Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sunday Reading

Not every Sunday afternoon lies as wide open as this one.

I made an effort to keep it that way as Marc and I discussed our last Sunday of the year.

As a result I have the chance to steep myself in a good author’s writing for the next couple of hours. How wonderful to watch an author like Anne Enright craft her thoughts! How she thinks out the world of her characters is the thing I have most enjoyed in my steady progress through The Gathering, her novel that won this year’s Booker Prize. I do not share her Irish identity nor know her Irish landscape intimately, but this is an author who lets me inside, and I feel welcomed there.

It may be apparent that I also have the chance this afternoon to write. And if I write, I have an eye for my potential reader – you. Sometimes a reader considers the things I say and write, she mulls over them, in a comment she may acknowledge where they make sense to her and where she needs clarification – most importantly, she communicates that what I am saying matters to her. She takes it seriously. She takes me seriously. When someone does that for another, there grows a bond that may not be taken lightly.

Have you noticed how something comforting happens when we open a package of books that arrives in the mail? New or old, the books are each the promise of a conversation that will begin when we set aside time to take an author seriously. The words with which each author formulated his or her thoughts, maybe on a quiet Sunday afternoon much like this one, are the offer to be a partner in a conversation. No one else may ever know what that conversation sounds like or means. A few of us enjoy talking and writing about our reading, but most of our reading remains completely private, almost intimately silent. That bond I mentioned earlier? It shows up in those hours of reading the words of someone we may not ever meet in the flesh.

I realize afresh that the chance to talk at length, in depth, as friends is something by which I set store. Two people at the ends of a sofa, facing one another, legs tucked under us, all of it in the service of a conversation, our minds meetings, our eyes catching how the other responds, when and whether he smiles, how he gets quiet when a consideration hits home and he covers his mouth with his hand, maybe looks away for a second, then looks back at the other, hand still on his lips, until he moves his hand over and makes contact.

Image from Powells Books

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Thirty-five years ago tonight, I got a phone call that my best friend from high school had died in an automobile accident earlier that day.

That evening I spoke with Ted’s mother, his father, his sister and his brother. They each took their turn on the line, each with a different wish, request, memory, reassurance sent in my direction. No one of them took the easy route of leaving this call to the others.

For a considerable number of years, I could not imagine living through a December 27 without memories surfacing through the day – memories of sitting in a darkened phone booth that first evening with the news, memories of reading a scripture passage at the service in the funeral parlor, memories of helping roll Ted’s casket across the marble floors of a New Orleans mausoleum.

What started out being unimaginable, of course, sooner or later occurred with regularity. The week after Christmas became a busy time with my aging parents, in alternate years a busy time with Marc’s family in Pennsylvania. There were traditions for Marc and me to start as a couple, responsibilities for us to carry out, often enough travel home to New England to plan for the following day.

With the passage of time my parents sent me clippings from the New Orleans newspapers containing the obituaries of Ted’s mother, his father, even his brother. Only his sister survives, and when December 27 comes around I think about calling her, but the route to finding her home phone can appear daunting and in a way even intrusive after all these years. I know, however, that she would welcome the call, and so my resolution to reach her somehow gets strengthened with this writing.

And, of course, I ask myself on a December 27 like today: what would twenty-year-old Ted make of John in his fifties?

For that matter, what does John in his fifties make of John and Ted there at the end of their teens, finding their friendship turned unexpectedly into a silence and an absence?

Even now, I realize, long stretches of quiet or idleness the week after Christmas can find me uneasy – as though other disappearances might be about to mark my life. Writing and exchanging Christmas cards has about it something of the flavor of signing pacts and agreements that there will be another opportunity twelve months down the line to do just this again with these same friends and family.

Ted might smile lovingly at such an imagining.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

From Our Library Window

1 consolamini consolamini populus meus dicit Deus vester 2 loquimini ad cor Hierusalem et avocate eam quoniam conpleta est malitia eius dimissa est iniquitas illius suscepit de manu Domini duplicia pro omnibus peccatis suis
3 vox clamantis in deserto parate viam Domini rectas facite in solitudine semitas Dei nostri 4 omnis vallis exaltabitur et omnis mons et collis humiliabitur et erunt prava in directa et aspera in vias planas 5 et revelabitur gloria Domini et videbit omnis caro pariter quod os Domini locutum est (Isaias 40)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Time Away

There is something I have learned about daily life over the years. It has to do with the benefit of occasionally removing myself from its places and faces and routines.

