Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On My Way to NYC

An opportuntity for professional development is taking me to New York City for a couple of days. Wistful memories remind me that the city is not all Wall Street profit and Broadway glamour and Radio City Music Hall. Off-and-on wandering may take me into other neighborhoods of the city.

Photos from NYU

Second Language

"There are two languages in language, two ways of speaking, two levels of linguistic usage. There is a language of clear truths, concepts, and formulas… Things are as they are, you say what you mean, as precisely as you can and as unequivocally. Speaking then is deciphering a puzzle, defining, prescribing limits…

"It is good that we have this language… But we never use it when we want to pour out our heart and say what is really in us, hidden and almost impossible to name. In questions of love and death and God and man, this first language, this first way of speaking , is not only inadequate, but also dangerous.

"But there is a second language… It is the language of what cannot really be said. The language that you speak so as not to have to be completely silent. The language of emotion and ecstasy…

"Language given across boundaries and always digging into what cannot be said, into that infinitely double ground of reality, language which leaves veiled and concealed what has to remain veiled and concealed, which evokes the paradoxical and the inaccessible of man’s existence and makes it present in paradoxical words and images…

"Secret language, in which you live as you live with another person, by approximation, near enough to touch, knowing and not knowing, safe and unsafe. A language which does not force itself on you, but does speak with authority and which appeals to another’s creative understanding. The only language which is really daring enough for people."

From “The Second Language” in Open Your Hearts by Huub Osterhuis

Photo of Cabalus guesthouse in Vezelay uploaded on Flickr

Friday, February 22, 2008


The snows that swept up over New England today allowed a mid-afternoon walk through the cemetery near our house. They allowed some moments of conscious praying in that place. They allowed some opportunities of speaking out loud into the cold air around me. They even allowed taking a photograph with my cell phone.

After returning home and shoveling the front walks, I indulged in a short nap in the chair in our library. Awake, I hunted in the CD cabinet in our living room and found the recording I had seen earlier in the week, a 1951 recording of La Bohème that I had not listened to in a long time. Nineteenth-century Paris in the language of Puccini – it fit the week I had just finished.

Through the wooden blinds the late afternoon snow created a light in the living room that I could not violate with a lamp. Bohemian Paris in the winter of 1830 demanded an appropriate setting. A votive candle, maybe. One cat settled on the folded blanket on the sofa back behind me; the other settled at my feet.

The mood in the room for the next two hours was gentle, sentimental, reflective, lyrical.

Solitary and tender, the experience fed my heart, fed my dreams.

Photo of London CD of La Bohème with Renata Tebaldi

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Big Dig

I was on an archeological dig Saturday morning in our basement.

The prospect of an extended weekend may have given me the energy for a task that had been on my mind for several weeks. Or maybe it was the afterglow of a satisfying celebration of Valentine’s Day. Whatever the reason, on a sunny Saturday morning I was approaching a row of boxes in our dark basement.

Inside these boxes I expected to find mainly books that Marc and I had stored there during the past couple of years. I had frankly lost track of how long ago we had first packed some of the boxes. Most had gotten down to the basement during the summer of 2006. Renovations that had initially called for re-carpeting the upstairs master bedroom led to sanding and refinishing the hardwood floors throughout our second floor.

Emptying rooms for the sanders had meant emptying book shelves. Emptier rooms with a new satin finish on the floors discouraged us from carrying back upstairs anything that was not immediately essential. Months passed without any books returning from basement retirement, and we must have gone with the common wisdom that whatever we had lived without for over a year might be something we need never see again.

Except, I discovered this morning, what we had lived without all those months was me.

I don’t mean to overstate the reaction I had to opening the first boxes and finding the books on Italy that used to line one of the shelves in our bedroom. It’s just that the books surprised me by their utter familiarity. For years I had woken up to them, for years I would go to bed able to survey them on the top shelf of the bookcase on my side of the bed. They were a record of three trips to Italy in the past decade. They were evidence that I had made those trips, planned them, returned from them, fed on them for months and years later.

With some of the books I had spent as much time reading and taking notes before the trips as I did during and after the vacations. There had been the delight of planning with multiple guide books open before me, Frommer's and AAA and Rick Steves and DK. In the boxes in the basement there were also Italian phrase books from whose lists of food names Marc and I had ordered our meals in Rome and Florence and Venice.

