Saturday, December 20, 2008

Celebrating Christmas 2008

I do not know if I will do it right.

I do not know if I will do this week approaching Christmas right.

In years to come, will I always think of “celebrating Christmas 2008” as a phrase that requires mental quotation marks? Will celebrating seem a tricky word for a process of adapting day by day to a different emotional landscape from which to view the approach of the great festal event?

It hits me in the waiting times – waiting for a lunch companion, waiting for a bus. Late yesterday afternoon, I stood by myself at a bus stop where five major roads would normally be teeming with traffic at that hour. Instead, only occasional ploughs and sanders crisscrossed the area in the midst of a snow event that was significant but foreseen early and forecast accurately. No one who did not need to be out on the roads was out.

It was actually calm although the air about me with its windblown snow was growing darker and darker. Across the road someone was waiting for a bus travelling in the opposite direction, but I could not make out much about the person in her long winter coat and hood – neither her age nor her mood as the wait continued for both of us. I was only a twenty-minute walk from home, but I had opted for the bus ride to avoid the effort of planting boots in all those blocks of uncleared sidewalks.

I was tired but I was in good spirits after lunch with a friend. He and I had arranged to meet when the snow forecasts signaled an earlier than usual let-out for many of the city’s workers. It was a comfortable time to claim four hours of a waiter’s attention in a popular restaurant. We would not get to toast one another’s Christmas any closer to the actual day, so we sank into long and earnest conversation, treated ourselves to oysters, unwrapped what I kept referring to as a “gewgaw or two” with which we showed what we remembered about the other person’s interests and history.

So I should have been fortified to face the half-hour wait for the bus. I had taken care of myself. I had shared time with a thoughtful, dependable friend who was ready and eager for the kind of conversation I love. We had talked dreams and asked questions and heartily laughed over the inevitabilities of our lives.

The bus arrived that was travelling in the opposite direction from the one I wanted, and my lone company at that snowy intersection boarded the well-lit coach. The bus started again and moved into the darkness of one of the five roads. Soon I was back by myself with the ploughs and sanders.

It was an intersection at which three churches stood, none of them now open. Snow swirled around the random steeples of this New England town center and smudged their outlines against the evening sky. It was a Matthew Arnold moment as the normal uncertainty with which any commuter awaits a bus scheduled for every half hour turned into an awareness of standing by myself – in more ways than one – on that darkling suburban plain a week before Christmas.

What kind of waiting had I opted for?

What certainties had I foregone months earlier – familiar home, familiar companionship, familiar patterns – for… well, for what? For standing by myself? For waiting with no obvious one person to call should the waiting extend longer than expected? For watching the outlines of church and other familiar havens smudge as the hours went by?

I would have done well then to recall a moment five hours earlier when I had sat in a major city church in another part of town waiting for my lunch companion. I had arrived unaccountably early and with some pleasure entered a church that has always been a favorite. Up in the sanctuary two individuals were working to prepare the church for the greening later this weekend. After I texted my lunch friend about my location, I got to sit undisturbed in a pew and look up into the ceiling murals high above me. I was suddenly praying and admitting silently to God and to myself that this was a strange way for me and for other people I have known so well to be awaiting the arrival of Christmas.

I cried. I grew quiet. I stayed looking up even while I heard doors open somewhere behind me. Without needing to turn, I felt my friend enter the pew and take a place beside me. I knew from the kind of quiet that followed that he was praying too.

And with a quiet, snowy lurch my bus rounded the corner and pulled up in front of me.

I boarded, and I was heading home.

Photo of church ceiling uploaded on Flickr by innusa

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Advent Joy, Advent Waiting

The first morning in a home with a freshly decorated tree feels different.

Maybe it’s a visceral awareness that within your familiar walls there are now unfamiliar branches – the nearby presence of some organic mechanism still intent on surviving, even growing if it can, drinking in whatever water is nearby.

The day before was about leaving home in quest mode. It was a day aimed at locating and acquiring, making fit and making sure, a day of arriving back home with a longed-for prize. Years of instinct and example then came into play in deciding and arranging, illuminating and decking, occasionally venturing to say “No, this year why don’t we…”

The first morning in a home with a freshly decorated tree is exceptionally quiet after the previous day’s inevitable mulling and reverie. The freshly seeing and the freshly smelling. Memories stirring and sometimes tears needing to be quieted. Some unsuspected cycle is recalled with the installation of even the humblest of table top trees.

That was the case for me yesterday.

Against the backdrop of a bookcase, a tree brought the parts of my life into the orbit of its lights. An occasional brightness picked out book titles, enamel roses on a family vase, a hammered pewter frame.

Growing peace, growing contentment.

Yesterday was about surveying a job well done – conscientiously, earnestly done.

It was about the ancient call of Gaudete on this Third Sunday of Advent.

Advent joy in Advent waiting.

Image of firefly lantern from Firefly Forest

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Winterwise" and Zephine Humphrey

This week I begin the observance of an annual tradition. I take down from the bookshelf a 1927 copy of Winterwise by Zephine Humphrey and begin my yearly reading.

December 1st:

It is snowing today, and the mood of the world is hushed. The crests of the mountains are not to be seen, even their lower slopes climb vaguely into the shrouding mists; there is no sky at all.

When I first read those opening lines almost fifteen years ago in the aisle of a used book store in Boston’s Back Bay, I was smitten. The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop, now an online establishment, used to be located on a block of Newbury Street. It was standing in the shadow of its tall bookcases that I made my acquaintance with Zephine Humphrey, a Vermont writer whose books – long out of print – I would subsequently track down on other online sites and carry with me and pore over and savor in the years to come.

A Southerner happily transplanted to New England, I responded deeply to this journal of one particular winter in Vermont, a record full of musing and unabashed reverie:

Winter is the supreme season of reconciliation. Stripped and austere, the earth ceases from her long activity and gives herself to the repose which waits at the end of every cycle of growth. The naked trees are reconciled with the gray sky, the brown hills with the russet fields, and when the snow falls, as today, even the white houses are merged and lost.

Steeping myself afresh in the first ten pages of Winterwise can make me aware that the seeds of my own blog are recognizable in how Zephine records the flavors of her life with artist Wallace Weir Fahnestock. Zephine might be a guest blogger writing a post for Writing Cabin:

But it is in the evening that the living-room is at its best. Then, with a lamp and the fire lighted, Christopher in his big chair – Tommy on his knees, I in another which I share with Grizel, the daily paper disposed of, books and a pipe in action, the winter wind without, the wall-flower smelling very sweet – then the quintessence of home seems distilled for our beatification.

Home. What can people have in mind who do not prefer it to any other place? Home: one’s own life, one’s innermost, ultimate concern, the center from which alone one can radiate effectively and mean anything.

Maybe passages like that, the instincts that prompted the author to include just those details and feed a full range of the reader’s senses, first captured my attention and my eye and made me suspect a kindred spirit.

I want to travel some of December with Zephine Humphrey again this strange, new year. I intend to face the approach of winter in the company of her words and her moods.

And so I settle down to read.

As soon as I was clear of the house, swinging down the road with my hands in my pockets, I found that the day was not really dismal at all, only very solemn. The hills underneath the low-travelling clouds were dark gray and lavender, purple and brown, with a delicate brushing of silver frost on their tree-rough summits. They were not depressing – quite the contrary; but there was something stern and inexorable about them. The incredibly brief December day (I never remember from year to year how short a day can be) was already drawing in and dusk was preparing to claim the world. Winter dusk, of all earth moods the most mystical.

