Sunday, January 29, 2012

From River Road to Richardsonion Romanesque

I like grits. I really like them.

This Saturday morning I needed to replenish my supply of Quaker Grits. On my grocery run I bought a fresh container of the kind of enriched white hominy that can take an average of twenty minutes to prepare on stove top on a winter morning.

I would feel a little like Geraldine Page if I took the full twenty minutes, but I generally use a microwave. And then it is only eight minutes before a pat of butter blends its yellow with stir after stir of smooth, creamy grits, steaming in a white bowl.

What other New Englander had treated himself to that kind of breakfast Saturday morning?

Any of my fellow concertgoers Saturday evening?

I had not ever before been in the church where the choral concert took place Saturday evening. Friends who were members of the chorus were performing here for the first time. Not a fifteen-minute drive from my apartment, and I sat in a setting so unexpected and beautiful that I had to take pictures.

At intermission I stood with my usual crowd and gaped with them. I learned from one of them, a student of architecture, that the church was not -- as I had presumed -- the work of the architect of Boston's Trinity Church, Henry Hobson Richardson. The style was definitely Richardsonian Romanesque, but this 1888 structure had been designed by another architect -- John Lyman Faxon.

Well, what did I really know about Henry Hobson Richardson anyway, I asked myself this Sunday morning.

Not that he was a native of Louisiana, I assure you. But that's what I learned this morning, again and again, all the online resources corroborating the fact that he had been born and raised on a plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana.

I had travelled along the River Road through Vacherie time and again in my youth. My own father's mother had grown up in another of the plantation homes there. We had passed the home of Henry Hobson Richardson in our green Chevrolet, most likely, without knowing it.

Henry Hobson Richardson, the architect of Boston's Trinity Church, a man who ate grits for breakfast on winter mornings growing up?

Most likely.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Neo-Victorian Dust Jackets

I think I know what the story would sound like that could use this solemn photograph for its dust jacket.

Something like French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) by John Fowles comes to mind. Or something like Possession (1990) by A.S. Byatt.

It’s a Victorian – or Neo-Victorian – image for me. If the book suited to this image had a distinct Victorian forebear, it would by something written by Thomas Hardy rather than anything by Charles Dickens or George Eliot.

If the novel were good enough, it might be hard for it to escape an eventual screen version. And that would be the disappointment – to have an easy way for the story to go away, reduced in memory to movie stills, an IMDb listing, a line in filmographies. The story would become so much data, fodder for Wikipedia articles, a target for comparisons, something you found in Google searches.

The image is about winter and an earth that absorbs the universal return to something indistinguishable. The image is about a point where no amount of care can preserve or make compelling. The image is about being forgotten.

A latter-day Matthew Arnold might agree to have his literary portrait snapped as he holds the book with this cover, his finger apparently keeping his place in a read he is determined to resume as soon as the photographer's session is over.

Who would not be aware of another mood when a book with this sunny wall on its cover happened to hand? Which of us latter-day Matthew Arnolds would not pause before just such a winter wall and salute the design below the window sill? What photographer of latter-day Matthew Arnolds would not drag his equipment outside to capture it?

If a book could be written worthy of that moment, its winter readers would be on their way to being cheered, heartened, infected with a chance for mirth.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Measure of Our Days

How do you take the measure of a week? What gives a week its flavor?

Do you measure it by a book you finished reading?

Do you measure it by a meal you ate at a friend’s table?

Do you measure it by whether you wrote something of which you are proud?

Do you measure it by a film you saw?

Do you measure it by the range of temperatures through which the sun shone through the dining room windows?

Do you measure it by the person who stopped by your office and asked for help?

Do you measure it by the meals you prepared in your kitchen that week?

Do you measure it by the number of nights you managed to sleep straight through?

Do you measure it by the plans you made to celebrate a family birthday?

Do you measure it by music you heard?

Do you measure it by photographs you took?

Do you measure it by the grocery run?

Do you measure it by the freshly laundered flannel sheets with which you made your bed?

Do you measure it by whether the reflection at Sunday services moved you to tears?

Do you measure it by an hour of therapy?

Do you measure it by a museum visit?

Do you measure it by the bills you paid?

