Monday, March 31, 2008

Believing in Hope

Michael is an English teacher, and so Michael is a lover of texts.

It made sense last week in New Orleans during our visit one afternoon that he would want to talk about the last letter his son Malcolm had written to him. Malcolm had died last March at the age of twenty-four, and Michael and his wife Maureen just observed the first anniversary of their son’s death.

Michael did not have a copy of Malcolm’s short letter in front of him, but he had its contents memorized. As though the letter were lying flat on the table in front of him, Michael moved his finger through line after invisible line of what his son had written. It was a simple message of the love Malcolm had had for his parents and his family.

When Michael came to the P.S. of the letter, he had to stop. How much the words he wanted to read meant to Michael was obvious from the emotion that prevented him at first from continuing. How much the words meant to him was obvious from the determination with which Michael finally managed through tears to recite his son’s last words.

It had been two years since the last visit that Michael and I had arranged, another afternoon in New Orleans with just the two of us at first, joined later by Maureen, ultimately all of us at the family dinner table with Malcolm. There was no way Michael and I could have had a subsequent visit without talking about Malcolm. There might have been if Michael were another sort of man, another sort of father, another sort of friend.

Because Michael was the sort of friend he was, though, I ventured in time to talk about issues that had brought me into therapy during those two years we had not seen one another. What I told him of the circumstances of my own growing up revealed a part of my story that he had never guessed. What I told him of the losses of the past several years was met by understanding attention.

We both of us offered at times in the afternoon’s conversation to defer to the comfort of the other and move on to other topics. Neither of us really wanted to, however.

The fact we had neither of us ever foreseen sitting across from a friend of thirty years and talking about these kinds of loss did not seem a reason to avoid them as subjects of conversation. On the contrary, it seemed the reason to move into them, to let the tears come when they would, to ask the questions of one another that occurred to one or the other of us as our two hours together passed.

Near the close of our visit, Michael recalled the walk into Carlsbad Caverns that he and I had made together on a vacation in our twenties. He mentioned the way I had listened to him for over an hour as he spoke about the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins during our descent into the caverns. He was finding a cue in our common past to express his gratitude to have someone there this past week in New Orleans listening to what he wanted to say.

At the start of this Second Week of Easter, the Gospel narrative of Doubting Thomas was read in churches throughout the world. Today it is my turn to express gratitude for the trust with which someone offered to let me touch his wounds and to come to believe afresh that we are none of us alone.

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas" by Caravaggio from Ibiblio

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Easter Baskets

Brown and gray and black and tan are not the usual Easter colors. On the other hand, creating a basket for a niece in her thirties has its challenges. I decided to try my hand at using my new Mailmate shredder from Staples. After feeding a few basic brown paper bags and several pages from an old paperback anthology of Petrarch, I rested speckled eggs amid the literary softnesses and included a gift certicate to a local tea merchant. A sepia postcard of Paris and a remarkable duck candleholder made the basket something I was willing to offer to a sophisticated young woman and her fiancé.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Easter Bloom

An amaryllis that I had received as a gift for Christmas 2007 was in full bloom this early Easter. No longer dependent on other's photographs of red bloom, I offer this homegrown image as testimony to all that Nature wants to lavish on us. I post anew the poem that I received with the bulb.

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

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

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

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ready to Revisit the Big Not-Always-So-Easy

Later this week Marc and I will probably drive past my high school in New Orleans, a large all-boys school, highly competitive academically and athletically. Each year approximately 40 students are named National Merit Semifinalists. The prizes awarded at the graduation ceremony used to be gold medals of the school seal, and each was awarded to a student who had performed the best on a test administered after school on various days in the spring semester. There was a history test, a physics test, a biology test; a test in religious studies, a test in French, even a test in oratory. A student could sit for any or all of the tests; and any student could sit for a test – a senior, a junior, a sophomore, even a freshman.

In a jewelry box that belonged to my mother is the gold medal that I had received as a sophomore for my performance on the school’s exam for the Latin prize. A strategy sometimes promoted by teachers of the lower grades in my high school was to urge their best students to take an exam as practice for the competition in a later year. Because we did not write our names on the exams, which were then graded anonymously by the members of a department, it occasionally happened that a junior or a sophomore got to attend the commencement in May and walk in front of the seniors in their graduation tuxedoes and receive a prize from the hands of the visiting bishop.

Once I left home after college, my mother decided not to let the small gold medal languish in the dark of a drawer. Hanging on a delicate gold chain around her neck, my Latin prize became a convenient prop in my mother’s boasting about her four sons. Until the final year of her life, it was a regular part of her dressing for both public and private occasions. During visits with my parents over the years, I used to hope that it could remain a quiet, unacknowledged accessory rather than a kind of trophy that would only remind me of something that hadn’t happened at the end of that sophomore year.

What hadn’t happened had to do with how people spoke with me. I will tell you one thing that no one asked me: How do you feel about being a sophomore and getting this prize? How do you feel about being a sophomore and getting this prize in front of a graduating class of seniors? How do you feel about being a sophomore and getting a prize at graduation and going home afterward and having no one ask you what it felt like?

Because no one asked, I have to admit that I did not know what it felt like.

Some psychologists use the term emotional blindness. Most people don’t understand what’s so important about the kind of questions I didn’t hear. Wasn’t I just happy to get the prize? Wasn’t it clear to me – especially years later – that my parents were proud of me?

Because no one asked, I have to admit that I do not know.

