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.