Image of "Snowfall" by Wallace Weir Fahnestock at AskArt

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Advent Wreath 2008

The month before Christmas is busy enough. Who in their right mind – to use one of my mother’s favorite expressions – adds an Advent wreath to the December to-do list? My mother balked one Christmas season when I insisted on finally lighting some candles that had been given her as a gift several years earlier. Candles were décor to her thinking, and I had just marred her setting of candles, intact wicks ready for a hostess to light before the arrival of her guests. It’s how Better Homes and Gardens must have instructed her.

The idea of an Advent wreath whose four tapers had to be lit every night for almost four weeks would have affronted my mother’s sense of home safety and economy and cleanliness. Let the sisters in the local parish school light as many candles as they wanted to, both in their convent chapel and in their classrooms. The well-heeled ladies of the parish who played the role of rectory groupies might boast of the family devotions they orchestrated in their houses as well. Matches were for lighting the gas heater in the bathroom wall of our New Orleans home and for jumpstarting the gas range when the pilot light went out.

I would have loved occasionally lighting a votive candle before the statue of the Blessed Mother on the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. The David and Ann series of grammar school readers used in my parochial school had an illustration of a frightened child waking up in the darkness of her bedroom; through the open door, however, she can glimpse her parents saying the evening rosary, standing before a home shrine with its statue and votive lights.

I knew I would not be able to talk about that picture to my parents or to my brothers. Despite the devout upbringing we all received, the idea of a family devotion that might aid family communication in ordinary times of difficulty and stress was a foreign one.

So I was drawn to it even more.

A home with religious devotion as a way to feel close to the other members of your family must happen somewhere. A home where people talk about the hopes for their lives could not be impossible – a home where the mystery of our individual lives and the decision to confront that mystery together in the presence of God could be a reality.

Deep down I had hoped for that kind of home when I entered religious life in my early twenties.

The hunger for other aspects of home life, however, made it difficult for me ultimately to feel “at home” with the vows and the kind of community they created.

Last Saturday evening I had an experience that reminded me of what I had wanted during some of those early Decembers of my life. I had a friend who went with me to the Christmas tree lot a mile from home and picked out a wreath with me for my kitchen table. Then I drove with him to the nearby Whole Foods and purchased four clear-glass votive holders.

The remarkable thing was that his interest in each aspect of the trip was as keen as mine. When we had assembled everything back at home, I lit the first votive candle. No other light in the room, we each took a seat at the kitchen table. We settled ourselves before the light of the wreath and began to talk about the times in our lives when we had watched other Advent wreaths. We talked about the people long ago who had communicated their delight in this winter devotion and made us each want to welcome it into our homes as adults.

Suddenly I knew that I had not been mistaken earlier in my life. A home with religious devotion as a way to feel close to other people can happen – a home where the mystery of our individual lives and the decision to confront that mystery together in the presence of God can be a reality.

That was an Advent grace worth waiting for.

Photo by David Ennis

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Crafting a Christmas Card

People don’t usually get to explain why they send the Christmas card that they do. Truth be told, they usually don’t want to. Enough that they found a card, got the envelopes addressed and stamped, and got them to a post office in time for a Christmas Eve delivery at the latest.

On November 29, the day before the First Sunday of Advent, I met the deadline that I had set for myself two months ago. Contact information that needed to get to the people to whom I usually write Christmas cards is on its way to them.

In the best of worlds, the exchange of Christmas cards takes on some of the spirit of an exchange of gifts. The choice of card is no haphazard thing because the potential recipients are no haphazard addressees. I always have had the hope that people opening the envelope that I addressed to them will find a card whose design and message cause them to pause, to evaluate, to conclude, “Ah, now there’s a John card par excellence. And with a John message!”

The yearly exchange is made. Two parties get once more to enjoy the expectation, the execution, the satisfaction of recognition and even gratitude for a worthy exchange.

Except... I know the speed with which I myself work my way through the stack of cards arriving any one day of December. Skipping summarily over envelope and address label, I briefly register the image on the front of the card, ignore the printed message inside, and head for any handwritten comment prefacing or following or facing their signature.

If the goal of the person sending the card had been to spend time with me via card stock and letterpress, I have thwarted their aim to delay me in the busy press of December duties at the end of each day.

They may know, however, that I am someone who will re-read their greeting after the evening meal, read it again before placing it in a basket in the front room, and potentially read it a third and fourth time at a moment of Yuletide reverie with eggnog in hand and sugar cookies on a plate beside me. Their efforts then will pay off – I will even wonder why this card, why this wording in their message, why this Christmas meriting just this greeting and no other. Why a photo card? Why a religious card? Why a funny card – again?

This analysis may give the lie to the time and planning that preceded my own trip to the post office on Saturday, plastic bag in hand with stamped envelopes safe from any weather that might have smeared an address or loosened the postage stamp with its Botticelli Madonna.

These cards that were two full months in the making were intended to get to recipients in a few days and make them pause – despite that fatigue at the end of a December day, despite that eagerness to finish with the holiday mail and get to cocktails and online shopping. If only because of its early arrival, my card wanted to get people to think a little longer about me than usual, about the things important in my life these days.

Will I succeed?

Will the chocolate brown envelope trump the white and red and green envelopes amid which it will lie? Will the texture and weight of the paper out of which the envelope is made recall the importance of formal announcements rather than the seasonal frolic of snowballs and holly?

A chocolate brown envelope begs for an address label lighter than chocolate brown. White labels are certainly available, but a special envelope is no longer special when the label reduces it to the status of one more piece of bulk mail. In an online search I found labels in the rough texture of kraft paper, a tan that shows up fine against the chocolate brown.

So... will the oversized kraft paper shipping label stand out in the way it was intended? Will a recipient briefly enjoy the exalted font size for his or her name in bold above the centered address? Will the smaller return address label on the flap of the envelope appear clearly linked in design to the label on the front?

Will the photo card inside the envelope surprise by not showing a face shot of me or anyone I know? Will the image of Willoughby Elliott's oil painting of two trees in a late summer landscape get a chance to make an impression when the card is placed on a mantle lined with red candles and brass stocking holders?

christmas 2008
in the open
in the light

Will the three lines in the tan message panel to the right of the image of trees seem unnecessarily cryptic or poetic or self-congratulatory when no sender’s name appears printed beneath them?

Even heavy with
art and
a tree
of its summers
in the open -
of the light
toward which it faithfully aimed
its every newest growth.

Will the poem on the enclosed cream-colored card get a careful enough reading? Will it appear to justify the earlier three lines as a message about Christmas and the way the radical hope at the center of that feast can enlighten and change real lives?

Will it make sense that I had something to say that may have needed two full months to become clear to me?

Will the multi-layered gift that the card attempts to be find a moment with each recipient and call forth from each of them a prayer for the power and hope of this feast in their own lives?

Two Warm Trees by Willoughby Elliott from Harrison Gallery

Monday, November 24, 2008

An Unsettled Anniversary

Last week a friend sent me word that his grandfather had died the night before. The grandfather had not lived at home for two years; nevertheless, his final hospitalization had been sudden and unexpected. My friend’s grandmother was the only person whose voice had seemed able to summon the briefest of acknowledgements from the ninety-year-old man in his comatose condition.

I wanted to be supportive and asked questions that would give my friend an opening to talk about this loss if he wanted to. I had no idea whether the tie between the two men had been a close one. I recalled my own parents’ reactions to my grandparents’ deaths, though. I knew that if someone had not witnessed a parent’s grief before, the funeral of a grandparent – even one who had not been the special friend that some grandparents manage to be – could trigger an unsettling sense of apprehension.

At a funeral the generations of a family reveal themselves as a moving, transient reality – not eternal and unchanging as early childhood sometimes expects.

