Saturday, April 25, 2009

Startled into Pleasure

The Saturday that you raise the storm windows and let a breeze move your curtains for the first time in six months, you realize that you sometimes just forget to be happy.

It can feel so easy to be happy sometimes, you wonder if you simply lose the knack at other times.

In my case this year, there can often be an agenda that seems very, very important – something about which I need to get clear, or an area in my life in which I need to make progress, or some way of seeing myself that I need to name and – if possible – repair. I can burrow in and stay focused or anxious or angry for a while.

And then I stumble across something I forgot that I enjoy.

Last week it happened twice.

It was early Sunday morning, and I did not need to leave for church for another two hours. On a whim I went to a campus near where I live. I had the landscaped walkways to myself. The air was kind, and the pace at which I walked brought on the meditative mood of a morning on retreat. It felt as though I had somehow managed to get this quiet world all to myself, and I wondered why I had not made such a walk a more regular part of my Sunday mornings long ago. The moment suited me – that was evident. Part of the happiness came from that awareness that I had returned to a kind of activity that makes me feel content.

A second moment of being startled into pleasure came in a library on that campus. With time on my hands, I had headed one day into the library, found the section with the literature titles, and parked myself in a red leather chair along the paneled wall. It was going to be just a comfortable chair in which to bide the time until I was expected elsewhere. I let my eyes travel the stacks. Although the 700-page biography of Emily Dickinson that I soon had in hand was unfamiliar, I began reading an introduction that simply would not let me go. Conveyed within the author’s style was a scholar’s voice that I found I wanted to hear, to follow, to savor for its intelligence and nuance and grace. Reading in that chair, surrounded by all those other volumes, I felt a little bit the scholar going about a scholar’s day. I recognized a John who has been happy in that setting before.

It can be easy to forget to be happy. And it can be easy to be reminded.

In the middle of the afternoon yesterday, I was on a moving train. I was returning home from a workshop near New York City. At a point earlier in the day, I had been among people invited to close their eyes and withdraw in imagination to a place where they had experienced happiness in the past. A goal of the exercise was to awaken people to the lively and lasting power of the positive emotions associated with those places and experiences. For sheer joy, the tenderness of the memory I relived brought me to tears. Familiar with the exercise from earlier workshops, I recall wondering then why I kept delaying making such practices a more habitual behavior in my life. Why was it still so easy some days to let others’ decisions determine the quality of the happiness I got to pursue and expect?

The Saturday that you raise the storm windows and let a breeze move your curtains for the first time in six months, you realize that sometimes you just forget to be happy.

Photo uploaded on Flickr by **Mary**

Saturday, April 18, 2009

They Came to the Tomb, Alleluia

Very early on the morning after the Sabbath, when the sun had just risen, they came to the tomb, alleluia.
Antiphon from Morning Prayer for Easter Sunday

One evening of a visit to New Orleans during the three years following my father’s death, I was sitting with my mother in front of the television set. Safely settled in her high-back armchair, feet propped on a small ottoman, she might well have been eating her favorite Cheez-Its as she watched one of her programs. Her walker stood next to the chair in the event she needed to lean on it to make her way down the hall to the bathroom.

During evenings of the week-long visits to New Orleans at that time, I invariably attended to her and to television programs with a book from home in my lap. I tried to keep to a courteous minimum my responses to her running commentary on things. I was following advice my father had repeatedly given after those unlucky occasions when I didn’t let particular observations of my mother’s go unchallenged.

Without looking at me or otherwise preparing me, she suddenly asked, “Do you miss your father?”

I did my best to hide stupefaction. I knew something might be happening that I couldn’t remember happening in a long time – my mother might have been expressing a concern about how I was feeling.

I ventured a cautious “Yes, I do.”

“It’s funny, you know,” she responded with a sidelong glance at me, “I don’t.”

At the immediate request of hers that I change the channel so that she could catch the beginning of another of her favorite shows, I felt a combination of relief and sadness. No, she hadn’t been ready to talk with me about how I felt about my father; she was merely moving forward her evening commentary on things in her own life, past and present.

It did not surprise me that my mother would not admit to missing my father. No one watching them over the sixty-plus years of their marriage had ever surprised them in the sharing of earnest confidences or the exchange of hugs and kisses or earnest, passionate reconciliation after a quarrel or misunderstanding. Growing up, my brothers and I had early learned not to understand affection by observing the daily interactions of my parents. We contented ourselves with the rarely spoken assurance that we loved them and that they loved us.

As my brothers and I entered our adult years, however, my mother would more regularly confide in us how difficult life had been with my father over the years. At the same time, a refrain among us about my father began to ascribe to him a saintly status for the years he patiently endured life in the same house with my mother.

Two good people, concerned for their children and faithful to the teachings of their Church, maintained a life together to the end of their lives.

Whatever didn’t happen with my father, whatever interests of hers got neglected or ignored, whatever grievances received no solicitous attention from him, my mother made do. She stopped waiting for the conversations she wanted and settled for the conversations she had. Unhappy though she might be in the kind of relationship she had with my father, the situation was nothing my mother couldn’t live with.

