down streets leading to my listener’s office? I wanted to celebrate a new year.

I wanted to celebrate that this year didn’t feel like last year at this time. I wanted to make an act of hope that with God’s help the year ahead of me could be sweet.

I was going to be on my own this Monday evening, and so it was going to be easier to put together a ritual. What was happening within was going to be able to move out and fill every space within the walls of my home. I was going to be able to say things out loud, not loudly, not dramatically but as I was able, as I was moved. What was most important inside my heart was going to become the most important thing in all the rooms through which I moved that evening.

Not five minutes after my session, I pulled into a parking place that had just been vacated in front of a small bakery. I went inside and pointed to the one round challah loaf on the racks. The owner looked over to where I was pointing.

“That’s the only challah I have left.”

It is hard to describe what it felt like to take into my hands the plastic bag into which the baker had just slid her last loaf of challah. It was possibility that I held there – the possibility that everything I wanted to do with my evening might happen, the possibility that everything I wanted to do with my year might happen.

Within a half hour of sundown, I was lighting two mismatched candles at my kitchen table, one that I had gotten in Paris a year and a half ago at the church of Our Lady of Victories, the other a votive scented with honey from Provence. From a website on my laptop, I read out loud the Hebrew blessings for Rosh Hashanah.

Baruch atah Ado-nai, Ehlo-haynu melech Ha-olam, she'he'che'yanu v'kee'manu, v'hee'gee'anu la'zman ha'zeh.

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.”

Photo of challah from Chai Time

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Poetry and Your Whole Life

Growing up, I didn’t expect to be a reader of poetry all my life. It was not a role I saw either of my parents or any of my Louisiana aunts or uncles or grandparents take on and model. If any adult I knew might be an inveterate reader of verse, it would have been a teacher; in that case, however, the habit of reading poetry seemed likely a mode of professional development rather than a vocation or a facet of identity.

Through the years of my early education, poetry was a unit in English class or a section in a literature textbook. There were italicized introductions to each poem, biographical sketches of the poets, footnotes on foreign or particularly elusive expressions, numbers in the margin next to every fifth line, and sometimes reading comprehension questions. All of the instructional paraphernalia gave poems some of the same feel as word problems in a math text, and what adult made a life of tackling word problems? So, poems were practice; they were exercises; they were unlike anything that a normal hour in your parents’ kitchen or living room made seem essential over the long haul.

With the first paycheck from a summer job, however, I walked into a bookstore down the block from my temp office and bought a book of the poems of Emily Dickinson and another of the poems of John Keats. I had handled each of these Dell paperbacks several times in the days before buying them, taking them down from the bookstore shelves and leafing through them and reading at random. There was the reassuring recognition of poems that my favorite teachers had covered in English classes; there was the promise of unsuspected joys in the poems with unfamiliar titles.

The joys that arose for me then in the reading and discussing of poetry had to do with hearing what it could sound like for someone to say that he was sad. (I couldn’t say that.) Or that he found something beautiful. (I rarely said that.) Or that he was less lonely when certain people directed their attention to him and listened. (I didn’t dare say that.) Or that he occasionally experienced something that matched what he understood his tradition was calling God. Conversation of an unusual power and promise, conversation beyond the daily requests for information and compliance loomed real and possible in the wake of being steeped in the words of poets.

The experience ahead of me as the owner of books of poetry was uncharted territory in the household to which I was returning at the end of that workday the summer after high school.

And both books that I bought that day are on my shelves still.

In a recent re-organization of my library, I put all the volumes of poetry together on the same long shelf – French poets stacked on top of Latin poets, Elizabeth Bishop standing next to Anne Sexton, Billy Collins next to Rilke and Baudelaire, translations by C. Day Lewis alongside anthologies of sonnets. There seemed unlikely conversations arising from those juxtapositions, a strange literary dinner party, a long corridor of monastic cells about which the Grand Silence threw a creative mantle.

Pride of place on my poetry shelf goes to the volumes by Mary Oliver, and through my interactions with them something has happened in the past few years in the way I regularly read poetry at home. For the first time I don’t simply page through a book to find particular poems or particularly appealing poems. I start with the first poem in a book by Mary Oliver and then move to the second and then the third until I have reached a point where I am content to stop. My next reading resumes where I left off. Just as I presume someone pays careful attention to the varied colors of the endpapers and cover fabrics of her handsome hardcover editions, I trust that the order of the poems in a volume by Mary Oliver is considered. Even if I start with the poem on the final page of the volume and work my way backwards, I think I am having an experience significantly better than if I were picking pages at random.

I count myself fortunate to have among my friends people for whom poetry matters. One friend recently sent me a copy of the eulogy he gave at his father’s funeral in which a Mary Oliver poem plays a prominent part. Someone else sent me a photograph in which he is reading Yeats’ “I Am Ireland” to his favorite uncle at a birthday celebration. One friend keeps her latest literary efforts available to readers of her blog although occasionally she emails me poems for which she wants a more private audience. A former classmate from New Orleans showed me the box in which his first edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry is ready to be carried to the car in a future evacuation. I have even had the experience of finding poetry on my voice mail, read without any explanations by a friend who knows I will enjoy just the sound of a poem being well read. When one work colleague, a fellow lover of poetry and a poet herself, left for another city, I wrote my farewell as a poem to her.