My friend’s response to one of my questions stays in my mind. Asked whether he were ready for what the day of the funeral might demand of him emotionally, he replied: “I don’t know what to expect.”

It is a statement that should have been on my own lips last week as this Monday before Thanksgiving approached. Last year on this first day of a short work week I had experienced a discomfort in my chest while walking upstairs after lunch. Following the directions I had received at a recent cardiologist’s appointment, I contacted a nurse in my building.

Within fifteen minutes I was being rolled down the hallway on a gurney by paramedics. At no point were there any severe pains; it was determined fairly early that I was not indeed having a heart attack. The look of my day, however, and indeed the look of my year changed as I watched the ceiling of a work place corridor passing overhead.

Three days and a heart catheterization later, I was home. A wedge had been inserted, however, between me and what should have been the utter familiarity of the setting to which I was returning.

So I should not have been surprised by the mild unease that began last week to characterize the approach of this first anniversary – the first Monday before Thanksgiving since my hospitalization last year.

Another friend sent a text message this morning after an earlier telephone conversation between us: “Are we a bit on the tired side today?”

Yes, I admitted to myself with sudden recognition. I was indeed tired. Truth be told, I was probably most tired of the uncertainty with which I had approached this first anniversary. I was tired of keeping at bay the unsettling sense of apprehension that accompanies all the more pointed reminders of the reality of time’s passing.

I am grateful for the patient understanding of good friends on days like this.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Book Fair

An international book fair is worth a little travel, and so this past Saturday a friend and I arranged our schedules to meet for the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair at the Hynes Convention Center in Back Bay.

Coats and umbrellas dutifully checked at the door, we entered a book lover’s dream. Briefly we checked our notions of frugality and economic realism at the door as well. The price of admission had purchased us the right to handle some remarkable first editions and old maps and manuscripts. We practiced nodding sagely at booksellers’ courteous presentations, letting some of the higher figures like $20,000 and $35,000 elicit from the two of us the merest roll of the eyes.

The love of reading is a strange catalyst in a setting like this. A favorite author or two and many authors who had never figured in our favorites’ list got us wondering whether we might be willing to part with a couple of hundred dollars for the ownership of a first edition with dust jacket virtually intact. With such a purchase we would have felt entitled to weave a narrative with which to entertain and possibly impress future guests to the house and friends at work.

“It was a little bit of a surprise to see this volume by Auden and Isherwood at the book fair last November…”

“I know I don’t need another edition of Anne Sexton…”

“Yes, see how well the print in this early edition matches the coarseness of the paper on which it appears…”

The book itself as object of reverence and desire and even financial speculation – how far from the experience of reading with which some of us first experienced the liberating potential of an articulate author’s view of life! I still remember what freedom had seemed possible when I first saw a television production of Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. I had realized that my own stifled sense of home life was not unique in the lives of men and women who were considered intelligent and successful.

Almost three hours after we entered, we were at the door ready to leave. I suddenly asked for five minutes. Briefly postponing the falafel sandwich I pictured waiting for me at nearby Cafe Jaffa, I hurried down the aisles and rows of book fair stalls, looking down one and then another for a certain booth at the edge of the conference area. Earlier I had seen something that seemed an affordable memento of the day – and even an enjoyable if quirky read.

Within the requested five minutes I returned to my friend waiting at a booth near the exit. I had decided to purchase for fifteen dollars a 1960 children’s book titled Amelia and the Angels by Muriel Hooper. It was designated “scarce” in the bookseller’s pencil jotting on the flyleaf. Appropriately, it seemed to me, it was about a church mouse named Amelia.

I looked forward to the simple pleasure of reading the tale later at home, but for a short time I could relish the satisfaction of walking out of the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair with a brown paper bag secured by a yellow sticker identifying the contents as a purchase made at the fair. No one needed to know whether those contents had cost me fifteen dollars or fifteen thousand dollars.

They simply needed to know that I loved books. Seriously.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Other Landscapes

I have written here before about a retreat I made two weeks ago. One of my fellow retreatants recently made available photographs she had taken on that October weekend.

When I first saw this picture of hers, a picture of the old seacoast home where the retreat had taken place, it didn't register that my car was no longer in the parking lot. I had already left, heading off to Sunday lunch with a friend who had made the retreat with me.

By the time the picture was taken, the retreat house had resumed its utter independence of me and my life and my hopes and my fears.

Today at morning services I had a chance to reconnect with some of the people who had accompanied me on that retreat experience. Three people had worked particularly closely with me on organizing the talks and structure and goals of that weekend. Their company has proven playful and full of energy since that October weekend, marked by fervent commitments to meet outside our Sunday morning setting and taste one another's other lives.

There is a kind of hope there for an opening into places we had not shared when our eyes were on other landscapes.

The chance for new friends is always a welcome one.

On the Walls of My Home

When I don’t post for almost two weeks, even I start asking what is in the air. Something other than writing must be exerting an exceptional pull on attention and energy.

The answer this time is walls. At least, what is on them. Or what was not yet on them two weeks ago.

A framing project has claimed my occasional attention for several months, and the past week finally got me shopping for frames, matting the pictures, buying the hangers, measuring for the exact places on the walls to hammer the nails.

My particular challenge was the size of the images I wanted to display. The largest of them measured no more than three and a half inches by five and a half inches.

My interest was in exhibiting some of the found photographs that I have purchased in the past several years. Up till now I have kept most of them in albums, affixed to pages by black photo corners.

Then this past August I was at the downtown Portland museum of the Maine Historical Society and got to view an exhibit called “Snapshots.” I learned later that the curator of the museum had designed the framing for a collection of small amateur photographs that captured some key events in local history. What was unusual was that each photograph, no matter its dimensions, merited a standard 16x20 inch frame. Four inches from the top of each cream-colored mat a window had been cut to the exact measurements of each snapshot, allowing a half inch border around the edges. Clear photo corners held the pictures in place.

The effect of the framing design was to give the impression that the walls of the museum lecture room had been dedicated to a significant collection of folk art. The uniformity of the black metal frames and the expanse of matting conveyed a message.

Two months passed before I thought to contact the museum for the exact details of the framing. My voicemail query elicited two return voicemails with a generously detailed set of directions. In a subsequent phone call from the museum curator, I even got the name of the frame shop that had been entrusted with the cutting of the mats.

My creative juices were stimulated, I'll admit. My credit card, however, balked at the expense of the museum-quality materials that would have been needed for framing five small photographs.

My eventual solution came after several forays to Target. I bought five identical gallery-style frames with white mats. Inside each 5x7 window cut into the top half of the white mat, I subsequently secured a black 5x7 mat cut to display a 3.5x5 image.

Over several days last week I worked to get five of my favorite black and white images up on the walls – a family posing on a front porch, two men in their Sunday white shirts and ties sitting and talking earnestly by a back door, a lit Christmas tree on the table in a vintage living room, a nun cheerily visiting a man and his wife and son near a wooden fence that needed his attention, a man asleep in a rocker on a porch after dinner.

The overall effect on me, I realize now, was a focus on my external surroundings that temporarily eclipsed the kinds of interests and reverie about which it is easier for me to think up something to write.

I will claim, though, a visceral response to these new walls and their new hangings. I am seeing something different and something that works and something that has my name all over it.

Isn’t that what home should be about?

Photo of Gallery-style Frame from Target

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Evening After Retreat

From the Friday afternoon drive to late lunch on Sunday, the retreat weekend lived up to all I could have asked it to be. It was also New England in the midst of its best season. Again and again the colors of sky and water and rocky coast, viewed from the windows of my third-floor room or glimpsed between the golden leaves of trees along the walkways, stopped me. Reverie reigned.