Do you measure it by the dishes you washed and the rooms you cleaned?

Do you measure it by the ideas that came to you?

Do you measure it by love?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Voice That Is Not on My Side

There is a particular voice I sometimes hear inside that is not a reliable one or a helpful one.

I don’t always know to say it like that.

It is a voice that purports to explain things in my life about which I am fearful or conflicted. However, it is not a charitable voice; it explains by accusing; it explains by blaming me. It claims to represent the consensus of key individuals, individuals whom other people listen to and believe. When I don’t stop myself – and often I can’t – I mistake the script this voice reads; I mistake it for an objective and insightful analysis.

Its goal is not clarity, however.

In the language of classic sixteenth-century spiritual directors, this is a voice that requires discernment to recognize its true nature. This is not a voice whose goal is a peaceful awareness that can move things forward.

This voice is not on my side. I may initially assume it is, but it is not on my side.

Sometimes the patience and good humor I need, though, manage to make it through.

Even on a rainy January morning.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Christmas Puppets

"Hello, Paul! Hello, Paul!"

My voice goes very high as I move a fat, fluffy lamb ornament across the arm of a chair toward a one-and-a-half-year-old on Christmas Day. Hanging on a low branch of his grandparents' Christmas tree, the lamb had been an easy target for Paul's finger. Rescued from the floor, the ornament became an impromptu puppet and I its puppeteer.

When Paul's mother was growing up, she and her sister and her brother used to take turns moving three creche figures of the Magi across the living room. Day by day, the three kings got closer and closer to where the doll-like figures of Mary and Joseph flanked an infant Jesus. It was a custom I did not recall from my own childhood Christmases, but I loved the idea of animating the figures -- making them puppets, in effect.

A little boy like me had been permitted to like puppets, slipping my hand into the cloth garments, nodding a puppet head with a sudden crook of my finger, making my voice sound like Tinker Bell or Muggs. Those were my favorite puppets, and I could make them hop and fly and appear to sleep and then wake up. I could do with the puppets what I saw girls my age and older do with their dolls.

On a corner of the mantlepiece in my apartment are three figures that belong to a creche set that I had bought when I was in grammar school. Each figure shows an old ink imprint of twenty-nine cents on the underside of its base -- these three kings had been a dollar's investment.

I think I have grown up to resemble one of them.

Monday, January 2, 2012

January Retreat

The picturesque angels of Christmas are ready to leave.

Real angels only appear in real lives. In other words, they appear in lives that are not ready for angels or expecting the need of them. They appear in messy lives. They appear in lives that are about to change. They appear in lives that seem unable to change.

Do they ever appear in the Travel section of The New York Times?

Last night I was ready to say yes. The Sunday edition lay open on the kitchen table before me. At first I could not believe my eyes: "A Quick Shot of Peace, on a Budget" by Susan Gregory Thomas featured photographs of a retreat house that I have visited.

The real angel appeared in the columns of print threading the pictures. A real life appeared in those columns of narrative. A real voice named ways in which the author's life had hurt and bewildered and frightened her.

If her life could use an angel, I wondered, certainly mine could as well? My life with all its striving for the appearance of sage serenity, of emotional balance and elegant expression? Have you read this blog before? Have you ever wondered about the stories that keep safely out of the postings?

It is a customary month for me to wonder about angels. January four years ago I was planning a retreat, a weekend away at a monastery north of Boston.

January forty years ago I was getting ready for another kind of retreat, thirty days of silence and reflection in consideration of life as a priest.

I went back this morning to a retreat house about which I have written before. In a cemetery on the grounds, I searched out the grave of the spiritual director who had listened to me over the years. I stood under the grey sky and asked him again what a heart was for, what this heart was for, and whose approval it could be hoping for.

An angel like him sometimes made it possible to believe that I was perfectly all right.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Day Way Down Yonder in New Orleans

For me, part of this sunny New England New Year's Day involves making a pot of blackeyed peas.

Part of this day also involves playing a 78 rpm picture record, one of my favorite Christmas presents.

For the moment, I know more about blackeyed peas than I do about Vogue Picture Records, but 2012 is the year that I get to taste both.

Happy New Year!