Thursday, July 30, 2009

Saturday, July 25, 2009


A friend once wrote me about the lists by which he plots his intellectual journeys:

I have had the opportunity to review my list - the mandatory “To Do” I always carry with me and scribble on just in case I need to remember something. Funny thing is, I rarely carry a pen or pencil and try to burn an image, task, title or song lyric into my brain by repeating it silently over and over until I sit comfortably at my desk, open my wallet and breathe a sigh knowing the item has been added. If someone were to find my list, it would make little sense, but to me it shows the results of my inner workings...all the well-oiled gears grinding together.

Reading through a collection of his earlier lists, he offered this explanation of the experience:

It was the Bildungsroman of a former self, someone who desperately wanted to be a Renaissance Man of his own making, someone no one would quite understand, but that was okay. I could feel how I felt when I wrote them: there must be something better. I kept open a few items: get back to British Columbia, take a Joyce "Ulysses" course, violin and sax lessons, attend photo and video courses in Rockland. As I crossed out, a layer was added to myself…and some sadness and unattainability faded.

I admire the economy of the record of self in this record of dreams. Whether in the planning or in the recording, the landmarks of some of my own intellectual journeys claim space that I do not have in abundance these days. In the neat stacks of books and journals near my favorite reading chair, I get reminded each day of a variety of goals that I have set for myself in recent and not so recent years. Like my friend, I have before me a Bildungsroman of goals that at different times have called me to be a particular kind of John.

For example, there is the Washington Square Press paperback that I purchased after a lecture on the Roman poet Horace and the structure of his four books of odes. I was a sophomore in college at the time, and for ninety cents I added a volume to my personal library with the complete Latin text of the odes and an English translation of each poem by British poet James Michie. Not a classics major, I have yet to reach the point of picking up the book and opening to a random page and reading the Latin originals with speed and accuracy. On the other hand, I can from time to time use my high school Latin to work through a stanza or two. I may not be equipped to teach Horace, but I enjoy the awareness that my education has provided me a way to delve into his world.

Before I ever enrolled in high school classes in New Orleans, Latin was a language that I associated with beauty and authority and holiness. It was a language by which even my parents could be a bit daunted as they knelt with my brothers and me at a Roman Catholic Mass each Sunday morning. I watched how words looked on the pages of my parents’ missals and prayer books. I learned early on that not all languages looked or sounded like English. If my parents did not understand Latin, though, they occasionally used a French from their Louisiana childhood when they wanted to say something to one another that their children should not understand. I discovered in time that that mystifying language of family secrets was also the language of Paris and Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.

Next to the paperback Horace near my reading chair are several purchases from this past March when I shopped at Paris kiosks and browsed through Paris bookstores. When the time had come that I could choose the language that I would learn in school, I began my study of French. My undergraduate major in French acquainted me with a France that was stark and misty and sophisticated. In travelling as an adult to Paris and other sections of France, I have kept expecting the sober and beautiful pages of the French novels and plays and poems that I had read in college to provide a key to a world that at one time seemed more likely to match who I was. My knowledge of French makes it a pleasure – albeit sometimes a slow one – to hear how the world sounds in the elegant syllables of my Gallic contemporaries. Watching French films, I enjoy the spoken rhythms of people with whom I claim a common heritage.

Among the intellectual journeys on which I have embarked over the years, the different languages by which people tell their stories have exerted a steady fascination. A goal that persists in luring me is more confidence in reading German and hearing it spoken. Its earliest emotional claim on me came in the rooms of one of the first men with whom I fell in love. I remember reading the titles of the scholarly books on his shelves as I sat and listened to him summarize a particular class that he had taught that day. I took delight paging through his lecture notes and finding the precise umlauts with which he had punctuated his quotations from scholars under whom he had studied. Admiration and love seemed to go hand in hand in those days, and I thought of him often when years later I took a reading course in theological German. A hardcover anthology of German poetry is stacked next to Horace and Max Jacob in my sitting room.

During my recent weekend in New York, I took a photograph of the NYU house for students of German. There was awakened in me that day a sense of how intellectual pursuits can promise a home for those parts of ourselves that not everyone in a social circle asks about or knows how to recognize in us. The dream, though, of becoming the kind of person we think we have a chance to be can lead us all to create lists and build stacks of books, keep journals and watch French movies and sit in lamplight at home on quiet reading nights in summer.

Welcome the people who get who we are and what we are trying to be.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How Broadway Makes Rain Fall on Mary Stuart

I wondered about the rain in the remarkable production of Mary Stuart that I saw this weekend. Click on the title of this post for an explanation.

Photo from NYTimes

Monday, July 20, 2009

When You Are Ready

A visit this past weekend with a good friend in New York City provided us a chance to do some writing together in the New York Public Library Reading Room. We may not see one another for awhile since she will be living in Chile come September. She is preparing to launch into a further stage of her formation in religious life. We sat outside the library after our hour writing and read aloud what the other had written. Here is part of what I wrote and what Kate got to read aloud:

Here in New York for the first time since February 2008, I have the chance to be with a friend and experience the rhythms of friendship. Writing, reading, walking, praying, talking – the pleasures of this weekend with Kate are shared pleasures. The ease of that sharing is what this year ahead of me will call for and look for again and again. I may have changed the landscape of my life a year ago, but the transition continues. Facing the challenges and gifts of that time of transition will be easier with friends like Kate telling me about their lives, writing and reading what we each write, acknowledging the pleasures that make our days the ones we want, recognizing in how the other negotiates days and weeks and months a support and an inspiration at times when we need both.