At his wake, though, she refused to do anything other than lightly lay one hand on the shoulder of the sport coat in which my father’s body had been prepared. She claimed not to like the feel of the skin of a person who had died.

I sometimes wonder what my parents’ lives would have been like if they could have admitted to one another that they were not best friends, not ardent companions, not the person the other most wanted or needed.

I wonder what their lives would have been like if they could have admitted earlier in their lives what had perhaps slowly and sadly been dying between them.

I don’t think that my parents were rare among couples who stay together for years, making do. People can have what feel like good reasons for doing without what they need, for not reaching out for the life that they want. Rather than boldly ask life to sustain them, they agree to maintain a life.

Praying this morning the Easter Office, I came across the stark juxtaposition of the words tomb and alleluia. The traditional antiphon almost seemed to suggest that in order to justify an alleluia it was not necessary to know what events had succeeded the arrival of the three Marys at the tomb of Jesus, that in and of itself coming to a tomb ready to acknowledge the reality of a dying is a vital, inescapable step toward any new life.

Thinking of my parents in the light of that Easter antiphon, I ask myself: what would their lives have been like if earlier than the end of those lives they had been willing to come to the tomb? Could they have trusted that there might be an alleluia waiting for each of them to pray at life changed and renewed?

"The Three Marys at the Tomb" by William Bouguereau at All Posters

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Proust, Easy on the Ears

In discussing the nature of epic, one of my classics teachers in high school used to voice a profound reluctance about reading Dante’s Divine Comedy in an English translation. A cleric in his mid-twenties, he insisted that he would wait for the day when he had learned enough Italian and could read for himself the fourteenth-century Christian masterpiece in its original language and cadences.

Something in that stance impressed me. It made sense to me although I found it hard to imagine how many years it might take him to reach the necessary level of expertise in the language of Dante. Suppose he started his study of Italian when he was thirty-five? Or forty-five? Maybe fifty-five?

On the other hand, even without embarking on a systematic study of Italian myself, I soon understood something of the profound beauty of the final line of Dante’s epic in its homage to l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle (Paradiso, Canto III, 145).

It was hard for me later as a French major in college to imagine reading Marcel Proust in anything but the endlessly flowing, rhythmic, mesmerizing French sentences in which he had composed his twentieth-century epic. That I did not then have the necessary months and even years to devote to such a reading marathon gave to the seven volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu a Grail status with me its newborn Parsifal.

During my first sojourn in France in my mid-twenties, I bought a copy of Du côté de chez Swann in the Livre de Poche edition. Inside that paperback I can still find a piece of stationery from the residence in Annecy where I had lodged a month in the summer of 1974. On that half-page I had penned the beginning of my outline of the section of Proust’s first volume that is entitled “Combray.”

Here is the voice of celebrated French actor André Dussollier reading the opening sentences of “Combray” :

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: " Je m’endors… "

A few years ago I made a purchase that would make it possible for me in my fifties to begin my reading of A la recherche du temps perdu with Dussollier’s voice in my ears as I read the (now yellowed) pages of that Livre de Poche edition acquired in France thirty-five years ago.

Dussollier is one of a number of French actors who have collaborated on a recording – engineered by Editions Thélème – of the entirety of the seven volumes of Proust’s masterpiece. As I hear Proust’s narrator in “Combray” recall a summer visit to the provincial home of his aunt and uncle, I taste again the extended family from rural Louisiana whose homes were the site of my weekend evenings as a child listening to my parents’ brothers and sisters talk on darkening porches, their voices occasionally wandering into a French patois as they commented on scandals in the town where they had grown up.

Not a reading project I would try on my own with just a dictionary on hand, “Combray” read by Dussollier has eased me into rhythms and vocabulary that just might catch me up into a marvelous constellation of mémoires involontaires.

When I sit in the lingering sunlight on a spring evening in New England and listen to Proust's French being read so deftly, I can find myself relaxing into hopes for a fine summer.

Photo of Andre Dussollier from Textes et Voix

Saturday, April 11, 2009

To Marvel at Your Beauty

At times in my adult life I have had responsibility for crafting and directing rituals for group reflection and worship. It is work I loved and work I think I was good at. The demands it made on me, though, led me early on to keep my Sunday mornings in the pews a time to sit and, to use the word of a friend, to steep – to be the eager recipient of the ministry of talented, generous people. I knew I needed that touch in my life if I was going to provide it from time to time to others.

I am filled with gratitude for what happens on a Sunday morning as a result of the conscientious efforts of ministers and priests and music directors and worship coordinators.

I am filled with gratitude because I need what they offer.

Holy Week is a ministry marathon. Ask anyone who works on the staff of a parish. I do ask – regularly and purposely. I know what it means to have someone show even an inkling of awareness of the effort it takes to make room for others to encounter themselves – and not just a presider – within ritual. God can certainly manage to reach individuals through some of the barest liturgical planning and execution. Spiritual traditions, however, again and again emphasize the training and energy that should go into directing the worship of a community.

