Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Places We Need

A friend is enjoying the final morning of a weekend retreat. He is in a place I know well, and it is easy to imagine the options from which he chooses the path for his last walk under a cool but sunny October sky. It is his birthday today, and he returns this afternoon to his family and its plans and its needs. With the retreat, he made a distinctive choice for how to usher in this next chapter of his life. It is a choice I understand.

Another friend is walking the streets of New York this morning. He is alone after an evening gathering of old friends and former colleagues. His train leaves in a couple of hours, but he heads this morning to places that he knows well from living here twenty years ago. He is a planner, and so I imagine he walks with a departure time guiding his steps, his pace. The city around him is an environment in which some people walk comfortably with themselves. This friend certainly does.

I reflect this morning on fresh memories of standing in a sunny field threaded by low stone walls. I had set out early yesterday with maps and directions to an old farm in the Blackstone River valley. Driving there alone, I got to make as many wrong turns as I needed near the end of the trip. Far from highways and interstates, I had almost resigned myself to not finding Cormier's Woods. I was ready to undertake the hour drive home when the road sign appeared, and in ten minutes I was standing alone in a quiet New England field.

We all get to the places we need.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Father Love

I will admit that I cried when I first saw this photograph on eBay.

I did not need to know who the father was, where he had lived or when. I did not need to know who had taken the photograph. I wager a reaction similar to mine, however, had motivated someone to pick up the camera just then. The record of a father's love on a Sunday afternoon...

Who does not want a Sunday afternoon like that? Who does not want a father like that? Who does not want to live with that memory somehow touching every Sunday he still gets to live?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Red Beans

It is the early morning hour of a day you have dinner guests.

The red kidney beans have soaked all night.

After work yesterday you went to the grocery store and picked out your sweet onions, the green peppers, the stalks of celery. You hunted and found the smoked ham hocks required by the familiar Paul Prudhomme recipe. You decided against more white pepper and cayenne pepper -- you know your mother's Monday pot of red beans never needed them.

Twelve hours to let all those ingredients bubble and thicken on the right front burner of your stove before you are ready to fix each of your guests a Sazerac cocktail. And then your New Orleans act can end.

You know these two guests well. You know you can get them to tell you more about Spain and the vacation there that they arranged for their families this past summer. You know they will be ready with questions about your own venture last weekend into the rainy Berkshires. They will understand a Melville pilgrimage.

You will not talk, though, about the grey skies above the field behind Arrowhead, the Pittsfield farm where Melville completed Moby Dick within sight of the mountains. You will keep that memory for yourself, the quiet, the cool air, the sense of yourself that comes in those moments.

Your guests are bringing a creamy Spanish dessert. The moment in which it comes out at meal's end will find each person at table smiling with his distinctive memories.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

French Teacher

In a bookstore in New Orleans this evening, a woman will read from a recently published book of her poetry. Emails from the bookstore keep me posted on such events. Ever since the December after Katrina, when I ordered my Christmas gifts from the store, I have received these regular prompts to imagine literary evenings in an uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.

I do not hesitate on a busy day to delete emails sent from the bookstore. After all, what’s the likelihood of my being in my hometown anytime soon?

In this morning’s email, though, I discovered a name that started me remembering. Forty years ago, as a sophomore in college, I had taken a course in twentieth-century French literature. It was a 400-level course taught entirely in the target language, and I had just begun my study of French the year before. After summer courses on the 200-level and a readings course from a delightful dandy of a teacher who taught perched on the edge of his desk, I resolved to take a serious plunge.

Madame was my serious plunge.

In my years of schooling I had grown accustomed to teachers who clearly took pains to win their students over. There were rewards for doing well – praise, smiles, the suggestion that we were on our way to interacting as colleagues. In contrast, I sat in my first week of classes on twentieth-century French authors and encountered a teacher who was not going to woo me or anyone else in the room.

Every class I listened to a French that was classically calm, sophisticated in its distinctions, never sentimental or fussy or confused. About Madame there was the severe elegance of the French academic. Or so I surmised, barely twenty years old myself and five years away from my first view of Paris.

The truth, hard to credit, is that she had been a woman in her mid-30s at the time, a young woman who had grown up in Colorado and Texas. She spoke, nonetheless, with authority about Gide and Giraudoux and Sartre and Proust.

Somehow or other, I have to think, she was even then in the process of becoming the woman who could write thirty years later:

…at most periods our lives just flow through undifferentiated and unremarkable territory… But there are exceptional moments when we become aware of the terrain, or realize it has changed under us, and at crucial times we find ourselves on an apex, looking Janus-like at ourselves and our possibilities—the past sloping one way, the future another.

I continue to learn my lessons.

So, I suspect, does Madame.

Passage quoted from Finding Higher Ground: A Life of Travels (2003) by Catharine Savage Brosman