Friday, January 30, 2009

Washing Dishes

Adults wash dishes.

That was my impression growing up as I watched my father at the kitchen sink after every evening meal. Earlier in the day I might have seen my mother washing breakfast dishes or, later in the afternoon, the knives with which my brothers and I spread peanut butter and strawberry jam on sliced bread on our return from school.

It was an adult stance my father and mother assumed at those times, leaning against the edge of a porcelain sink, looking out the window as one plate after another came up from the suds to meet a dish cloth or Brillo pad. There was no day that went by in my childhood home without the sound of hot water at some point pouring full force from a kitchen faucet for the rinsing of dishes and pots.

Washing dishes was about as adult as writing a check or driving a car, but just as my aunts and uncles drove different makes of car from the Chevrolets my father invariably bought, the arrangement of the kitchen sinks in my cousins' houses was always a little unfamiliar. The brand of dish detergent might be different as well as where the bottle was stored -- in a rack on the back of a cabinet door below the sink or in a caddy next to the faucets. I could not understand why my aunts did not leave their freshly rinsed plates and silverware in a dish rack to begin to dry but rather immediately took up dish towels for drying and storing each item. It seemed odd that people we knew that we loved managed the clean-up after meals with different routines and different cleaning supplies.

For most of the past twenty-five years, standing at a sink and washing dishes by hand has been something that happens for me on special occasions. In the aftermath of a Thanksgiving meal, I have taken my turn in the kitchen and rinsed food off plates and scrubbed skillets and colanders and serving spoons. Some more rustic vacation rentals required filling a sink with hot water after meals and soaking soup mugs and casserole dishes for a half hour or more. Crystal often collected on the island at home until all dinner party guests had left and leftovers had been stored and I was free to dip each piece of soapy stemware under a spray of hot water. No matter how much I eventually disagreed with my parents on how to run other aspects of a household or a life, I never adopted any significant alternative to their methods of washing dishes by hand when hand-washing was what they needed.

The watchful kindness of friends found me a place to live back in the summer when my circumstances changed. Despite notable conveniences, the new quarters lack a private kitchen, and those methods of washing dishes by hand that I learned from my New Orleans parents have returned to take a place in my day's schedule of activities.

The nighttime purr of a dishwasher is a household sound that I have not heard in over five months. I carry a white Tupperware tub with my daily dishes down a short hallway, turn on the hot water in a communal kitchen, and become someone who has to take care of certain things for himself right now. Sometimes I become my father standing at that sink in the evening, sometimes my mother checking whether a second rinse is necessary.

I slow down, though, in my day when I stand by that sink. I watch my hands as they carefully place glasses on a nearby counter. I take satisfaction knowing that everything I wash and rinse will dry with a gleam. I return to my rooms with my daily dishes and look around at what another day has enabled me to do.

And I'm content.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Almost Candlemas

It is January 28, and a month has passed since the last of the Christmas cards arrived. I sometimes examine the cards of a particular year and pick one or two that stand out. To make the selection, I wait until the mood of holiday revelry has quieted into January reverie. I usually look for an image or motto that captures the mood of that Christmas season.

This year a key image was in my camera, a picture that I had taken in my sitting room the morning of December 28.

A prayer candle, a crèche, a dozen white roses – with these gifts three friends helped make for me a kind of altar during the month of December. By the light of that altar, the year ahead looked more hopeful and promising.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Great Expectations

Public transportation looks particularly attractive when snow hits my New England neighborhood. Watching a weather report on a local station early yesterday morning, I saw the video of a car that had slid across a nearby highway and off the shoulder of the road. I abandoned the idea of driving my own car downtown for late morning services, concluding that I could walk the twenty-five minutes to the closest bus running on Sunday and easily make it to church before the first hymn.

I knew it would be cold when I opened the front door. I knew it would be quiet. I knew it would be beautiful. I knew I would pride myself on being out early this Sunday morning, a transplanted Southerner able to bring a peculiar wonder to the prospect of the wide spaces around me dotted with falling snow.

Even with Polartec 180’s keeping my ears warm, I could enjoy the sound of my boots crunching across the snow of the driveway and onto the road. I had not expected that anyone would yet have cleared the sidewalks in front of these suburban homes, and so the empty roads became my walkway.

What I hadn’t known, what I hadn’t expected was the possibility that I would share part of this suburban walk with a small red fox.

From the briskness with which he trotted from one driveway and down the next, I knew I had nothing to fear from him. He crossed the street at a couple of points, exploring what driveways on the other side of the road might lead him to. I was clearly of no interest to him, tall as I was, determinedly walking as I was, thickly padded with an LL Bean down parka as I was.

If I was of no interest to him, he was a compelling focus for me. The red fox was alert to this landscape in a way that left my own attentions to evergreen branches weighted with snow feeling perfunctory and amateur. My sense of health and personal well-being was put into a wider perspective that I do not usually entertain.

When I boarded the near empty bus ten blocks away and twenty minutes later, I was still smiling from the unexpected encounter. Fumbling out of my gloves, I drew from my pocket both the cash I had ready for the fare and a mass transit fare card that I had purchased months ago.

“I don’t know if there is anything left on this,” I explained to the bus driver before I tapped it against the electronic fare reader installed next to him.

“You’ve got lots left,” he informed me almost immediately, adding with a grin, “Nothing like finding money you didn’t think you had, eh?”

Once settled in a seat, I pulled from my book bag a volume of psalms adapted from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell. The soft-cover book opened to Psalm 147, and I read:

You rebuild what has been ruined
and recreate what was lost.

Later in the same psalm I came across this verse:

You give the wild animals their prey;
you feed the young ravens when they cry.