Cathy: A Poem

Some people are the kind of poem
that reads smoothly,
truly from the first line.

Some people are the kind of poem
about which you speak
only if you are ready
to speak about your whole life.

Some people are the kind of poem
that just proves
poems are possible –
and likely to arrive
any blessed moment
of your day.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What Matters

I was sitting outside one late summer evening a year ago under a tree full of lights.

Ten friends around a table that had the look of cast iron, we might have just walked onto a scene from a Smith and Hawken catalogue.

The chairs and tables were arranged on the wooden deck in the suburban backyard of a couple that I had known for a long time. The reason for their organizing this evening together was the chance to visit with Ron and Trudy, two friends who had spent the last year and a half in New Zealand and who were preparing to return there in a week. A significant career possibility had prompted the move across the oceans, and the evening was threaded with tales of cultural adjustment and economic realities and surprises and opportunities to savor what stays important in lives no matter where they are lived.

The conversation whirled and eddied over food and drink that was as creatively orchestrated as usual with this group. Someone had prepared an amazingly fresh bowl of greens; someone else, a potato salad with the crunch of carrots and red onions and parsley. Our host fired the grill for ribs prepared with a paprika rub. Pitchers of white sangria heavy with orange and peach and grape slices circled around the table for the first two hours – a nod to the recent trip to Portugal on the part of the host and hostess.

“So what’s new with all of you?” Trudy asked the table during a lull in the Auckland questions and answers.

Someone’s daughter had just published a first book, and we were all urged to go onto Amazon soon. Someone else had this week returned from a conference in New Orleans and recounted latest impressions of the city’s recovery from Katrina. Another friend had started a business in the past few months with someone we all knew from New Year’s parties at our host and hostess’s home. There were lots of itineraries recounted all around, and someone even mentioned my two trips to France the previous spring, one to handle work commitments, the other to provide a taste of vacation in a low-travel time of year.

As I listened to the catalogue of activities, I knew that I would find no way to mention the most important thing that the year had brought to me. I was not going to talk of the energy that had returned to my life with that year of weekly meetings in an office in a quiet neighborhood in another part of the city.

Looking around the table at people that I had known for over twenty years, I could imagine no way to tell them that I was growing happier and more confident than I had felt in a long time. Trips to France would have to suffice for now as the new landscape in which Ron and Trudy and the rest of these people pictured me. I became aware that there was little ease for me in thinking about talking with them about what had become important in my life. With that awareness, I knew that the work I had to do in that office was not over.

At the end of the evening, I followed Trudy onto the front porch to wish her a final farewell. It was our first time together that evening, just the two of us. With her usual ready smile, she asked how my nonprofit work had gone this year. Coming from someone else, it might have sounded like a stock question. It was with thought, however, that I told her, “Great!”

“You still enjoy it, don’t you?” she asked.

“Absolutely!” I answered.

“It’s rare to hear someone who is able to say that about their work after all these years.”

Her comment cut through all the other topics and drifts of conversation of the evening. I felt at that moment that my answers mattered to her and that I mattered to her.

I looked at Trudy and thanked her for asking what she had.

I love good questions. I am learning how to ask them and how to recognize the people who ask the ones that give me the most life and light.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Big Screen on a Friday Night

I grew up knowing that the pleasure of films went beyond simply viewing them.

When my oldest brother sent home a record set of the entire soundtrack – music and dialogue – of Mike Nichols’ film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I sniffed the promise of a particular kind of conversation. It was conversation that would draw on understanding the freeing possibilities of art and on asking the hard questions about life itself. My brother’s visits back home were the occasion for invoking the lines of Edward Albee’s play in various situations. Those lines became a kind of private language by which we exchanged impressions about a lot we saw and didn’t see in our parents’ household and the world beyond it. “George and Martha – sad, sad, sad…”

My favorite teacher in high school included me among the students he took to a series of Ingmar Bergman films at a local university. I was frankly intimidated by the world I saw in those films and wondered whether I even understood all the questions that the Swedish filmmaker was raising in them. I approached that teacher on another occasion when I had just seen Julie Christie in the movie Darling; I admitted to him that I didn’t understand why the main character was so taken by the elderly academic whom she visits once in the company of her journalist boyfriend. It took me a while to learn that my teacher was even more interested in my questions about the films I saw than he was in my answers.

My best friend in high school invited me to see my first Eric Rohmer film with subtitles at what was then the Delgado Museum of Art in New Orleans. Ted smoked a cigarette as we exited the museum that Sunday afternoon and, after talking about the black-and-white landscapes of My Night at Maud’s, asked whether I would be willing to make a short film with him. His parents had agreed to buy him a Super-8 camera and tripod and projector and provide all the film he needed and cover the developing costs of the film. I became both actor and co-director, and Ted and I discussed what effects we wanted to create in our film and why. Even more valuably, though, we learned what happens inside an artist’s heart when we ended up at times seeing in the developed film something better than any of the effects we had originally planned. And I fell in love with him.