Home later that evening, I paid homage to the mood in which the retreat had left me by watching 400 Blows for the second time in a week. My Netflix rental of the François Truffaut classic had moved me a few days earlier. This time I settled on the sofa and watched while listening to the commentary by Brian Stonehill included with the Criterion DVD. Out of the sunlit colors of the retreat and into the black and white magic of a 1959 Paris, I felt fresh wonder at the minute-and-a-half scene of the faces of children attending the Grand Guignol. Enjoy.

By the way, watch till the end. The little boy resting his head on the shoulder of a friend takes my breath away.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Chapel Flowers

It is a wonderful autumn weekend to be heading out to retreat.

I ask my readers' prayers that everything the Spirit wants to communicate and re-order comes swooping down upon those of us in our house by the sea the next few days.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Flannel Shirts and Stilton Cheese

I was the organizer of a session during a three-day work conference last week; the presentation -- mercifully -- went well despite its placement immediately after lunch on Friday. A dutiful visit to the nearby Whole Foods the next day slowed to a contemplative crawl by the cheese cases, and I decided to treat myself to the thinnest wedge of Stilton that was available. It will be my offering to my dinner hostess this evening.

A blue cheese from a guest in a blue flannel shirt.

Photo of Stilton Cheese courtesy of

Monday, October 13, 2008

Why I Go to Mass on Sunday

When I go to Mass on Sunday, I am in the midst of my own life, and what I need on a particular morning may not sound like anything described in a document of Vatican II. No, I am not always attentive to each reading. No, I am not always conscious of the actions of the celebrant. No, I am not always aware of the offering that is being made on the altar or the meaning of the communion to which I am invited to take part. I am in the midst of my life, and what I choose to do on most Sundays is simply bring that life into a setting and a context that I know has been helpful in the past and may prove helpful again.

At this point in my life, my attendance at Sunday liturgy is fairly regular. There have been times when I have found it hard to be in a Catholic church or in any church. I have come to accept, however, that there is more for me to gain by staying with a behavior that I began long ago for good reasons than to abandon it with no replacement in sight.

And then there is the growing sense over the years that God is ready to meet me in this setting if I want to meet him here.

Why I come to church may vary from Sunday to Sunday. Why any one of us comes may be different from why the person down the pew from us is there on a particular Sunday. Or it may be the same reason.

Sometimes I go to Mass to be distracted.
The idea may strike you as odd. Wouldn’t you more readily understand if I started talking about how easy it is to find myself distracted during Mass, unable to pay attention to what’s happening on the altar? But I’m talking about the reality of the choice I get to make as an adult on how I will spend my Sunday morning, a choice that may take me away from home and newspapers and a long breakfast and sometimes a spouse or family or a group of friends. I’m talking about those times when I consider whether this might be the Sunday that I do not change out of my sweats and do not get in my car and do not leave early enough to be sure to find a parking space.

So what might get me out of the house and into a church pew? I might be worried about the results of a medical test and I am looking for a way to make the time pass more quickly. I might be hurt by something that a spouse or friend has said or done, and I take advantage of Mass to get away from having to interact for part of the long Sunday in front of me. I might be angry about a situation at work that will make me look like an incompetent Monday morning, and two hours at Mass might seem capable of giving me perspective or lowering my blood pressure. At one point in my life, I might have been guilty about how little energy I felt able to muster for an upcoming visit to an elderly parent, and I was looking for a diversion to help me stop beating myself up about that. I might be upset that my plans for a weekend activity got trumped by someone else’s preferences – again, and I need a place and time to sulk without seeming to. My experience is that sometimes I bring my life to Sunday morning in church because I want to escape what that life is feeling like – or I need to figure out what it’s feeling like.

Sometimes I go to Mass to be challenged. I know that the world is bigger than my own needs, bigger than the foreign policy goals of my nation, bigger than the view of life according to which some people that I have succeeded in not knowing feel constrained to run their lives. Going to Mass, I can expect from time to time to be reminded of all the ways the world has not been a garden that people cultivate with ease and a confident awareness of opportunity. I can expect from time to time to hear young people and adults report about the weeks they have spent in an unfamiliar setting with the goal of making someone else’s life better. I can expect from time to time to watch someone during Mass negotiate a wheelchair, an unusually unruly child, an angry awareness of the structural patriarchy of our church to which so many continue blind or needlessly resigned.

Going to Mass, I can expect the invitation to respond to Gospel stories about the difficulties of widows and deaf-mutes and prostitutes and lepers and beggars and cripples and tax-collectors and those in the grip of despair and those in the prison cell of mental illness. Going to Mass in a downtown parish, I can expect that I will move and pray amid the diversity of an urban population who do not need to ever stop surprising me by the clear evidence of their exposure to neglect or their stubborn refusal to dress like me or talk like me. Sometimes going to Mass seems the one sure place to which I can expect to return week after week and be made aware of the needs I am tempted to dismiss or forget or ignore the rest of my week.

Sometimes I go to Mass to be greeted and welcomed. It is not everyone in my life who knows and understands the need I feel to go to church – and a Catholic church at that – and sometimes I go to Mass for the company of other people who have known that need.I can go to grocery stores and bus stations and movie theatres and no one there has to greet me or recognize me. In fact, I usually prefer that they don’t. I am content to be John Q. Public on certain ventures outside my home – including online ventures. Privacy counts. If I yield that privacy, I want to know that I am yielding it and to whom and, if possible, for how long. I always ask why a salesclerk needs my phone number before I buy something at certain stores. I know that I have become sensitized to the ways people can learn things about me that they can use for their own ends and at my expense if necessary.

How different to go into a church and find that I am recognized and greeted – even by people who do not know my name or where I live or how I make my livelihood! There are few places in my life where I have regularly brought more of myself than a church. I go to a church because it is safe to be sad there, safe to be serious, safe to be confused, safe to be angry and frightened. The company of people while I am that sad or serious or frightened brings an unusual kind of comfort, and there is no describing how a simple nod, a handshake by someone who may or may not know my name, a squeeze of the hand at the Kiss of Peace consoles and strengthens.

Sometimes I go to Mass to be moved by beauty. Remember my talking about the moment on a Sunday morning when I can debate within myself whether to forego newspapers and a longer breakfast and an hour or two more in sweats? I have to admit that I am no longer at the stage in my life when church architecture or concert-quality choirs automatically trump the casual pleasures of the breakfast table.

I’m going to make a distinction here, though, and tell you that the beauties to which I am most partial in a church on Sunday morning are the beauties of memory. I am going to invoke the notion of involuntary memory made famous by Marcel Proust. I am going to tell you that I do not know in advance that anything particularly memorable in the aesthetic sense is going to happen at a Mass on a particular Sunday morning, but I am no longer surprised when it does. Most often it comes in singing a hymn or psalm, and without any planning or conscious preparation I meet a younger version of myself singing these words when other challenges faced me – the fresh grieving of a lost parent or the moment when I knew I had to find another way of leading my life. Sometimes the sudden pleasure comes from looking at one of the statues or stained-glass windows and being reminded of other churches and the way light filtered through another window or the sense of devotion that a vase of flowers before an earlier image of a saint communicated to me.

I am going to be cautious, however, and leave you with your own experiences of beauty, the beauty of music, the beauty of icon and incense, the beauty of ceremony and ritual movement, the beauty of vestments and lofty church ceilings. How your heart and mind responds to that part of a religious heritage will communicate something important about what you ask church to be for you on a Sunday morning.