“When we are ready” – that was the focus of the presider’s reflection at the Mass today. Discernment is that key notion in my thirty years living in New England. It can seem strange at times to admit that it is a process essential to living my life even now in my late fifties.

Shouldn’t this be done now – this attending to the movement of the Spirit, this weighing of the good available in taking certain steps and certain paths?

I consider someone like Kate in her late thirties and imagine what the final months of formation ahead of her may confirm, may reveal, may initiate.

“When we are ready” – Kate and I can welcome the chance to play a role in one another’s lives. What those lives can look like in a month’s time is probably very different from what they will look like in a year’s time. Decisions that either of us may be impatient to make, to implement, to move forward with may still not be the decisions we are able to make or ready to act on.

It might be enviable at times to be planning a wedding the way my colleague Kim and her fiancé Ted have been the past few months. No one would want to imagine a friend taking such an important step until he or she is ready.

Kate and I are each of us aware that a life choice is before us. Changing anything about our lives will not be hurried if we are moving by our best lights.

Wisely and slowly…

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Time Out

When a vacation house claims you, you need to have some memory of the things you had planned to do there.

The easy time that settles around you with each day erases any merely easy agenda.

It will be good if you had thought to bring with you a bundle of old letters to re-read. It will be good if you had opened a favorite book of poems upon your arrival and left it on a bedside table. It will be good if there is a framed photograph standing on a surface where you have been able to pass it every day.

A clock in a store may have made you think of hours and shadows travelling across your floor at home.

Slowly restored to parts of yourself in these vacation rooms, you do things that surprise you.

You momentarily don't mind the world that will be waiting for you upon your return.

Schlabaugh clock at Left Bank Gallery in Wellfleet

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Outermost House

Could I live here?

At some point in a vacation week I have regularly asked myself that question. It is the point when getting from one address to another in a new location no longer seems daunting. I may have awakened from an afternoon nap and stepped out into a sun-filled yard or a street quiet and soft with rain. I am no longer living out of a suitcase and not yet needing to think about re-packing one. I am in a mood where it is momentarily easy to envision a different way to live life. I get a taste of a different way to move through the end of a weekday afternoon and into an early evening of dinner and drinks and conversation.

Those conversations during an evening of vacation ideally include a leading question from a dinner companion. There has been something about how I seem after a few days outside of my routines that has gotten someone else thinking. The agenda for the next day’s activities is briefly too practical a topic for the mood of the hour across from this companion. Smiles are easy, dreams are close, gratitude emerges for the space to name possibilities.

Could I live here?

I might like the John who walked through an art gallery earlier in the day. I might like the John who found an organ recital on a Sunday afternoon in a local church. I might like the John who walked through a bookstore and bought a new copy of a favorite novel, re-reading the first chapter later over a white beer and lemon. I might like the John who made an impulse purchase in a store specializing in papers and leather journals. I might like the John who excused himself from a group activity and chose to sit on a park bench and just muse for an hour. I might like the John who leaned on a wooden railing and surveyed a seacoast marsh and memorized the call of a bird suddenly overhead.

Could I live here – the life of this kind of John?

Click on the picture above: In September 1927 author and naturalist Henry Beston came to Nauset Beach in Eastham, Massachusetts. On the dunes he built a cabin with two rooms and a fireplace. There he lived a solitary year in the company of the ocean. As the seasons unfolded, Beston recorded his encounters with the waves, the winds and the wild creatures of the beach and dunes. The resulting book, The Outermost House, has become a classic chronicle of the rhythms of the seasons on outer Cape Cod.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Getting to the Table Again

Someone recently asked about the religious retreats that I and other people make and what they're about. He got me thinking.

Silent retreats are about the problems that are hard for us to talk about.

They’re about the situations in our lives where we are no longer content to make do. Sometimes they’re about admitting that we are not getting what we need. Sometimes they’re about admitting that we’re not getting the experiences that we can talk about with pleasure and satisfaction. They’re about the judgment that sometimes feels waiting for us if we confess to that failure.

So, guess what most retreats do for the people who make them? They get people into a dining room three times a day. They get people to the table.

Ignatius Loyola knew that people on retreat don’t stop being on retreat during meals. They might think they stop doing the serious work of a retreat for the fifteen minutes or half-hour that they are sitting in the dining room. Ignatius knew, though, that meals might be a time when our emotional guard is down, our thinking apparatus less programmed and more creative, our willingness to sink into ourselves and the routines of our heart more likely.

We may have fewer expectations of ourselves, fewer explicit expectations for our lives in a dining room, and that is the key to its usefulness. The ease we might feel in being ourselves with a plate of food in front of us can be the medium by which we uncover a question we have about what our lives can be.

So right now, in the midst of reading a post on a blog, a little exercise about our eating might be illuminating.

Let’s start by thinking of the last meal we had before going online and reading this post – was it with the people we most wanted to eat with? Was it at a time of our choosing? Was it in a place of our choosing? Was the meal the food we most wanted?

Ready for more?

How many of us regularly eat with the people we most want to eat with?

How many of us regularly eat the foods we most like?

How many of us regularly eat at times of our choosing and in settings of our choosing?

How many of us regularly take the time we want to spend on a meal? Are we ever rushed?

On the other hand, are we ever obliged to stay at a table longer than we want? With people we would not have chosen as our ideal table companions?

And finally: How many of us would do anything to have another meal with a particular person? How many of us would do anything to have another chance to participate in a particular meal from an earlier time in our life?

One or more of these questions may leave your heart a bit shaky.

They do mine.

Friday, July 3, 2009