This season of Advent I have regularly done something I first did in my twenties. A student in seminary, I used to set aside an hour a day for some form of private prayer or meditation. The habit of dedicating part of my daily life to a conscious stepping away from daily life has proven a valuable legacy from those long-ago years.

Sometimes now in an armchair in the little room at home that we call our library, sometimes on a couch in the living room near Marc, I sit with a book of psalms and readings in the evening. The mood quiets around me, and I start reading, start thinking, start easing my way into a space inside.

Sometimes it happens that a phrase or line starts running through my head. The words start to take on meaning, sometimes communicating a reassurance that I hadn’t known I needed. I have gotten into a habit in the past couple of weeks of writing down those words, those sayings, and inserting them on pieces of paper into the book of prayers.

I choose this kind of departure from the places and faces and routines of my daily life, but a few weeks back I found circumstances beyond my control removing me from them.

The onset of symptoms about which my cardiologist had recently cautioned me prompted a 911 phone call in the middle of a workday. Although I was in no painful discomfort, within five minutes medics were in my office, asking me questions, taking my blood pressure, giving me aspirin tablets to chew. I was cooperative and frankly grateful but also stunned to see this space that for years had been the setting of my daily routines suddenly become other people’s work space. Before I could think of protesting, I was directed onto a gurney and rolled down a hall past the open doorways of my workday world.

The familiar face of Marc accompanied me through most of the next two days in the hospital. I counted on that mainstay of my daily life to prevent the progression of tests and procedures from redefining me.

In the middle of my second and final night in the hospital, I did something that surprised me. I called my office line at work. I lay there in the dark listening to one voice mail after another from the past week, messages I hadn’t yet deleted. My intention was not to find out what may have happened in my absence; I just thought it would be soothing to hear Marc’s voice and the voices of colleagues and friends with their everyday news and everyday reminders and everyday questions. For a few minutes I was John again.

At the end of January I am planning on making another departure from the places and faces and routines of my daily life. The plan is to settle for a weekend into a peaceful retreat routine focused on the order of services in a monastic community north of Boston. In a way that may balance my two days in a hospital in November, I will spend two days away, learning to listen as the mood quiets around me, and I will consider reading, thinking, easing my way into a space inside.

The time away and the space may succeed in communicating a reassurance that I hadn’t known I needed.

Photo from keithv

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Red Amaryllis

Each year my colleagues at work pick names for a gift exchange. An initial gift, presented anonymously, customarily includes something personally made by the giver. My week was brightened by a poem on the beautiful red amaryllis that will blossom a few weeks from now -- when I have potted the bulb that accompanied these (I hope! I hope!) prescient lines.

Rising resolutely despite the dwindling daylight and sounding silent
Reveille, the red amaryllis,
Regal in her ruby-hued robe,
Rebuffs winter’s withering embrace.

Radiant, it refuses to don reason’s dreary pall. Irrationality trumps timid
Rule-sticking. The red amaryllis,
Resplendent in raiment reminiscent of summer’s revelry,
Rejects the inevitability of despair.

“Remember the lilies of the field?” it seems to say. Hope quickens.
Revived by the red amaryllis,
Reverence reappears to remind us of

Photo of a red amaryllis from sepintx

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Young Mr. Lincoln

Marc and I watched John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln this week. No, not typical holiday fare, but a surprisingly engaging watch. The scene below boasts the requisite snow, though, together with a frankly sentimental touch applied to the lanky young Abe.

I come from a generation of American school children who regularly saw a silhouette of Abraham Lincoln pinned to classroom bulletin boards around his February 12 birthday. It is just possible that my Southern upbringing inured me a bit to Lincoln's mythic lure. Young Henry Fonda, on the other hand, warmed me to the idea of adding to my 2008 reading list a biography of our Civil War President.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

First December Snow

The snows kept falling.

Across the country for the past few days of this first winter storm, men and women stood outside with shovels for hours at a time, their pores opening and soaking their shirts with each foot of driveway cleared, each sidewalk made somewhat passable again.

I even picture these people under the stars, their hearts opening to the cold and the effort and the faith that someone inside cares for them and thinks of them and wants them happy and deeply content with this strange journey we all are on.

Some part of me wants to know what happened in each of their hearts when they looked up into the cold night sky.