I found the program book and libretto of a 1997 Teatro di Roma production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Taming of the Shrew, which Marc and I had attended in the Teatro Argentino near our hotel. Not guidebooks per se but guiding books in planning and later recalling our Italian adventures, Henry James’s Italian Hours and Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark lay among the other volumes in the basement boxes. Purchases made in Italy itself included multicolor guides to the mosaics and artwork in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, the Venetian basilica of SS. John and Paul, the Roman basilica of Santa Prassede.

One of the trips to Rome had been scheduled to coincide with the 1998 canonization of German mystic Edith Stein. Also in the basement boxes were my collection of writings by her and about her, volumes that used to stand together on the second shelf in our bedroom bookcase. Other spiritual writers used to be represented on nearby shelves; Karl Rahner and Thomas Merton had been particularly formative for me in my twenties. Coming out of a different vein of spiritual writing were the American Seasons series by naturalist Edwin Way Teale; all four volumes with their variously colored bindings had leaned against other books in that bookcase.

Some time back I bookmarked a website sponsored by La Gondola Circolo Fotografico. An exhibit entitled Venezia, frammenti della memoria had gathered online vintage photographs of Venice. The scenes depicted in the photographers’ images had borne testimony to the Italian charism of being willing to live among the visible signs of its people’s past. Living among the objects of one’s personal past is no negligible achievement either, and re-discovering the books this weekend prompted me to carry at least one box back upstairs from the basement.

I will try to find place for these volumes, as I will try to find place for the John whose present and past and future had once played around them.

Other worthwhile projects and challenges have clearly claimed my attention and energy over recent years.

Has no one, though, missed that other John as much as I have?

Photo from "Venezia, frammenti della memoria" at La Gondola Circolo Fotografico

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Poet I Mentioned over Valentine's Day Dinner

This Life

At the center of this life
there is a man I want to know again.
He has a new house,
a clear view of the mountain
and hidden in the close grained wood
of his desk
a new book of poems.

He has left the life
he once tried to love
now it is only a shadow
calling for another shadow

and this shadow
wants to become real again

it falls against walls
and fences
and stairways

the dark penumbra of my belonging

now let me cast my shadow
against life

before the specter haunts me to my

from The House of Belonging by David Whyte

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Walk Home from Starbucks

It is curious sometimes to look at your own house when you approach it from a distance.

When your house is at a bend in the street – the way ours is – you can see it a block away when you’re coming home from a walk to Starbucks on a Saturday afternoon. A fifteen-minute stroll away, the coffee house gives Marc and me a reason to put on layers on a winter day and venture forth together and talk through the coming and going with our short cappuccinos and skinny lattes.

When what usually surrounds you comes slowly into view from a distance, you get to wondering what other people imagine when they see your house, what sort of people they think might live there. You happen to know what sort of people do.... or at least you think you do.

Sometimes you remember what you thought when you saw the place for the first time. You remember what you thought about the kind of people who get to live in a place like that. You wondered what it would be like for others to think that you were that sort of people.

The kind of people you might have hoped to become by living there gets suggested by a familiar comment after a realtor’s open house: “We could be happy living there.”

You might have walked through the house for the first time and later that evening pictured Christmas trees, logs in the fireplace, long dinner parties with friends.

You would not necessarily have thought that this might be the home to which you would either of you return after a mother’s funeral or a father’s. You would not necessarily have thought that this might be the place where the news of Katrina would signal the end of visits to a family hub as you had known those visits in the past. You would not necessarily have thought that this might be the front walkway up which you step fresh from a hospitalization.

There are times when you look at your house from a distance and you become curious about the kind of people you have become while living there. What would someone’s silhouette – your silhouettes – across the window look like or suggest? Purposeful living? Domestic contentment? A thoughtful engagement with another day’s duties and opportunities?

There might be times when you look at your house from a distance and you become curious about when the chance or the need to imagine other scenarios for your life will occur. You attend neighborhood meetings, and you wonder whether you might one day no longer be the sort of people who would enjoy living here. You watch economic indicators and oil bills, and you wonder whether you might one day no longer be the sort of people who could afford living here.

Really, though, you have few doubts that there will be many more reasons for joy, many more opportunities for love awaiting you in the months and years ahead as you walk home on a winter afternoon, short cappuccino and skinny latte in hand.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday

What is there to draw and hold the attention of a visitor to a cemetery –  especially if no one he knows either by acquaintance or by reputation lies buried there?

I recently sat in the living room and re-read for the first time in years what had been a favorite poem in high school, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” In my lap lay a volume of English poetry that I have owned for over thirty years, and I gave in to the lure of the opening lines of Thomas Gray’s masterpiece:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

The poet seems not to have needed to know anyone in that country churchyard. He has simply settled there for a long evening of reverie and reflection. The fall of night in that quiet rural space in England awakens a sense of wonder that is palpable centuries later.