Lastly, I go to Mass to be fed. I may start sometimes by wanting distraction, I may stay in response to challenge, I may warm to welcome and greeting, I may thrill to the beauty of a centuries-old liturgy coming to life. There is usually a point in any Sunday Mass, though, when I admit that I have come to church to experience in my core the scriptural truth captured by Dan Schutte in the refrain of “Table of Plenty”: “God will provide for all that you need, here at the table of plenty.” The memory is fresh for me of the recent Sunday when I sang these words at the 11 o’clock Mass. It had been a painful morning for me, an awkward time for my heart. What do I do, God? What should I think of this time in my life? The refrain of the hymn sung during the Presentation of Gifts that Sunday moved suddenly out of generic Isaiah into life line. Yes – I seemed to understand immediately and unmistakably – neither alone nor forgotten, I am where I can be, I am where I need to be. It was the experience of being fed what I needed. It was the experience of being fed from a table of plenty. It was the promise kept once again – that I can live my life and trust that I will get what I need.

Autumn Rose

I have long been partial to the New England season of fall and the ways it makes room for the color rose. Sometimes the leaves that fall take on that hue. Sometimes the petals of a snowball tree in a favorite cemetery.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Mary Oliver, Edith Stein and Me

Ten years ago I was in Rome for a controversial ceremony. Edith Stein, a convert from the Judaism of her early years and a victim of the concentration camps, was being proclaimed a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Brilliant agnostic university woman turned cloistered nun, she had posed as many problems for her Jewish family in her lifetime as she subsequently did for Jewish men and women facing the Church’s claim that Edith Stein had died a martyr for her Christian faith. Hadn’t Edith Stein – like six million others – died in the concentration camps because she was Jewish, born to her Jewish family on Yom Kippur in 1891?

During studies at a local divinity school some years back, I wrote a paper on Edith Stein, applying to the story of her long adult attraction to Christianity and her eventual decision to ask for baptism the notion of conversion as developed by philosopher Bernard Lonergan. Far from the forced conversions that darkened the history of the Church’s interactions with the Jewish people, Lonergan’s notion of conversion emphasizes an individual’s free embrace of a truth recognized for the claim it makes on the intellect and heart. Nothing I had read in Edith Stein’s writings ever suggested that conversion for her had been anything merely convenient or strategic or forced.

I sat in a chair in my library at home late one night this summer, thinking about a journey that Edith Stein had made in October 1933. An academic in her early forties, she was traveling from her family’s home in Breslau (Wroclaw in present-day Poland) to the city of Cologne to be received into a cloistered Carmelite convent. Her narrative of that long train ride and of the events leading up to it reveals a woman at a critical moment in her life. A choice she had made about the way she would henceforth live her life was about to alter forever the physical and emotional landscape in which she interacted with family, friends and acquaintances.

Why would she do it? What guarantee did she have that the decision she had made would be worth the heartache it was bound to cause her Jewish family and even herself? What right did she have to ask these good people to go through so pronounced a rupture in what till now had been their normal lives with her? Why couldn’t she be content with a regimen of regular churchgoing, daily prayer and the occasional retreat? Who was she to say that the good resulting from her choice of this radical vision of her life was not available in some healthier form in her bonds with her family and the traditions in which they had their roots? How did she know that she hadn’t been fundamentally mistaken in her understanding of Christianity, perhaps emotionally blindsided by the National Socialist atmosphere growing in the Germany around her?

That night I sat in the library by myself and re-read Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey.” I found in it a compelling psychological portrait of a person ready to make the kind of change Edith Stein had made in stepping onto the train in the station in Breslau that day in October seventy-five years ago. That a church later recognized in her life a pattern that might prove helpful and transformative to generations yet to come should not lead us to expect to find in her story a simple vocation narrative. Hers was not a blissful contemplative path, a journey without struggle or waiting or insecurity. Physical and professional and emotional survival was not to be taken for granted for an exceptionally bright woman named Edith Stein living in the Germany of her day.

So suppose you were that exceptionally bright woman in your thirties and over the years you had gotten everyone in your life to believe you saw your life and its possibilities a certain way. Suppose you yourself had gotten to believe that that was the complete story of who you were. In other words, suppose through long practice you had forgotten the effort it took each day to act that way, to act as though you knew what the world was like and you knew the roles you could play in it. You had heard a lot and particularly you had read a lot about truth to self, but you had concluded long ago that everyone had a public self that was different from the interior self out of which you looked at what passed in the world for your happiness or success.

And then one day you got to read what someone so like you that it was scary, what someone on the other side of interior collapse four hundred years earlier had discovered about the uselessness of all such effort to seem all right. After reading the life of Teresa of Avila straight through one summer night in 1921, you began to imagine what it would be like to be face to face with a God who had never asked for that kind of futile, exhausting effort from you or anyone else. Suppose you got to hear that God saying, “There is a happiness waiting for you if you want it. There is a true voice waiting for you to use if you want it.”

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.

Let’s consider the possibility that life in her house growing up may not have been everything Edith Stein needed or wanted. We can first understand “house” literally as the physical environment in which Auguste Stein raised her eleven children after their father’s untimely death in 1893, when Edith was two. The impossibility of experiencing a father’s love and the economic demands on the newly widowed mother may have favored an intellectual development in Edith Stein that was precocious but extremely private.

She confessed later to an early reputation for being biting in her judgments of others; her mind may have searched for security in ferreting out the faults of others as a salve for the faults in herself that she could have suspected were the cause for the withdrawal of a more attentive love. For survival, Edith Stein created a role for herself, an intellectually prestigious role as the ruthless observer of the human mind, a role people let her play. She built in this way her own kind of inner house, one that gave her space to think her own thoughts. It may have been a role that kept people in her family and in her university circles feeling they knew her while it kept her fundamentally isolated.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

What could have been more transformative than to come to the awareness that a God might be saying to her something like what Teresa of Avila had heard, “I have a happiness waiting for you if you want it”? No longer required to be someone exclusively focused on taking care of others or taking care of their opinions of her, Edith was ready, maybe even desperate for her life to change. What could have felt more essential to Edith Stein than finally to know what she sounded like?

It would be important for Edith Stein at that point in her life to be with people who understood the kind of path she was embarking on. It would be important for her not just to know of such people but to live more and more among them and alongside them. The company Edith Stein needed might be on spiritual paths very similar to hers. Or they might simply be people who knew Edith Stein so well that they had to try to understand what a path like this would mean to her, what it promised her, what it freed her from, how it might feel to her on different days, what part of the path might surprise her given her history, what part of the path might reduce her to tears for the sheer joy of walking it. They would be people who could be company because being with her on that path fed something in them, brought them to life, became a reality they could not avoid reflecting on and asking about. They would be people who could recognize the voice that finally emerged at that critical point in Edith Stein’s life, recognize it as hers – finally and unmistakably hers.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world…

Edith Stein was not someone unable to understand the challenge her new vision of her life posed for many of the people that she loved. Writing later about the train ride from Breslau that October morning in 1933, she confessed that what she had just lived through those final twenty-four hours with her mother and her family had been terrible. No easy joy had marked that journey of hers. The most positive thing she could say was that she had traveled feeling sure of moving in accord with God’s hopes for her life.

In the weeks and months and years ahead, she would be supported by women and men of her acquaintance who were not surprised that lives sometimes turned out like hers. In fact, they would communicate to her the conviction of having watched someone bravely claim her life and answer the invitation of the God at its heart. She emerged from the turmoil with what she may have felt she had almost lost – the sense of being the Edith Stein she was always meant to be.

…determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Who loves the changes in us? There may ultimately be no more practical question for any of us to ask in our life.

