Friday, November 22, 2013

New England Birthday

Midafternoon in late autumn can grow dark enough to warrant lamplight. If it is not yet time to leave the office and go home, a gentle, wistful mood is possible.

It is not unlike the feeling when you were much younger and your parents were not yet home from work and there was nothing to be done to hurry supper along. The hour felt determined to last as long as it could.

Or you were walking home from school, classes and club meetings behind you, and you looked up into the random trees lining the sidewalk. You walked past one house and then another, each front door closed, each window shade drawn. If there were no cars heading down the street, the quiet and the space around you reinforced a reflective turn of mind.

It is what happened later in your life when you went on retreat and you had gotten to the second or third day. The novelty of a space away from your everyday routines had begun gently to wane. You were back to being yourself, just without the regular things to do.

Who had any thought for that person who was just yourself? If you were not doing something for someone, what could you count on in the way of attention?

I approach a birthday in two days. It is easier to stay with questions like that at this time in my life. Nowadays I suspect that the answers are not anywhere as dire as I once feared they might be.

I have a great weekend before me.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Stacks of Books

Stacks of books. Shelves of books. Whether they appear in a Paris bookstore or in an upstairs apartment in New England, they tell a story for the person who notices them.

The bookstores of Paris are a treat. Online purchaser of books though I am, I still stop on the sidewalk before a display of books in the window of a Paris bookstore. Abundance characterizes these displays, book above book, books leaning on other books, books gathered around flowers and framed pictures of authors. Lamps glow in the older bookstores on a late October afternoon and reveal readers inside perusing titles on a table or upon a shelf.

For an American visitor the bookstores of Paris intrigue by the lasting trust in paper to which they testify. In the large Gilbert Jeune on the Boulevard Saint-Michel or in one of the compact librairies on the nearby rue Racine, individuals approach each new text, open it, test its potential for engaging them.

Where do they go then, those readers who carry a volume to la caisse? They pay for the adventure of taking the book home. They foresee wanting its pages to make a claim on the finite number of hours left free from work commitments and family duties and online diversions. They may know in advance the room in which the book will likely stay, the table on which it will await its reading, the shelf on which it may eventually win a spot.

But, no, where do those readers go? Where do they go if they opt for a text that is more than light diversion? Suppose the new translation of a play by Sophocles is the text they purchase. Or something by George Eliot. Or Flaubert or Gide. Where do they go if they choose to suffer the honesty of one of those classic tales of an individual hitting a wall in his life? What illness, what heartbreak, what termination of employment provides the subtext for that purchase made by someone calmly dressed but sober before her evening journey home?

Those of us who keep bringing books into our own homes, lining them on our shelves, stacking them beside bedside tables, where do we reveal ourselves willing to go?

And the people who visit us and who see the rows and piles of books, what might they suspect about the hopes amid which we live and the questions we seek to absorb into our lives?

If we saw those people in a Paris bookstore on a late October afternoon, would we suspect what illness, what heartbreak, what interruption of life might recently have become their own new story?