With all the training in the world, a presider still will not know what goes through the heart and mind of individuals in the pews at their first or thirtieth or fiftieth Holy Thursday service.

No one in my parish could have known ahead of time how a particular opening hymn would affect someone like me embarking on the Triduum his first year living alone in a long time.

No one could have known that the tune of “O God, Beyond All Praising,” taken from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, would steep me in memories of my best friend in high school. His copy of a recording of the British orchestral work provided the soundtrack for many a Saturday evening talk in a darkened family room in New Orleans. It became the music of wondering what life might end up being like.

I found out Thursday evening that it can still be the music of wondering what life might end up being like.

I sang with the amazement of someone finding the words he needed most to say this evening in his life:

and whether our tomorrows
be filled with good or ill,
we'll triumph through our sorrows
and rise to bless you still…

The music director who had selected the hymn weeks earlier and rehearsed his choir in singing it so rousingly for the start of the Holy Thursday service ended the evening as one more parishioner in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament at a makeshift altar of repose.

I recall being startled to see him there seated with a small number of us before the candles and flowers and tabernacle.

Another member of the parish staff entered in a little while and settled in an empty chair close to the tabernacle. His demeanor communicated a need to be in that presence at this moment of his life as well.

A number of us, then, ready – in the words of the hymn:

to marvel at your beauty
and glory in your ways.

I was reassured that God knew what he was doing with us.

Who would not marvel at that beauty?

Photo of Easter Lily from St James Cathedral

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Visit with My Parents

I wanted to have a visit with my parents this past weekend.

I didn’t want the fact that they lie side by side in a New Orleans mausoleum to make the visit an unduly short one. I didn’t want to walk away from their names on the marble slab and wonder what that standing in front of their names had been about. I didn’t want to have to cry to be able to convince myself that some part of me had really connected with some part of them.

I went to the mausoleum Saturday morning equipped to have a visit that I would remember. I wanted a visit that would be close to the kind of visit I would have loved to have had with these kind, thoughtful people over the years.

I knew I wanted to pray. I knew I wanted my parents to hear what I sound like when I talk about what’s important to me. I knew I wanted them to know what some people say when they want me to know they care.

On the beautifully clear Saturday morning, I started by saying the rosary in front of my parents’ places. I don’t know how other people pray at their parents’ graves. I have sometimes spoken into the air around me and mentioned my parents’ names and God’s name and brought some petition, some thanksgiving, some plea for forgiveness into words.

This time I simply took a rosary out of my pocket and began reciting the customary prayers from my Catholic childhood. Fingers on the crucifix, I prayed the Creed. Fingers slipping to the first larger bead, I recited the Our Father. Fingers gaining on the first three smaller beads, I repeated the Hail Mary’s. I walked the mausoleum corridor where my parents’ places were located, up and down, lips moving, fingers moving, eyes moving over all the names on the wall of graves. I lengthened my route to include a corridor near my parents. Unaware of anyone nearby who might overhear me, I went through all five decades, saying the prayers in a low voice but still out loud.

In praying the rosary aloud, I was doing something that I would like to have done with my parents while they were alive.

The next stage of the visit focused on something I had written last November around the time of my birthday. I had brought with me an essay I posted on this blog last year under the title “An Unsettled Anniversary.” I read the essay out loud to my parents lying there in the mausoleum. I read about the death of a friend’s grandfather. I read about the experience of watching parents grieve the loss of their own parents. I read about a heart scare and a hospitalization. I read about the exhaustion of approaching the first anniversary of that hospitalization, wondering what toll it might exact from me.

When I had finished reading that essay, I addressed my parents, “That’s what I sound like.” I wanted to acknowledge to them and to myself that I had just confidently spoken in their presence about what my life sometimes feels like. I needed to acknowledge out loud that it was all worth my saying, all worth their hearing, and that more of our visits over the years should have included opportunities not only for me to listen to their stories but for them to hear mine.

I cried.

Finally, I brought out the texts of three short messages that I had received in the past six months. I wanted my parents to hear what someone might write to me who considered himself a good friend. I wanted my parents to know that I had friends who talked of missing me, of holding me close to their heart, of being happy about how real it could feel to spend time with me. I needed my parents to know that friends could be eager to share their lives with me.

Without ever having heard my parents talk about being happy that I had friends and such good friends, I wanted to close a visit by imagining a time with my parents feeling like a vote of confidence.

I wanted by the end of that Saturday morning to feel eager to have another visit with my parents.

I am happy to say that I succeeded.

Image from Rookwood Independent Cemetery

Friday, April 3, 2009

Palm Sunday

I will welcome Holy Week Sunday morning in New Orleans.

By the time I am driving to the airport that morning to return home to New England, I will have visited my parents' graves in the Garden of Memories. I will have said goodbye to them again and walked along the banks of palmettos in the cemetery.

No other Palm Sunday ever smells quite like the Palm Sundays in New Orleans.

Prayers requested.

Image of New Orleans palmetto from Susanna Powers