I smiled afresh at what seemed a vote of confidence from a universe that could draw me out of well-traveled ways on a Sunday morning and assure me of companionship and resources I may have thought I could no longer expect.

Photo of red fox from

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Baptism of the Lord

Jesus rises from the waters of John’s baptism. Needy for the waters that stream from him, we raise our simple towels to his Body to learn hope and compassion.

Project Hope ( is a multi-service agency at the forefront of efforts in Boston to move families beyond homelessness and poverty. It provides low-income women with children with access to education, jobs, housing, and emergency services; fosters their personal transformation; and works for broader systems change.

This Christmas season, which closes today with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Project Hope received a request from a mother for towels for her family. We are probably all of us aware of a time in the past six weeks when we made a shopping trip with a difference. With a prayer for God’s blessing in the lives of two particular friends, I was happy to do something simple and see that bath towels, hand towels and face cloths were delivered to that mother through my local parish.

Baptism of the Lord, Tapestry by John Nava, in the Los Angeles Cathedral

Saturday, January 10, 2009

François Truffaut, "Fahrenheit 451" and Narratives of Personal Change

A staple in classroom discussions of short stories and novels when I was in high school was the question: does the main character change from the beginning of the narrative to the end? It was the easiest prompt a teacher could use. It required of students an analysis of the character, based on concrete facts from the text. An easy kind of first question to ask and an easy kind of question to begin to answer, because it seemed a character almost had to change who was involved in or at least aware of the events that make up the plot. A high school student would eventually learn that the most damning judgment possible of a character is that he or she has managed to remain substantially untouched and unmoved by what is happening around or within him.

I treated myself this first week of the new year to a home viewing of a movie that had been a pivotal one in my high school days. Fahrenheit 451, adapted in 1966 by François Truffaut from a science fiction novel by Ray Bradbury, is the narrative of a future society that has banned books as destructive of the intellectual and emotional equanimity of its citizens. The title refers to the temperature at which book paper will catch fire, a fact important to “firemen” charged with destroying books that rebel members of society might attempt to hoard and read and share.

The appeal of the movie to a high school student in the 1960s was the ease of its theme to recognize and support. The added appeal to a student who loved to read was the appearance of covers and title pages of familiar paperbacks in various scenes of the movie. This futuristic society still had renegade copies of J.D. Salinger’s Cather in the Rye, and watching the opening pages of an assigned reading text as they curl and blacken in one scene of conflagration could make the action seem closer to possibility. A student viewer might feel pretty good about himself for having read a text that a future society would consider burning.

My surprise last night was the power of this narrative of an individual in the process of changing. Montag, played by Oskar Werner, starts as a fireman who seems entirely identified with the values of his society and who is proud of the place he has succeeded in gaining as a result of that identification. This man should not be ready for change or interested in it or on any level available to it.

I watched, startled when I realized what I was going to witness in the two hours of the movie. I was going to watch an individual fight the growing evidence of a life that was not fitting him. I was going to watch an actor’s face that only slowly registered anything of the turmoil within this character whose future was slowly losing its clarity and safety. I was going to see the moment when his actions start supporting a conscious separation from familiar paths and goals.

It is amazing to remember a much younger John who could not have imagined how much the changes in a human being’s life – including his own – will elude easy prediction and defy easy explanation. Artists are drawn to portray such change, however, again and again, no matter how it unsettles the intellectual and emotional equanimity of otherwise good people. Thank God it does.

Scenes from Fahrenheit 451 on YouTube

Monday, January 5, 2009

Night Walks

There are times when you have to walk out under a night-time sky and talk to your life.

You have to hear what you sound like when you don’t care how much it’s going to hurt to say the things you have to say.

You can’t have anyone around as you walk doggedly forward and around and back and forward again.

Last night I put on my down parka around eight o’clock. I had no clearer goal than to be outside and to follow the pavement for as long as I needed. I had on my leather gloves and a cap as I closed the front door behind me and slipped the familiar keys into a coat pocket.

Compared to recent nights, the air around me was bearably, I might say refreshingly cold. I was not going to be driven inside by relentless currents of frigid air or by sudden gusts. And it was also a safe neighborhood through which I would be wending my way; the only fear I might possibly face would arise from my own thoughts and the future toward which they had been leading me this past year.

I have a friend in New York who almost only calls me when she is out walking, unclear when she starts out how long she will last on the sidewalks, city block after city block. She arranges her route to bring her near a bus line in case fatigue suddenly surprises her. She can opt then for the harbor of a well-lit, over-heated bus, but it is seldom her first choice.

My friend seems to think remarkably clearly as she marches forward, the cell phone up to her ear. I occasionally hear the burst of a vendor’s harangue as she passes storefronts on her way. There are other times when the bus she is not yet taking drowns the sound of her voice as it passes her. She laughs well on New York streets, and we sometimes enjoy launching observations that verge dangerously close on peremptory dismissal of anyone with whom we happen that moment to disagree; briefly we are heedless of the outrage our spoken judgments might cause within the hearing of anyone on whose good opinion we ordinarily count.

Another friend who calls me sometimes late at night is all heartbreaking earnestness. Never raising his voice as he speaks into his phone, he is walking home from work along the sidewalks of his city neighborhood. Between work and home he has a chance to hear himself speak without the customary confidence or bonhomie to which those among whom he generally moves are accustomed. When we talk, he is asking questions about God, about a self he once knew more intimately, about a future he hopes he has the courage for.

Home is a beautiful goal for human beings, but when you are somehow between homes you have to admit it and take responsibility for it.

There are times when you have to walk out under a night-time sky and talk to your life.