Two months ago I began collecting vintage photographs of landscapes with snow. I understood what makes such transfigured landscapes appealing scenes for a professional photographer. I was intrigued, however, by the mental image of someone like you or me leaving a warm house and deliberately taking a camera out into the cold, for a few minutes intent on catching on film a friend, a spouse, a child, a group of workers, a view down a familiar road or street.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Secret Annex

On a bookshelf in my office at work is a volume that I inscribed forty years ago with my name followed by the year I had bought it – 1967. No book in my office and few books at home have been in my possession longer. Entitled A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults and translated from a 1966 Dutch-language original, the book served as a textbook in the religion course taught by a teacher of mine in high school.

Catechisms of any sort are not ordinarily absorbing reading, so it is a strange item on which to focus my attention these last days of November. What’s the pull? The original red and white dust jacket is still folded and tucked inside the back cover. Reading the summary on the front and back flaps of the jacket recalls for me the hopes that that book probably raised in my religion teachers two years after the close of Vatican II. Reading the publicist’s text of forty years ago suggests reasons I would have held on to the book for so long:

The greatest overall achievement of the Second Vatican Council was its conscious proclamation of the fact that Christianity is an adult religion, and therefore a way of life that can be adequately understood and lived by those who have “come of age.”

Had my classmates and I sufficiently “come of age” by 1967 so that a religion teacher could think the Dutch Catechism – as it was popularly called – was just the thing for his class with us? What business had I reading about “an adult religion” in a text originally commissioned by the Roman Catholic bishops of the Netherlands? For that matter, what did I know about Holland – beyond what I may have absorbed as a younger reader immersed in yearly re-reads of Anne Frank's diary?

It is the child who leads a submissive, compliant existence sheltered against the dangers that lurk outside the circle of his own family. But Council teachings have understood that this is not where the modern Christian dwells.

In 1967 I was still a year away from the first car-trip I would make with my family to New England and to Boston to visit my oldest brother Martin. Parts of Boston and Cambridge, all red-brick townhouses and lamp-lit bookstores, would recall for me the Dutch capital of Amsterdam as I had grown to imagine it from library research for book reports about Anne Frank and her family. An intellectual and cultural landscape was opening up for me the more I read. At age 17, I had generally known no more reliable escape from the emotional confinement of home life than the books I was borrowing from the local library as well as my school library.

A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults, the authorized English language edition of the “Dutch Catechism,” is written to speak to this modern Christian. It regards him as a responsible, self-directed being whose questioning of the very purpose of existence is a natural activity, and whose reactions to the world around him reflect its complexity.

My brother Martin had already been a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for five years by the time my family visited him in Boston. His Christmas gifts to me each year had been purchased in the bookstores of Cambridge and packed in his suitcase for the flights home to New Orleans. One year it was a new biography of my favorite Southern author Thomas Wolfe; another year Ted Sorensen’s Kennedy; still another year Cassell’s Latin-English Dictionary and companion editions of Edith Hamilton’s Greek Way and Roman Way. The books he bought me were among the first gifts that I ever received that felt intended for me, selected on purpose because of what someone knew about me and not simply because they were what seemed suitable or – worse yet – useful for a growing boy my age.

In short, man is taken as he is found in the world – as he experiences his life, his faith, and his doubts – and he is presented with God’s kingdom and the invitation to be a responsible, participating believer, a believer who, in the words of Paul, has “set aside the things of childhood.”

I guess no one at the time knew exactly how much I longed to set aside the things of my childhood and why. What no person, what no book was telling me directly or allowing me to admit was that it could be hard to be a child in that household. From the oldest brother who had already escaped our New Orleans household, weekly letters to the family had communicated something vivid to me about days lived in independence and intellectual adventure and confident choice.

A gay man in his fifties living with a man he loves, I am living out what I glimpsed long ago could be a religious tradition that acknowledges the adult I am. The mystery of life is no less amazing, no less puzzling, no less wonderful than it appeared forty years ago.

I hope it stays that way.

Photo of Amsterdam Canals from Saint Mary's

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Surprises on the Half Shell

One Saturday evening earlier this fall Marc and I were standing beside a platter heaped with crushed ice on which nestled over two dozen oysters on the half shell. It was a surprise birthday party organized by a younger colleague of mine for his partner, and the catering team had been diligently shucking oysters to keep this platter replenished. It was a delightful and unexpected luxury amid all the other appetizers that passed among the guests as we waited the arrival of the birthday couple from a nearby restaurant.