In a cemetery not far from my house I sometimes walk on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The roads and paths lined with tombstones – some dating from the Civil War – are not long enough in themselves to take more than ten minutes to cover if I were walking briskly and purposefully. But my pace in this cemetery generally takes its cue not from a need for exercise but from a need to attend to what is happening within me. I saunter, reverse directions, retrace my steps, stop sometimes and look around me and above me – and then start the whole routine over.

Various things within an older cemetery can engage my curiosity – the nationality of the residents of a particular plot, the relationships among the people whose names appear on the same stone, the personality of the person who had died the earliest among them, the flavor of the grief of the ones who survived to raise this stone and visit it and perhaps imagine one day lying below it themselves.

The shapes of individual and family tombs, the years inscribed, the relative state of repair of the grave, the softening of some lettering, the occasional presence of wreaths and flowers, the record of the shortness of someone’s span of years, another person’s year of death recalling a wartime world – so many invitations crowd around me, and I sink gently into speculation.

There is sometimes the experience of coming across a tomb that I must have passed time and again but about which there is that day something totally unfamiliar. I look at a name or a sculpture or a style of lettering or a symbol engraved or a sturdy thickness of greenery around the base of the stone. I wonder how I could have missed noticing this piece of the experience before.

There are days when I leave the paved road and wander into the grassy spaces between lines of older tombs. I feel the dips and curves of the ground under my shoes, and quickly there is no easy way to ensure that I am not walking directly over the bones of someone. The longer I stray over the grass, the more aggressively present seem the stones before me and behind me. I slowly get to feel myself surrounded rather than detached and merely speculative – no longer simply curious but increasingly engaged and almost ensnared.

And occasionally in the midst of my walking alone, there is the urge to begin speaking into the air around me, sometimes to work out with words an elusive or tortuous line of thought, sometimes to weigh and ponder a question slowly and methodically. Sometimes, though, there is the urge just to say what comes, to repeat again and again what starts to be a simple refrain like “Thank you.”

A walk through a cemetery, and my attention is drawn within.

A walk through an old cemetery, and my attention is drawn beyond.

But the call to attention is clear, insistent, ultimately soothing, invariably enriching.

I will return there again these next forty days of Lent.

Monday, February 4, 2008

There's No One Like

Some friends at work joined me today in discussing a plan for an exchange that could set this Valentine’s Day apart from others. Suppose two people agreed to complete these statements about one other – to spend time between now and Thursday of next week thinking about the answers, trying them out, writing them out, and then on Valentine's Day presenting them as a gift:

1. There’s no one like N (Nomen=name) for ___________.

2. Sometimes I like just watching N as (s)he ___________.

3. I know no one who can ___________ as deftly as N.

4. If I want to picture N happy, one place I see her/him is _____________________.

5. There’s no way I know as much about __________ as N does.

6. If money were no consideration, I can imagine no gift that N would enjoy more than ___________.

7. It always makes me proud to talk to others about N and about his/her ___________.

8. I know how to do a lot of things but maybe not as carefully as N when it comes to ___________.

9. No one knows what ___________ means to me as clearly as N does.

10. I remember why I like N so much when I hear him/her ___________.

I have to admit that I have not passed this plan by Marc yet. Here, though, are the statements that I came up with, their order rearranged to keep themes together:

Sometimes I like just watching Marc as he types an entry for his blog, sitting in his sweats at the computer.

There’s no one like Marc for writing with wry playfulness and multi-layered wit.

I know how to do a lot of things but maybe not as carefully as Marc when it comes to planning the menu of a dinner party or just compiling a weekly shopping list.

I know no one who can chop garlic and onions and measure a long recipe of seasonings as deftly as Marc.

There’s no way I know as much about movies, the Academy Awards and Pauline Kael as Marc does.

If I want to picture Marc happy, one place I see him is a restaurant called Celadon in the French city of Troyes in March of 2007.

If money were no consideration, I can imagine no gift that Marc would enjoy more than a year in France.

I remember why I like Marc so much when I hear him on the phone with his sister.

It always makes me proud to talk to others about Marc and about his way of staying in touch with friends, even friends he knew in high school.

No one knows what twenty-two years of Tuesday evenings means to me as clearly as Marc does.

Time will tell whether the plan my colleagues and I discussed with energy today will have the effect we envision.

We’ll certainly never tell you ourselves.

Photo of Troyes downloaded on Flickr by Dom Bastian