Yom Kippur 2008

Photo of Edith Stein from Blog Cristiano

Photo of Mary Oliver from Dartmouth News

Monday, October 6, 2008

Dancing in the Mist with Fellini

Before dinner last night I settled down with an ice-chip-cold martini and watched my favorite Fellini film. These days I can easily feel like one of the school boys from Amarcord, dancing in the mist. Enjoy.

YouTube scene from "Amarcord" uploaded by aniaunknown

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Little Altars to a Sweet New Year

I am a ritual maker, and late Monday afternoon found me in traffic near a local synagogue. It was the new year. Not that night of revelry and midnight fanfare near the start of winter, but the acknowledgement of the renewal of an inner perspective. Moved by old memories of challah and candles and honey, I began to weave a plan.

I was on my weekly journey to a neighborhood in the city where I meet someone that I shall simply call my listener. For an hour each week we take our seats and enact a familiar but inevitably surprising ritual of self-exploration and attention. The end of each session finds me having said things that I had not realized I needed or wanted to say.

I know what I had been thinking earlier in the day that I would talk about. I had been thinking of a time almost exactly a year ago. I had just discovered that a visitor to a blog that I had kept for over two years was systematically mining my text for information to use against me. She had already written letters to the powers that be and telephoned all sorts of offices. With little choice and no guarantee of security, I deleted the entire blog.

Why, I wondered later, would people read a blog unless they were somehow in sympathy with what the writer was attempting in it? Each post on a blog is like a little altar, and the writer is the priest at that altar. Usual ways of talking give way temporarily to another form of communication. It always requires an act of trust on the blogger’s part to craft a reflection in words and pictures, to share a piece of music or a video, to offer an observation, to reveal a thought. Who would visit a blog and break that trust?

With the breaking of that trust, however, I eventually felt myself unmoored in a way I had never believed possible. Nothing significant actually changed in the external circumstances of my life, but old certainties and patterns had been disrupted. Without admitting it to anyone or even understanding it myself, my emotional landscape was changed.

So what was the plan I began to weave driving down streets leading to my listener’s office? I wanted to celebrate a new year.

I wanted to celebrate that this year didn’t feel like last year at this time. I wanted to make an act of hope that with God’s help the year ahead of me could be sweet.

I was going to be on my own this Monday evening, and so it was going to be easier to put together a ritual. What was happening within was going to be able to move out and fill every space within the walls of my home. I was going to be able to say things out loud, not loudly, not dramatically but as I was able, as I was moved. What was most important inside my heart was going to become the most important thing in all the rooms through which I moved that evening.

Not five minutes after my session, I pulled into a parking place that had just been vacated in front of a small bakery. I went inside and pointed to the one round challah loaf on the racks. The owner looked over to where I was pointing.

“That’s the only challah I have left.”

It is hard to describe what it felt like to take into my hands the plastic bag into which the baker had just slid her last loaf of challah. It was possibility that I held there – the possibility that everything I wanted to do with my evening might happen, the possibility that everything I wanted to do with my year might happen.

Within a half hour of sundown, I was lighting two mismatched candles at my kitchen table, one that I had gotten in Paris a year and a half ago at the church of Our Lady of Victories, the other a votive scented with honey from Provence. From a website on my laptop, I read out loud the Hebrew blessings for Rosh Hashanah.

Baruch atah Ado-nai, Ehlo-haynu melech Ha-olam, she'he'che'yanu v'kee'manu, v'hee'gee'anu la'zman ha'zeh.

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.”

Photo of challah from Chai Time

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Poetry and Your Whole Life

Growing up, I didn’t expect to be a reader of poetry all my life. It was not a role I saw either of my parents or any of my Louisiana aunts or uncles or grandparents take on and model. If any adult I knew might be an inveterate reader of verse, it would have been a teacher; in that case, however, the habit of reading poetry seemed likely a mode of professional development rather than a vocation or a facet of identity.

Through the years of my early education, poetry was a unit in English class or a section in a literature textbook. There were italicized introductions to each poem, biographical sketches of the poets, footnotes on foreign or particularly elusive expressions, numbers in the margin next to every fifth line, and sometimes reading comprehension questions. All of the instructional paraphernalia gave poems some of the same feel as word problems in a math text, and what adult made a life of tackling word problems? So, poems were practice; they were exercises; they were unlike anything that a normal hour in your parents’ kitchen or living room made seem essential over the long haul.

With the first paycheck from a summer job, however, I walked into a bookstore down the block from my temp office and bought a book of the poems of Emily Dickinson and another of the poems of John Keats. I had handled each of these Dell paperbacks several times in the days before buying them, taking them down from the bookstore shelves and leafing through them and reading at random. There was the reassuring recognition of poems that my favorite teachers had covered in English classes; there was the promise of unsuspected joys in the poems with unfamiliar titles.

The joys that arose for me then in the reading and discussing of poetry had to do with hearing what it could sound like for someone to say that he was sad. (I couldn’t say that.) Or that he found something beautiful. (I rarely said that.) Or that he was less lonely when certain people directed their attention to him and listened. (I didn’t dare say that.) Or that he occasionally experienced something that matched what he understood his tradition was calling God. Conversation of an unusual power and promise, conversation beyond the daily requests for information and compliance loomed real and possible in the wake of being steeped in the words of poets.

The experience ahead of me as the owner of books of poetry was uncharted territory in the household to which I was returning at the end of that workday the summer after high school.

And both books that I bought that day are on my shelves still.

In a recent re-organization of my library, I put all the volumes of poetry together on the same long shelf – French poets stacked on top of Latin poets, Elizabeth Bishop standing next to Anne Sexton, Billy Collins next to Rilke and Baudelaire, translations by C. Day Lewis alongside anthologies of sonnets. There seemed unlikely conversations arising from those juxtapositions, a strange literary dinner party, a long corridor of monastic cells about which the Grand Silence threw a creative mantle.

Pride of place on my poetry shelf goes to the volumes by Mary Oliver, and through my interactions with them something has happened in the past few years in the way I regularly read poetry at home. For the first time I don’t simply page through a book to find particular poems or particularly appealing poems. I start with the first poem in a book by Mary Oliver and then move to the second and then the third until I have reached a point where I am content to stop. My next reading resumes where I left off. Just as I presume someone pays careful attention to the varied colors of the endpapers and cover fabrics of her handsome hardcover editions, I trust that the order of the poems in a volume by Mary Oliver is considered. Even if I start with the poem on the final page of the volume and work my way backwards, I think I am having an experience significantly better than if I were picking pages at random.

I count myself fortunate to have among my friends people for whom poetry matters. One friend recently sent me a copy of the eulogy he gave at his father’s funeral in which a Mary Oliver poem plays a prominent part. Someone else sent me a photograph in which he is reading Yeats’ “I Am Ireland” to his favorite uncle at a birthday celebration. One friend keeps her latest literary efforts available to readers of her blog although occasionally she emails me poems for which she wants a more private audience. A former classmate from New Orleans showed me the box in which his first edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry is ready to be carried to the car in a future evacuation. I have even had the experience of finding poetry on my voice mail, read without any explanations by a friend who knows I will enjoy just the sound of a poem being well read. When one work colleague, a fellow lover of poetry and a poet herself, left for another city, I wrote my farewell as a poem to her.

Cathy: A Poem

Some people are the kind of poem
that reads smoothly,
truly from the first line.

Some people are the kind of poem
about which you speak
only if you are ready
to speak about your whole life.

Some people are the kind of poem
that just proves
poems are possible –
and likely to arrive
any blessed moment
of your day.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What Matters

I was sitting outside one late summer evening a year ago under a tree full of lights.