I had a martini in hand, Tanquerey with olives, and Marc was enjoying a deep glass of Sauvignon Blanc. We were delightfully enmeshed in a conversation on books with a friend in the publishing business, a man over twenty years our junior, the husband of a former student of mine. The book conversation is a regular occurrence whenever we run into Drew, and the enthusiasm with which we three booklovers run through titles and authors and editions can momentarily distract us from platters of oysters and trays of finger food.

“Only you would talk about bestsellers in the nineteenth century!” Drew addressed me in good-natured amazement after I spoke about a summertime purchase of my third copy of John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Snow-Bound.” None of these editions has been an expensive purchase, but each has taken me back to the experience of reading the opening lines of the poem in my American literature textbook in junior year of high school. A stranger to snow and to the cold that could produce snow, I had read Whittier in my humid New Orleans classroom with wonder:

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.

Composed in 1865, “Snow-Bound” had made Whittier’s career. Printings abounded in the decades that followed its first appearance. It seems eventually to have become a standard as a prize book at school graduations and as a gift book for teachers. The vintage copies – each less than fifty pages – that I have purchased are all inscribed.

A Southerner transplanted to New England, I was intrigued this summer to learn from the website of Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, Massachusetts, that special commemorations were scheduled this December in honor of the 200th birthday of the poet. Something called a “Snow-Bound Weekend” was advertised for the first weekend of the month. I toyed with the idea of talking to Marc and getting to Haverhill for some part of the celebration until I read a description online about the historic homestead:

Snow-Bound Weekend is a dramatic re-creation of life in early 19th century Haverhill, as depicted in John Greenleaf Whittier’s famous poem, “Snow-Bound.” Experience the warmth emanating from the poet’s own farmhouse hearth and savor the scent of apples roasting by the fire. Watch the snow-bound Quaker family and friends, in full period dress, play the scenes from the famous poem. Enjoy some hot apple cider as you listen to music and poetry, all in the warmth of the shoe shop. Outside, the whole family will enjoy a sleigh/hay ride, and view the farm animals. The gift shop will be open for you to make your holiday selections.

The description of the event sent a disappointing chill through me. I was not ready, I realized, to share with so many revelers and play-actors my first visit to the site of some of my earliest New England images. I didn’t need holiday merrymaking – I wanted stark lines, I wanted the simplicity that Whittier himself had tried to capture in his poem.

With the passage of years I have returned to “Snow-Bound” and discovered that the poem is more about that very passage of years than it is about a snowstorm:

O Time and Change! -- with hair as gray
As was my sire's that winter day,
How strange it seems, with so much gone
Of life and love, to still live on!

Marc and I looked around us at one point early that evening of the birthday party. Threading my fingers through his, I commented to Marc that we were likely the oldest people on the guest list. The realization was a brief one as we put down our glasses to drizzle more fresh lemon over the oysters and dip the pearly meat into the mignonette. The tang of vinegary shallots was a treat on our tongues.

We soon got the signal to join Drew and his wife and the other guests and raise the ritual chorus of “Surprise!”

We did so con brio.

Photo of Tomales Bay oysters from LA Times

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Listening to Charles Trenet

The season is almost upon us when the best music is old music. I have a handful of phonograph albums that I will play on a venerable turntable when the weather is cold enough and the evenings are dark enough. A friend's recent mention of classic French vocalist Charles Trenet led me to this beautiful scene of record playing from the 1943 movie "La Cavalcade des heures":

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Back Home

I had an unexpected hospitalization this past week. Except for the two nights, each spent in a different hospital, Marc was by my side almost continuously. I returned home tired but basically fine after the various procedures. A friend sent an arrangement of flowers to the house to aid in my return to home routines. They were a welcome and beautiful help. Thank you, friends.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Roles on Thanksgiving Day

There are roles to play on Thanksgiving Day; there are themes to invoke.

Unlike Marc, my role has never been that of the Thanksgiving cook. Mine has never been what I imagine as the master chef’s combination of well-timed fatigue and satisfaction on that afternoon. I have not been the kitchen genie whose menu has metamorphosed over a week of shopping and chopping and whipping and basting into the festive meal served before a table of waiting guests.

On the other hand, I have set Thanksgiving tables, folded napkins, arranged serving spoons, rinsed and dried wine glasses, dragged chairs from neighboring rooms to accommodate an ambitious guest list.

