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.