Ten friends around a table that had the look of cast iron, we might have just walked onto a scene from a Smith and Hawken catalogue.

The chairs and tables were arranged on the wooden deck in the suburban backyard of a couple that I had known for a long time. The reason for their organizing this evening together was the chance to visit with Ron and Trudy, two friends who had spent the last year and a half in New Zealand and who were preparing to return there in a week. A significant career possibility had prompted the move across the oceans, and the evening was threaded with tales of cultural adjustment and economic realities and surprises and opportunities to savor what stays important in lives no matter where they are lived.

The conversation whirled and eddied over food and drink that was as creatively orchestrated as usual with this group. Someone had prepared an amazingly fresh bowl of greens; someone else, a potato salad with the crunch of carrots and red onions and parsley. Our host fired the grill for ribs prepared with a paprika rub. Pitchers of white sangria heavy with orange and peach and grape slices circled around the table for the first two hours – a nod to the recent trip to Portugal on the part of the host and hostess.

“So what’s new with all of you?” Trudy asked the table during a lull in the Auckland questions and answers.

Someone’s daughter had just published a first book, and we were all urged to go onto Amazon soon. Someone else had this week returned from a conference in New Orleans and recounted latest impressions of the city’s recovery from Katrina. Another friend had started a business in the past few months with someone we all knew from New Year’s parties at our host and hostess’s home. There were lots of itineraries recounted all around, and someone even mentioned my two trips to France the previous spring, one to handle work commitments, the other to provide a taste of vacation in a low-travel time of year.

As I listened to the catalogue of activities, I knew that I would find no way to mention the most important thing that the year had brought to me. I was not going to talk of the energy that had returned to my life with that year of weekly meetings in an office in a quiet neighborhood in another part of the city.

Looking around the table at people that I had known for over twenty years, I could imagine no way to tell them that I was growing happier and more confident than I had felt in a long time. Trips to France would have to suffice for now as the new landscape in which Ron and Trudy and the rest of these people pictured me. I became aware that there was little ease for me in thinking about talking with them about what had become important in my life. With that awareness, I knew that the work I had to do in that office was not over.

At the end of the evening, I followed Trudy onto the front porch to wish her a final farewell. It was our first time together that evening, just the two of us. With her usual ready smile, she asked how my nonprofit work had gone this year. Coming from someone else, it might have sounded like a stock question. It was with thought, however, that I told her, “Great!”

“You still enjoy it, don’t you?” she asked.

“Absolutely!” I answered.

“It’s rare to hear someone who is able to say that about their work after all these years.”

Her comment cut through all the other topics and drifts of conversation of the evening. I felt at that moment that my answers mattered to her and that I mattered to her.

I looked at Trudy and thanked her for asking what she had.

I love good questions. I am learning how to ask them and how to recognize the people who ask the ones that give me the most life and light.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Big Screen on a Friday Night

I grew up knowing that the pleasure of films went beyond simply viewing them.

When my oldest brother sent home a record set of the entire soundtrack – music and dialogue – of Mike Nichols’ film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I sniffed the promise of a particular kind of conversation. It was conversation that would draw on understanding the freeing possibilities of art and on asking the hard questions about life itself. My brother’s visits back home were the occasion for invoking the lines of Edward Albee’s play in various situations. Those lines became a kind of private language by which we exchanged impressions about a lot we saw and didn’t see in our parents’ household and the world beyond it. “George and Martha – sad, sad, sad…”

My favorite teacher in high school included me among the students he took to a series of Ingmar Bergman films at a local university. I was frankly intimidated by the world I saw in those films and wondered whether I even understood all the questions that the Swedish filmmaker was raising in them. I approached that teacher on another occasion when I had just seen Julie Christie in the movie Darling; I admitted to him that I didn’t understand why the main character was so taken by the elderly academic whom she visits once in the company of her journalist boyfriend. It took me a while to learn that my teacher was even more interested in my questions about the films I saw than he was in my answers.

My best friend in high school invited me to see my first Eric Rohmer film with subtitles at what was then the Delgado Museum of Art in New Orleans. Ted smoked a cigarette as we exited the museum that Sunday afternoon and, after talking about the black-and-white landscapes of My Night at Maud’s, asked whether I would be willing to make a short film with him. His parents had agreed to buy him a Super-8 camera and tripod and projector and provide all the film he needed and cover the developing costs of the film. I became both actor and co-director, and Ted and I discussed what effects we wanted to create in our film and why. Even more valuably, though, we learned what happens inside an artist’s heart when we ended up at times seeing in the developed film something better than any of the effects we had originally planned. And I fell in love with him.

Hearing of my experience making short films, my supervisor at the high school where I did something like student teaching asked me to help with a one-semester arts elective in filmmaking and film appreciation. Of course I learned as much as I taught that semester. Nothing helped me better understand the vocabulary of the filmmaker than a short film available from Janus on the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Watching again and again the series of shots showing Cary Grant gaining access to the wine cellar of a Nazi collaborator and discovering the hiding place for enemy uranium, I got it – got what any filmmaker tries to accomplish with each frame of the movie that escapes the editor’s floor. My cinematic eyes had been opened further.

Movies were a key bond between one of my first work colleagues and his wife Greta and me. Fresh from advanced degree work, Paul and Greta longed for a kind of company that seemed in short supply sometimes in the Florida city where we had all gotten our first teaching jobs. Comparative literature, art history, French literature and theology – our recent academic backgrounds made us natural partners on a Saturday evening. Greta would sit on their sofa, feet tucked under her, and sip the wine Paul had poured and probe one more facet of a character from a film we had just seen. “Who really does things like that when they learn a friend has cancer?!?” Greta did not succumb to the melodrama of a movie like Bobby Deerfield in the way that I might, but her questions came from the delight of talking with friends who said things that she thought mattered. Films mattered in the conversations with which we lengthened weekend evenings. "I'll be curious to see what you think" meant something when we said it to one another.

All this personal film history – and more – came to the surface Friday evening as I settled into a seat by myself at a 7 o’clock showing of North by Northwest. It was a Friday evening on my own, and I had omitted making any plans earlier in the week; a 24-hour bug had left me iffy about committing to anything. At an art house in the university section of the city, I got to do something that I have not done in a long time. I allowed sudden whim to get me somewhere to see something that had nothing more compelling to recommend it than that it called to me. Crop duster and Mount Rushmore and all.

And I enjoyed myself. I gave in to the experience. I yielded to the big screen. I savored the wonder of seeing what was familiar and then seeing things I had forgotten to expect or to notice before. I monitored no one’s enjoyment but my own. Sitting at a hotel bar an hour earlier, I had mentioned to another bar patron my plans to see the Hitchcock at the nearby movie house. “Hitchcock on the big screen – what a treat!” she said. And she was right. I had made a good decision on how to spend the evening. I had made a decision out of the best in my personal history. I had fundamentally said to myself, "I'll be curious to see what you think."

Mine had been one more hopeful face lifted in delight at the show before us all.

Photo from Soundtrack Collector

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Aimez-vous Brahms...

The used bookstore was nearby. A work friend and I had just finished Sunday brunch, and the basement store, that warren of narrow aisles lined with books that had already spent time in other people’s homes, exercised its customary lure. I had no precise title in mind, and I was ready to be surprised on this midday visit.

Truth be told, it had been a while since I had even thought to include a stop by the French language shelves. I had made analogous online crawls at different times in search of a particular softcover edition of Aimez-vous Brahms… by Françoise Sagan. I had loaned my original copy to… I don’t remember who. A purchase made in a Montreal discount bookstore provided me with a later Livre de Poche edition; the text of spare French prose was intact (intégral in the phrasing on the cover), the font identical to that in the earlier edition, but the cover featured a photograph of a heavy-lidded woman’s face reflected in her make-up mirror.