Likewise, I have stood by the Thanksgiving sink, diluting into insignificance the smears of cranberry sauce and giblet gravy, scalding my hands in hot rinse water, emptying sinks of suds and filling them again for the arrival of roasting pan and encrusted casserole dish and oversized serving platter.

What other role there is for me to claim does not figure in much of the Thanksgiving literature that I have read.

I simply watch through windows.

In the midst of laying out knives and spoons to the right of each plate, I can watch the trees outside a dining room window, the evergreen branches alert in the noonday sun. Above the heads of guests engaged in cocktails and conversation, I watch through sliding doors and catch the sudden shadow of a bird taking off from a leaf-strewn backyard. Returning inside after goodbyes in the driveway, I can stand by a living room window and watch red rear lights move ever deeper into the chill and dark of the November night.

No one else knows each Thanksgiving whether I have filled this particular role or not.

No one should if I have done it well.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Barberry in Our Backyard

“A landscape now wholly autumnal,”
Hawthorne wrote in his journal, and perhaps
he noticed the way now means then
as soon as it’s written down,

the way remembering conceals invention,
or tries to. Idea for a tale:
a man, composing a story, finds
it shaping itself against his intentions.

The characters act otherwise
than he planned. Unforeseen events occur.
Hawthorne paused. Above the village,
clouds were being carried off by the wind.

In a story, he thought, what a man observes
might shadow forth his fate:
wild roses, barberry, Indian corn.
The down of thistles flying through the air.

From "Hawthorne on His Way Home" by Lawrence Raab

Click photo to get into our backyard.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Poem Written This Evening

It is not often that I write poetry that I am willing to share. I can be shy about the results. Sitting later than usual at my office desk, I have woven some words -- again and again -- to catch some of the flavor of this peaceful evening. The photograph is one I took a month ago inside the writing cabin of American naturalist Edwin Way Teale. No, the window in this photograph does not look onto the night, but the desk is wooden.

Safe evenings, true nights,
The syllables of the heart,
A lit lamp on a wooden table,
Windows onto the night.

Windows into a heart,
An evening safe for the pen and paper,
The syllables of the night,
A table lit by a wooden lamp.

The wooden syllables of the table,
The evening paper, the nighttime lamp,
A pen lit by the heart,
True windows, safe nights.

Lamp onto the heart,
A table without pen or paper,
Safe syllables, true nights,
Wooden window open --

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Letters from Oxford

There was a point a couple of weeks back when I was planning a midweek trip to New York. Had the plans worked out, I would have dragged myself through a day's work tasks after a nighttime bus ride back from The City. The impetus for considering a trip came from a New York Times review of an off-Broadway production of Stephen Massicotte's The Oxford Roof Climber's Rebellion. The last performances at Urban Stages are scheduled for the next few days. The production is slated to close November 18.

What got me to order a copy of the play from Amazon? Partly the New York Times review. Partly the suggestion of a strong personal attraction moving charismatic T. E. Lawrence and poet Robert Graves across the Georgian landscapes of Oxford. Partly the lure of a theater evening in New York smack in the middle of a work week. Partly the flavor of a wild escapade -- reminiscent of younger days -- involving a hasty and a relatively carefree and a strategically car-free trip to the Big Apple.

And partly the photograph accompanying the newspaper review in which the red-haired knee of Dylan Chalfy, the actor portraying T. E. Lawrence, rises center stage.

The script of the play is a good read. I look forward some day to seeing the 95-minute production -- maybe on another stage, maybe on a movie screen, maybe on television in a few years.

The Oxford setting recalls for me the first letters I had the chance to write to Marc over twenty years ago. Three months after first meeting him, I was participating in a three-week course at Christ Church in Oxford. Re-reading some of the letters I wrote him recalls for me a younger Marc, a younger John, a younger set of hopes and resolutions.

Some impressions of that earlier Oxford rise up like ghosts from those letters.

The tall white lilies that grew in one of the college gardens.

The weather that changed so frequently during the day.

The towpath along the Thames where some of us walked one Sunday afternoon.

The perennial possibility of an appearance by Iris Murdoch at our tutorial on the twentieth-century British novel.

The bedside shrine of Marc photographs in my dorm room.

