Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pentecost in Green

Pentecost is about feelings you do not think you will ever have – or have again.

When any of the great Church feasts approaches, I can go through a period asking what possible difference this specific lens on the human story makes.

I grew up attending a Catholic elementary school where my classmates and I recited the rosary every weekday afternoon in May. On different days of the week the repetition of the Hail Mary’s was flavored by references to different events in the life of Jesus or his mother Mary.

In theological language those events were mysteries -- events that could make a difference in human lives. Each Wednesday the Glorious Mysteries allotted time for meditation first to the resurrection of Jesus, then to his ascension into heaven, next to his sending the Holy Spirit upon his apostles on the first festival of Pentecost after his death.

There are images involving these events that I still recall from the prayer books and missals in my parents’ home. Artists’ images of the Glorious Mysteries invariably featured a world open to the sky, airy visitations by flames, angels pointing to the clouds. I sensed that I was meant to like these light-saturated landscapes, and I used to try. In my experience, however, sunny summer days were humid and inevitably uncomfortable, and May in New Orleans was already summer.

In the years that have passed since then, I have had experiences of reflecting on a story from the Gospels or listening to preaching inspired by one of them and finding myself unexpectedly and sometimes unaccountably consoled, restored and even healed. The stories have helped me face my life and what I may have resigned myself to and what I had forgotten to expect.

For the past two years, I have found myself on the road at this beautiful time in the New England spring. Both times I have driven up the Connecticut River valley and let my life and its hopes breathe again in sight of the green mountains. Both times I took a journey into an unknown future and met what I thought I had lost.

A glorious mystery. Pentecost is indeed about feelings you do not think you will ever have – or have again.

Photo of Walpole, NH from Seattle Tall Poppy

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Half Hour before Curtain

It was Friday night, and the curtain was scheduled to go up at 8.

From years of weekends with friends, I was acquainted with the feel of pre-theatre conversations, the customary alert given a waiter of a curtain to make, the advantage of a restaurant where the offerings are familiar and the ordering a comfortable routine. Sometimes there is a fellow playgoer’s story about parking to entertain the table. What others have read about the show becomes a convenient lead if there is a lull in talk in the group.

From years of weekends with friends, I was acquainted with the debate on how to divide the check, the nagging awareness that sometimes a number of people are paying for the extra drink that one or two people ordered. The exit from the restaurant is a bit of a bustle with restroom stops before the walk to the theatre.

In my experience, one rarely emerges from that pre-theatre experience with a quiet sense of gratitude for the conversation. One rarely emerges having been heard and affirmed and encouraged to keep talking about what is important in life. Well, there’s a show to get to!

Last week I had managed to get a single ticket for an opening night performance on Friday. I was going to be free, therefore, of most of the distractions of pre-theatre conversations, except those I might witness or overhear. At the table nearest mine, one older woman was talking with a friend, swearing by the Asian pesto sauce she had selected “once again” for her Shanghai whole wheat noodles with mixed vegetables and beef.

My dinner at the familiar restaurant lasted barely an hour. At meal’s end I walked down the street where the theatre was located. I knew there were benches a few blocks away on the edge of a university campus, and it was there I intended to spend the half hour or so before I took my seat in Row F.

When I have attended productions in this neighborhood in the past, I have seldom given myself permission simply to observe what was around me. If I got to these benches, it was to wait with others, and the social instinct took over. Instead of tuning one another to the surroundings, our talk became itself the diversion or – at times – a distraction from the waiting.

This past Friday it took me awhile to be aware that I was not initially at ease. Sitting on the bench, I was looking every which way until I caught myself. It was that familiar feeling of not wanting to wait. Or maybe this evening it was more not wanting to be waiting by myself.

Past experience had almost convinced me that there was nothing worth looking at or noticing or observing in these few blocks of city neighborhood. In getting attuned to how I was feeling, however, I became attuned as well to the landscape before me.

If I had seen it in a movie set in New York City, I would have thought it intriguing and distinctive. I would have woven stories about the people who lived in these old apartment buildings, ridden this trolley, walked to class under the branches of these city trees. I would have paid attention to what I was seeing and how I was responding to it. I would scarcely have been able to wait till the end of the film to turn to someone and say, “Look – over there – that set of windows! What would it be like to look out of them every morning and see a city before you?”

I woke up in that half hour before curtain.

Just before I got up from my bench to head to the theatre, I saw the older woman from the restaurant – the one who loved the Asian pesto sauce. She was smiling as she and her friend walked down the sidewalk in front of me, smiling as they talked, smiling as they talked. They knew, I was immediately convinced, what this neighborhood looked like.

My next theatre night I will order the Shanghai whole wheat noodles with mixed vegetables and beef and Asian pesto sauce.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Heart Puzzles

I am at that briefest of times in a reader’s life – right before the midpoint in a really good novel.

I will never again know just this much and no more about the main character in Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. In a short while I will have moved past page 117. In the remaining 145 pages, Eilis Lacey will develop in ways that I can certainly guess at. I prefer to hope, though, that my heart and my mind will be stilled or startled by what this author does with her.

If I weren’t writing, I would be reading on right now. It was what I was doing at 2:30 this morning when I could not go back to sleep after my BlackBerry vibrated a needless alert to email. Turning over felt a futile gesture, an inconsequential effort. Soon I was sitting with a mug of hot chocolate and reading about Christmas in 1950s Brooklyn.

If someone asked me about the draw of the character Eilis Lacey, I would have to explain situations where the circumstances of her life are about to change through the agency of other characters. More than once the moment shortly comes when Eilis entertains other explanations for the offers people are making to her – explanations other than the one that had first appeared plausible. She has to admit that people may know more than they are saying. Or they may not.

What her Irish heart is feeling and how open a role those feelings can or should play in her American life seems to be the puzzle for this intelligent young woman.

It takes a masterful writer to determine that just such a puzzle can be narrated – and ought to be.

Excuse me while I read.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Well Done

Years of schooling prepared me for the month of May.

Successful and happy as a student, I learned to enjoy the variety of ways I got the message “Well done!” The grade on a final examination, an average on my report card, the gold or silver card in a specific course, a medal at convocation or a plaque at graduation, the honors designation on a diploma – in typical ways I experienced and relished the month’s traditional affirmations.

And I needed affirmations that were dependable and uncomplicated and clear.

May meant that I heard my name and read my name in places and at times that lots of other people didn’t. Only September roll calls at the start of a new school year could possibly rival for me May’s sweet and steady litany of achievement and approval.

I confess I liked people’s listing my name, reading it in public, writing it in calligraphy.

A kind of healing seemed to issue from each new “John…” that I saw or heard.

Years later, seeing my name on bills and catalogs usually does not distract me. I am still new enough in this apartment, though, to be taken aback by the sight of my name topping a new address. Each piece of mail waiting on the floor inside my front door at the end of a May work day seems something of a diploma, a report card, a commendation.

If I am here, it’s because I have learned something.

I am relieved to hear yet again, in that friendly voice from deep within, “Well done...”