I don’t know when – or exactly why – I began to crave a replacement copy of the slim French paperback with the vase of flowers on the cover – the cover I associate with my first readings of the novel. How proud I had been to negotiate my way through a French novel in its entirety, a book not assigned for a course but chosen for sheer pleasure! A heady experience for someone in his twenties and a French major in his back pocket.

The edition with that cover is no longer in print. But there it was this Sunday afternoon. Three dollars later, and it was mine. Again.

I make no exaggerated literary claims for Françoise Sagan. My first reading of that novel followed a television showing in the late 70s of the movie Goodbye Again. A friend watching the movie with me yelped and waved his tall glass of tea and crushed ice when the forty-year-old character played by Ingrid Bergman calls after the twenty-five-year-old lover she has just dumped and shouts, “I’m old!” For two gay men approaching thirty, her admission had the ring of high camp. My friend would begin that night to include her words in his repertory of lines to be invoked against a background of disco recordings as he showered each Saturday night before heading to the bars.

If the novel retains some compelling message for me from reading to reading, it is contained in the title. The character Paule, a successful career woman in Paris, has been invited by the younger Simon (Philip in the American movie) to a Sunday concert of Brahms; he prefaces his invitation with the question “Do you like Brahms?” She later remarks to the older man named Roger with whom she has maintained a steady but unfulfilling relationship that she was startled by the question, that she had actually forgotten whether she liked Brahms or not, that it had been so long since anyone had asked her what she liked. Roger appears not to understand why Paule might respond so earnestly to the question nor why she would think to recount her reaction to it. His apparent indifference confirms Paule in her decision to let Simon more significantly into her life.

Let me simply go on the record right now and say that I do indeed like Brahms. Were someone to ask me why some day, I will answer the question earnestly – and hopefully.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Lincoln BeautyWare

Breadbox and canisters – the language of another era of kitchen design.

For four years a movers box containing items from my parents’ New Orleans kitchen stood in my New England basement. Nostalgia rather than utility had motivated me to ask for these remnants of my home growing up. Kitchen renovations here two years back made the fate of these items nebulous.

The past two weeks I have had the task of outfitting a small room as a kitchen – or a kitchenette in older parlance. Guess what finally escaped basement shadows for a new life?

There are four canisters and a breadbox in the chrome Lincoln BeautyWare set that used to sit on my mother’s kitchen counter. I will follow her example and ignore the labels affixed to some of the canisters. There will probably not be coffee in the canister labeled “Coffee”; foodies’ habit suggests a refrigerator or freezer for beans or even ground coffee. Nor could anyone in good conscience these days use enough sugar in a year to warrant the tall canister labeled for “Sugar.”

Rather than prominently displayed in a symmetrical row on a kitchen counter the way they had been in my mother’s day, the canisters now line a shelf behind the doors of a wooden cabinet.

On the other hand, the breadbox has too many ready functions to be hidden in that way. Perched on a butcher block counter against one wall, the breadbox will, I am sure, be opened and closed frequently each day. A simple turn on a black knob releases a door on the front of the breadbox. Imbedded in the back of that chrome door is a wooden cutting board that lies flat when the door is open. One of my brothers reminded me of that feature just this past Sunday, on what would have been my father’s 98th birthday.

It struck me this weekend that my father had died within sight of this breadbox. His body as he fell to the kitchen floor after emptying the dishwasher that November morning may have been reflected one last time in the well polished chrome of the familiar door.

In the years after my father’s death my brothers and I would take turns visiting my mother, usually a week at a time. I used to sit at the kitchen table in the evening after my mother had gone to bed. Not five feet from this same breadbox, I would write or read alone, sometimes a novel, sometimes from a book of prayers. Far from my New England home, I would wonder about what I had learned and what I had not learned from my years growing up in this household years earlier.

I still wonder.

Imagine if I had actually heard my father asking my mother one day what she liked particularly about this Lincoln BeautyWare set. If I had heard him asking what it did for her to buy something this fashionable for her kitchen, how it made her feel. If I had heard them discuss together whether there were other ways she wanted a kitchen in her home to look and feel.

I wonder how I would feel today if I had actually heard my father ask her if she knew how happy it made him feel to see her happy.

Last night I turned on the lights in a mahogany case with my parents’ wedding china. I sat in a favorite chair nearby, and by the light from the china cabinet read through the messages that had emerged from my prayer last December. I have recorded them here before. One message in particular stirred me afresh last night:

I have done this much for you. Trust.

God has done this much for me in my life. I keep trusting.

Images of Lincoln BeautyWare from PeacockModern

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Let Me Just Be

In late September 2000 I made a weekend retreat with members of my worshipping community. I recently came across writing I had done on the final day of that retreat. It is personal writing, revealing writing about a troubled time in my life. I would gently warn off any readers for whom this effort is more than they need just now.

It is Sunday morning, an hour before the closing liturgy of the retreat. I am sitting in my room, using my desk for the first time, lighting the candle before the hinged icons I brought from home. Who wanted to be holed up in a room when all the sky and coastline rocks and walkways and chapels beckoned these past two days?

On the other hand, it seems only fair to the time spent away from home to attempt a thanksgiving for these hours and interior movements. I have just opened the window in my room to allow in the sound of distant waves and gulls and the smell and feel of rainy breezes. Autumn approaches, and the God of my autumn is waiting, it seems, for me to let him get close.

The retreat started with a vivid sense of the reality of past retreats. My usual attempt to imitate or re-create those earlier retreats seemed useless this time, but I wanted to know myself as someone who still wants to know God and find God. It has pained me at points in the past months to imagine that I had made facing God a venture too fearful or shameful to attempt or even envision. I thank God for trying to get the real me in touch with the real him in these forty-eight hours of retreat. Even listless hours, waiting for focus or insight or clear reward, sitting in the sun with a breviary lifeless in my lap, were contact of a sort.

“I wish I knew more… I’m not at all sure.” That was the refrain that came this Sunday morning sitting in the small chapel from 6 to 7:30. “I am someone worth living with.” That phrase as well was key to realizing the ferocity of the self-judgments with which I have been living. Later I sensed an anger building within me as I thought of what I had put up with over the years by my eagerness to be liked, to meet with approval, to get on people’s good side, to charm and disarm. What a waste of time, what a waste of energy! I pray now to take a little pity on myself, to unlearn lessons about how to get along with powerful people who could, I thought, make my life miserable.

I want to be chaste, I want to be good, I want to be strong, but ultimately I think I just want to be God’s. And why do I persist in thinking that I may not want that or that I am not in fact God’s? That real God – beyond my feeble, ferocious attempts to grab and capture his attention and ultimately control and show him how to do his job!

O Mary, Mother, calm me, rock me into careless abandon, accompany me as I age and become someone with friends in their fifties and sixties. Let me know my true worth and stance before God with you by my side. Let me welcome this task of being a 48-year-old man, a 49-year-old man, a 50-year-old man. Does everyone fight it so much? Does everyone play the sad clown attempting to pretend it’s perfectly okay with them when it galls them, hurts them, seems like one more piece of evidence that you were a mistake all along, a bad bet, someone not worth living with?

Let me just say “Amen.”

Let me just say “I love you.”

Let me just say “Thank you.”

Let me just say my name.

Let me just sleep and sigh.

Let me just be.

Let me praise.

Let me sing.

Let me live till I die.

Let me die when I will.


I love you.

Thank you.

-- only John

Photo uploaded by John Fenzel