Photo from Urban Stages in The New York Times

Monday, November 12, 2007

Stunned by a Paragraph I

From Hawthorne: A Life by Brenda Wineapple

With an insight so fine it bordered on the voluptuous, he crafted a style of exquisite ambiguity, of uncompromising passion and stubborn skepticism. Yet his characters are often curiously static, poised between self-knowledge and indifference and, like Hawthorne himself, confounded by what and who they are. For Hawthorne was a man of dignity, of mordant wit, of malicious anger; a man of depression and control; a forthright and candid man aching to confess but too proud, too obstinate, too ashamed to do so; a man of disclosure and disguise, both at once, keen, cynical, intelligent, who digs into his imagination to write of American men and women: isolated in their communities, burdened by their history, riven by their sense of crime and their perpetual, befuddled innocence; people ambitious and vain and displaced and willing, or perhaps forced, to live a double life, a secret life, an exemplary life, haunted and imprisoned, even as his children were – or, in Hawthorne’s terms, as are we all.

Photo of Cephas Thompson's Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne courtesy of Northern Illinois UP

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Floodlight on the Side of the House

Once a year I open a window in our second-floor guest bedroom and change the bulb for the floodlight on the side of our house.

Seven times now since we moved into this house, I’ve had to lift the screen on that tall, narrow window, hang out over the sill and reach for the bulb that has burnt out. The floodlight is not directly under the bedroom window so unscrewing the used bulb requires a stretch off to the right. I then have the use of only one hand to grip the wide end of the bulb, unscrew it and keep a hold on it at the same time, and then slide it out of the fixture attached to the brick wall of the house.

Inserting the new bulb requires the same procedures in reverse – still with only one hand while I use the other to secure myself by the window sill.

It is a strange feeling to have half of me outside a second-floor window looking down at the walkway along that side of our house and then to look out at the upper halves of the neighboring trees. None of the usual perspectives are there to ground me and steady me. I am surely an odd sight high in the wall to anyone who might be passing on the sidewalk or even in a car – like something out of a medieval miniature.

If the perspectives available to me from that window are not usual, neither are they unwelcome. They are a little breathtaking, in fact. I manage to keep a grip – literally and figuratively. I get my task done and all returns to normal in a few minutes, but during that minute or two I am precariously poised. It is a precariousness from which I derive a yearly assurance that I am still capable of these physical stretches, still capable of balance in slightly unusual circumstances.

My reward is for about twelve months of evenings to be able to enjoy a view from the first-floor windows of our library. During these weeks of New England autumn I get to watch brightly lit green leaves turn to brightly etched red and gold. During winter snow storms I can sit in an overstuffed chair in our library with the lamps off and sink into reverie at the sight of thick wet flakes steadily showering through the floodlight’s illumination. Some sleepless nights find me standing in robe and pajamas before a view of the bare branches of the trees near our house.

Let it go on the record that Marc does not share the excitement that the floodlight’s effects can produce in me. He listens to my occasional rhapsodies about the leaves, the branches, the rain drops, the glow with which one year-long bulb quietly and steadily outlines the nighttime scene outside the windows. He can even laugh good-naturedly at the news that I am writing a post about our floodlight.

I am still eager for the nightly show, though. I will probably walk through the library tonight when our dinner guests have left and I will turn off the lamps as we shut the house down at bedtime and I will register that the freshly replaced bulb is doing its job.

I just like it.

Photo uploaded on Flickr by frasierspeirs

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Flannel Sheets and Oil of Cedar

This Saturday morning Marc and I took the air-conditioner out of our bedroom window.

The season has officially changed in our New England home.

One of our loads of laundry today was a set of flannel sheets that has been stored in the hallway linen closet for the past six months. Some years we have put the sheets right on our bed without a re-washing and regretted our haste when a musty smell snuck up from our pillowcases at bedtime. This evening we will be able to turn down the covers and, I suspect, register audible satisfaction at the fresh smell and textures and warmth awaiting us.

Another November treat came today when I unwrapped a new bar of soap called “Snow on Cedars.” Marc and I had been walking through a Pennsylvania country market this summer when a vendor’s stand with handmade soaps stopped us. The range of bars – the layers of colors in each bar – the aggressive wildness of some of the natural scents displayed in that open-air stand delighted me. I bought two different bars, one of them a rich, sullen green topped by a layer of snowy cream. Called “Snow on Cedars,” it held a surprise in store for me when I eventually got it home.

