Sunday, March 27, 2011

Travel and the Ways Lives Go

I stumble upon churches.

I stumble upon graveyards.

I stumble upon topics with old friends that none of us set out in advance to cover in our conversations.

Some days off work last week allowed me to visit family and friends in both New Orleans and Houston and to do my inveterate stumbling.

I had never before been in either St Alphonsus Church or St Mary’s Assumption Church in the Irish Channel section of New Orleans. A traffic detour took me near them one day last week. I took a chance, parked the rental car, and walked into a piety that was a hundred and fifty years old, lofty ceilings and carved wooden statues and the tombs of nineteenth-century pastors under the marble flooring of a sanctuary.

Another day I wanted to go to the Garden District Book Shop and parked near Commander’s Palace, an Uptown restaurant that my family sometimes used for birthdays and out-of-town visitors. Locking the car, I turned around and found myself next to the open gates of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Sunny skies and uncharacteristically dry air encouraged me to venture in for five minutes and see still another of New Orleans’ “Cities of the Dead.”

Over coffee, over cocktails, in a retirement home, in a retreat house parlor, with Mexican food, with Irish beer, I spent time in the kinds of conversations that are lifelines for me. We all of us - classmates and teachers and friends - took the measure of our years together and resisted simple information and mused on the ways lives go. Again and again I found myself across from people who gained energy from the words, the attention, the memories invoked, the futures imagined.

I like the people and the places of my life.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Complex Pleasures

Drizzly Friday afternoon in March.

I was walking across a Maine campus that still wore some of this season’s snows. Fog made a milky, Gothic light. The silence of Spring Break was fast descending.

I had come to sit with over 150 other adult readers of a novel first published in France almost two centuries ago. Few people to whom I mentioned the weekend venture had heard of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. Few knew, I suspect, why I might want to get here.

Was it the lure of the university to which I was responding? Or the prospect of something like alchemists’ secret knowledge?

Maybe I just craved the company of people used to being reminded that mind’s pleasures require effort. Perplexity is not always a problem. One’s own complexity need not frighten or daunt.

Avoiding questions never makes for great literature, does it? Or great lives.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Marmalade and Toast Racks

If I attended a summer session at Christ Church in Oxford in 1985, it was because I was both a reader and, at that time, a teacher of British literature. In my early thirties, I finally got to set foot in a country whose authors regularly moved and challenged me. I had majored in French as an undergraduate, but for some time the poets of my leisure hours remained Keats and Tennyson, Eliot and Auden.

I was surrounded by other Americans at breakfast in the Christ Church dining hall those summer mornings. I would sit at the long wooden tables and reach for the daily bowl of orange marmalade and the dry hard toast in the toast racks. Negotiating mealtimes felt easier in the company of Priscilla from Houston and Kathryn from Chicago. I was not always sure I was doing it right, but at least my years in seminary had acquainted me with breakfast as a communal event.

I sat under the portraits of former Christ Church students high on the walls of the dining hall. Those three weeks were my introduction to the traditions of English university life. Against the ancient dark wood of floor and walls and ceiling, the light from the electric lamps along the long refectory tables felt warm and safe and forgiving.

One of the traditions of English university life? Frank Cooper’s Original Oxford Marmalade. What I could not foresee when my three weeks at Christ Church were over was how regularly in years to come I would move through a grocery store and slow down by the shelves of imported marmalades. I did not find the exact marmalade of those summer mornings in 1985 until this past month.

I may soon need a toast rack.

Photo of Toast Rack from Styles Silver