Hearing of my experience making short films, my supervisor at the high school where I did something like student teaching asked me to help with a one-semester arts elective in filmmaking and film appreciation. Of course I learned as much as I taught that semester. Nothing helped me better understand the vocabulary of the filmmaker than a short film available from Janus on the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Watching again and again the series of shots showing Cary Grant gaining access to the wine cellar of a Nazi collaborator and discovering the hiding place for enemy uranium, I got it – got what any filmmaker tries to accomplish with each frame of the movie that escapes the editor’s floor. My cinematic eyes had been opened further.

Movies were a key bond between one of my first work colleagues and his wife Greta and me. Fresh from advanced degree work, Paul and Greta longed for a kind of company that seemed in short supply sometimes in the Florida city where we had all gotten our first teaching jobs. Comparative literature, art history, French literature and theology – our recent academic backgrounds made us natural partners on a Saturday evening. Greta would sit on their sofa, feet tucked under her, and sip the wine Paul had poured and probe one more facet of a character from a film we had just seen. “Who really does things like that when they learn a friend has cancer?!?” Greta did not succumb to the melodrama of a movie like Bobby Deerfield in the way that I might, but her questions came from the delight of talking with friends who said things that she thought mattered. Films mattered in the conversations with which we lengthened weekend evenings. "I'll be curious to see what you think" meant something when we said it to one another.

All this personal film history – and more – came to the surface Friday evening as I settled into a seat by myself at a 7 o’clock showing of North by Northwest. It was a Friday evening on my own, and I had omitted making any plans earlier in the week; a 24-hour bug had left me iffy about committing to anything. At an art house in the university section of the city, I got to do something that I have not done in a long time. I allowed sudden whim to get me somewhere to see something that had nothing more compelling to recommend it than that it called to me. Crop duster and Mount Rushmore and all.

And I enjoyed myself. I gave in to the experience. I yielded to the big screen. I savored the wonder of seeing what was familiar and then seeing things I had forgotten to expect or to notice before. I monitored no one’s enjoyment but my own. Sitting at a hotel bar an hour earlier, I had mentioned to another bar patron my plans to see the Hitchcock at the nearby movie house. “Hitchcock on the big screen – what a treat!” she said. And she was right. I had made a good decision on how to spend the evening. I had made a decision out of the best in my personal history. I had fundamentally said to myself, "I'll be curious to see what you think."

Mine had been one more hopeful face lifted in delight at the show before us all.

Photo from Soundtrack Collector

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Aimez-vous Brahms...

The used bookstore was nearby. A work friend and I had just finished Sunday brunch, and the basement store, that warren of narrow aisles lined with books that had already spent time in other people’s homes, exercised its customary lure. I had no precise title in mind, and I was ready to be surprised on this midday visit.

Truth be told, it had been a while since I had even thought to include a stop by the French language shelves. I had made analogous online crawls at different times in search of a particular softcover edition of Aimez-vous Brahms… by Françoise Sagan. I had loaned my original copy to… I don’t remember who. A purchase made in a Montreal discount bookstore provided me with a later Livre de Poche edition; the text of spare French prose was intact (intégral in the phrasing on the cover), the font identical to that in the earlier edition, but the cover featured a photograph of a heavy-lidded woman’s face reflected in her make-up mirror.

I don’t know when – or exactly why – I began to crave a replacement copy of the slim French paperback with the vase of flowers on the cover – the cover I associate with my first readings of the novel. How proud I had been to negotiate my way through a French novel in its entirety, a book not assigned for a course but chosen for sheer pleasure! A heady experience for someone in his twenties and a French major in his back pocket.

The edition with that cover is no longer in print. But there it was this Sunday afternoon. Three dollars later, and it was mine. Again.

I make no exaggerated literary claims for Françoise Sagan. My first reading of that novel followed a television showing in the late 70s of the movie Goodbye Again. A friend watching the movie with me yelped and waved his tall glass of tea and crushed ice when the forty-year-old character played by Ingrid Bergman calls after the twenty-five-year-old lover she has just dumped and shouts, “I’m old!” For two gay men approaching thirty, her admission had the ring of high camp. My friend would begin that night to include her words in his repertory of lines to be invoked against a background of disco recordings as he showered each Saturday night before heading to the bars.

If the novel retains some compelling message for me from reading to reading, it is contained in the title. The character Paule, a successful career woman in Paris, has been invited by the younger Simon (Philip in the American movie) to a Sunday concert of Brahms; he prefaces his invitation with the question “Do you like Brahms?” She later remarks to the older man named Roger with whom she has maintained a steady but unfulfilling relationship that she was startled by the question, that she had actually forgotten whether she liked Brahms or not, that it had been so long since anyone had asked her what she liked. Roger appears not to understand why Paule might respond so earnestly to the question nor why she would think to recount her reaction to it. His apparent indifference confirms Paule in her decision to let Simon more significantly into her life.

Let me simply go on the record right now and say that I do indeed like Brahms. Were someone to ask me why some day, I will answer the question earnestly – and hopefully.