In the shower one morning shortly afterwards, I raised a washcloth to my face and passed the lather from the bar of green soap across my forehead. Surrounded by dense steam and hot water, I was suddenly inhaling the oil of cedar that was a key ingredient of this homemade soap. I was carried instantly to my parents’ home when I was growing up. I was again opening the cedar chest where all our winter blankets used to be stored during the long humid New Orleans summers.
The prickly textures of the woolen blankets, the acrid scent of the cedar boards lining the chest used to bear up to me the yearly message of winter – that rarest of seasons in the Deep South.

Today there was a repeat of that first morning’s experience with “Snow on Cedars.” We are not yet near snow this year in New England, but I have been conscious of marking a turn in the year with this Saturday’s rituals.

A fire in the fireplace tonight? It fits our New England home, our New England mood, our New England lives together.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Altered Books... More Than Words

I am still timid about the idea of altering a book, still timid about taking a published volume and wielding scissors and water colors and glue and producing an object whose message extends beyond the words originally intended for its pages.

I am taking cautious steps in my exploration of this art form.

It helps to have a friend like Maryanne to whom, as a fellow reader, this art form also appeals on so many levels. Her birthday this past year seemed the perfect occasion to launch a first effort.

What I determined that I would "alter" for Maryanne's birthday was a visitor's guide to a church in France. I had bought two copies of that handsome guide, one to help me remember what I had seen that day this past spring when I first walked into this beautiful building in a small French city with sturdy medieval roots, one to give to Maryanne -- in one form or another -- as a tribute to her ability to appreciate this sort of church and this sort of book and this sort of friend.

As her birthday approached, I returned to a poem that Maryanne had written almost twenty years ago and that she may have thought that no one remembered. A ten-line poem based on the letter "M," the poem had been Maryanne's attempt at the start of a work year to speak a word of truth to herself, to her colleagues, to her friends. I printed the text of her poem, one line per half page on white card stock, each line against the background of a watermark of the letter "M."

Working with old-fashioned photo corners, I affixed each line of her poem to a different page of the visitor's guide. The final product, a creative take on a scrapbook, delighted Maryanne. What had originally been bought as a tribute to the sophistication of her ecclesial self-understanding metamorphosed into a tribute to her aesthetic sense. She had little idea that anyone still knew where that early poetic effort of hers had lain hidden over the years. She clearly appeciated the nod to her history, to her identity, to her journey with friends into ever more fresh, ever more complex claims on a religious tradition.

I love Maryanne. I love what in her inspires me and other friends to such an effort. I love what generosity in her welcomes those efforts into her heart and into her history.

If I alter other books in the months and years ahead, I will take courage and energy from this first effort. I hope in time to claim my own history as a landscape on which the pages of earlier volumes can be led creatively to comment and passionately to reflect.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Re-reading "On Losing a House" by Mary Oliver

I lost it.

Like someone tired from searching for a misplaced photograph or an early journal, I am testing out the words – “I lost it.”

With my previous blog I had a way that I was taking photographs of my life with Marc. I had a way that I was keeping a journal of my days. And I lost it.

For a week the situation felt like finding out that someone had been using information from bank cards I didn’t realize were no longer safe in my wallet. The only thing was to cancel the cards and start fresh.

What I didn’t realize was how long someone had been intent on taking what I wrote and using it to undermine, to hurt, to trap.

I don’t know when the loss will settle into the final contours that narration and memory can give it. I frankly don’t know if this is too early to write about it. I do know that sentences have been forming in my mind this past week. I think I know how to plot it, how to pace it – a first record of this loss. I think I hear familiar rhythms as the paragraphs unfold.

I have salvaged what I could. What got lost is a particular place for reflection that people got used to visiting. What got lost is a particular place where I could re-read what I had written months earlier and relive the feel of those days.

Yesterday I re-read Mary Oliver’s poem “On Losing a House.” It helped me realize that what got lost is a home.

Goodbye, house.
Goodbye, sweet and beautiful house,
we shouted, and it shouted back,
goodbye to you, and lifted itself
down from the town, and set off
like a packet of clouds across
the harbor's blue ring.
the tossing bell, the sandy point -- and turned
lightly, wordlessly,
into the keep of the wind
where it floats still --
where it plunges and rises still
on the black and dreamy sea.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Writing Cabin

Can the autumn leaves of New England be captured by black and white photography? It was an issue for naturalists like Edwin Way Teale who saw their writing published in the years before color photographs appeared regularly in books and magazines.

I recently spoke with a work colleague who helped me recall that turning point in the early 1960's when color plates began to be common features in newly published books. My early visits to the local library had provided me with a chance to handle such books on the New Acquisitions cart. For a considerable amount of time, however, my book pleasure was still derived from black print on white pages, occasionally enlivened by the earnest efforts of illustrators and playful typographers.

My image of the writers themselves came from the dust jackets of their books. Smiling up at a camera from behind their typewriter, they looked unlike my parents or my aunts and uncles. They looked like adults who thought about their lives, who probably spoke about them around a dining room table in the evening, and who took pleasure in writing about them. They looked like adults who might be willing to take an interest in my life if they ever learned that I had taken a reader’s interest in theirs.

When Marc and I visited the 200-year-old farm house once owned by Edwin Way Teale, we spent time in his study, kept by his wife Nellie exactly as it had been when he died in 1980. The walls of bookcases, the solid desk, the rocker by the fireplace all bespoke a delight in the life of the mind, the life of words, the steady rhythms of observation and reflection. We later took pictures of the rustic writing cabin he had built by a pond on his property.

When you acknowledge the role writing plays in your life in the way that Teale did, you dare to dream. He and his wife bought their Connecticut farm house when they were turning sixty. It was their intention to concentrate their observations as naturalists, to become acquainted with this particular plot of land over the years ahead of them, to create a record of a place on this earth where they would live their days’ beginnings and their nights’ ends – together.

I’m getting ideas.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Reading "The Florist’s Daughter" by Patricia Hampl

By the end of nine days visiting with my 88-year-old mother, I was gasping for a sense of self, for ease and patience, for perspective and any other form of self-protection that I could find. It was a sense of humor that I most needed to regain and to revive, the surest strategy for being able to present to my brothers and to other members of my family a real me when they asked about my mother and the visit.

Near the end of that summer week in 2002 I realized that basically I was just tired – tired of adjusting to another household, another schedule, another horizon of expectations and topics and entertainments and foods. I missed my cats and their neighborly accommodations to a human companion and provider. I had brought with me a remnant of the shower gel that I used at home, providing a sensory reminder every morning of the kinds of things I ordinarily like and do when the choice is mine, a reminder of the me that I tend to cultivate in my adult life at home. I ordinarily seek a certain amount of solitude even in a committed relationship with all its rhythms and pleasures and compromises and plans; the solitude available in my parents’ home in New Orleans that summer – grabbed and protected by silences and creative privacies – was a hard-won thing. The renewal of gratitude and generosity that daily prayer could sometimes afford at home seemed limited in this particular family setting.

I wished during that week five years ago – a week in what would be my mother’s last summer – that I had understood more clearly the kind of companionship that she needed. Maybe I used to make that companionship sound more difficult than it was because I was so sure of being unable to provide it. A better son or daughter would have eased those days with a mother nearing ninety, would have lavished attention and patient understanding and somehow would have helped awaken gratitude and generosity to make those days and weeks for her a welcome time of summing up.

But even then I suspected the oversimplification that was turning my thoughts askew. I was forgetting what must be the hard work of nearing ninety, of adjusting to a vastly different horizon of expectations and entertainments and even foods. No one is automatically good at the work of approaching the final years of one’s life. Serenity may come but it may not. The struggle it is may be clear to others but it may not. Even the best intentions of sons and daughters may not prepare them to let be what they see of a parent’s accommodation of the latest changes in a long life.

And no one has to be good at that accommodation. Being good at it is not a requirement or a moral imperative.

Just as no one has to be good at being a companion to an aging parent. It may happen. But it may be somewhat out of our control. It can be a goal, a hope, a prayer, but being a good companion to anyone is so much a grace.

As the month of my mother’s birthday approaches, I am reading the first chapters of Patricia Hampl’s recently published memoir of her mother, The Florist’s Daughter. What I was not there in New Orleans to do for my own mother on her last day, I am able to imagine as the author describes sitting by the side of her mother’s hospital bed, holding her mother’s hand in one of hers, and writing with the other about the woman whose imminent departure would leave Ms. Hampl “nobody’s daughter.”

When really do we become “nobody’s daughter,” though, or “nobody’s son”?

It hasn’t happened to me yet.

Nor is it likely to happen as long as November comes along each year.