I had been a quiet student in school, a dutiful student, the student whose quiz teachers could use as an answer key in correcting my classmates’ work. Conscientious, intent on doing well, I maintained a quiet demeanor from day to day that said: “You don’t need to worry about me. I’ll do the homework and study hard for the test. I’ll raise my hand if no one else is ready to. I will help make your class work. I probably won’t ask to see you after class; I probably won’t take time out of your busy day. There’s nothing about me I’m not used to taking care of on my own.”

My basic strategy worked if teachers and the other adults in my life didn’t feel the need to talk about me. I must have seemed to be doing fine. Talking about me would only have raised questions that I preferred not to engage: What makes him happy? What gets him angry or disappointed or sad? What gives him a sense of satisfaction? What is his dearest wish for his life? What does it feel like when people really know him?

If someone had asked me such questions at the end of my sophomore year and if I had been aware and daring and honest enough, I might have said: “I don’t want to hear this. I don’t know how to hear this. I don’t want to be told that my strategy for making it through school, through life at home and – for all I know – maybe even through life later on is not going to do what I intended. Don’t ask me questions I don’t know how to answer.”

A man in my fifties in his second year of therapy, I’m ready for those questions.

It might be unsettling for friends and partner and family to hear that at this point in my life I need those questions to be asked.

It is important that I find ways to tell people that I need those questions asked now – and often.

I’m ready for them.

Photo of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans by J.R.Wanek

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Keeping Anniversaries for Healing and Peace: The Easter Mystery

I was one of the silent readers in the Salle Ovale of the Bibliotheque Nationale on Thursday morning of Holy Week a year ago. My desk was numbered 13, and the light of a green-glass-shaded lamp supplemented the illumination from the grand oval skylight. With my Moleskine journal open before me, I was a reader that morning, a student, a man probing and reflecting and putting into words some of the impressions of the previous few days in Paris.

On a break from the week’s professional duties, I had decided to head to a new and – for me – hitherto unexplored Paris. At the Richelieu site of the Bibliotheque Nationale I spent more than an hour before the haunting images of a Paris that was already being termed “old Paris” at the end of the nineteenth century when Eugene Atget was taking his famous photographs.

The sepia shots of streets and storefronts and roofs and courtyards were perfect for me that Thursday morning. With barely a human face or form in most of the images, the exhibit served to underscore the value of all that regularly goes without repair or attention or updating or cleaning or refurbishing, all that might appear outmoded or negligible or forgotten.

Again and again I found myself imagining families who had made a particular set of walls the landscape of their daily living; individuals who had found a way to make a living that might enable them to eat better, sleep easier, and dream happier dreams; even pets who had looked in hopeful contentment to human owners invested in enjoying their company.

So much human life was suggested in those still spaces caught on film over a century ago. I tried to capture that perspective in my journal as I sat in the Salle Ovale.

The other topic I could not avoid thinking about and eventually writing about that Thursday morning was a young Dutch man who had leapt to his death in the city three days earlier. All the richness of human life suggested by Atget’s photographs had not been enough, it seemed, to support and give meaning to that young man’s continued existence.

He is now part of my life, however. He is now part of the lives of all the people who were fated to be witnesses of his fall.

I cautioned myself Holy Thursday morning not to presume to know what had happened to the young man to bring him to this act. The truth I could not avoid, however, was that he had wrested from each of us who were on-lookers heartache and a significant place in the memories of our lives.

Two days later I was praying for him at the cathedral in Chartres. I was also praying to him, asking him now to do whatever he could to ease the hearts and souls of the people he had devastated by his desperate jump on Monday afternoon. I made a prayerful claim on him to work especially hard to help those who loved him, to help them find a way to healing and peace through the months and years that they would live with his absence.

Holy Week, I was reminded in the quiet spaces of the Bibliotheque Nationale, places us in the presence of that other life whose violent end was not allowed to speak finally only of devastation. The chance of recovery and the hope of heart’s ease and the dream of deep alleluias of joy are the stuff of the Easter mystery.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

After Reading More Recession Headlines This Morning in Holy Week

Three portraits were on sale in an antiques store in Waterville, Maine, the summer of 2001. On the reverse of each cardboard frame was a signature – Bessie Chapman, Cora Benedix, Lucy Bailey – followed by a proud legend: “Class of 1919.” Someone had kept all three senior portraits for many years until unknown circumstances led to their standing, all three still together, in a chest of drawers in a store in Maine into which Marc and I would walk that sunny day.

The purchase was the first of its kind for me. Up to that point I had been pretty much immune to the charm and appeal of vintage photographs, and I frankly could not have explained that summer day exactly why I bought them. Within twenty-four hours, however, I was showing them to a family friend, and we began to weave stories about these three young women about whom we really knew next to nothing.

A few months later, reflecting on the three photographs in the aftermath of the events of September 11, I was surprised to find that I no longer viewed the portraits as a random acquisition. Bessie Chapman and Cora Benedix and Lucy Bailey, I was beginning to suspect, might have lessons to teach me about being ready for change at an hour I did not expect.

At the close of their sophomore year, in May 1917, the United States had declared war against Germany; members of the Class of 1919 had had to learn to say goodbye to older brothers and fathers and cousins and watch them walk down streets to train stations to prepare for the battlefields of Europe.

In October of their senior year, they had witnessed a flu epidemic that ravaged New England and then the rest of the country, eventually killing 675,000 Americans, primarily young men and women, often in a matter of only two or three days.

Ten years after Bessie and Cora and Lucy graduated from high school, the Stock Market would crash and the Great Depression begin.

And ten years after that, in September 1939, they would read in the papers that Hitler had invaded Poland.

And yet their portraits remain, and the bond between Bessie and Cora and Lucy can get me ninety years later reflecting on my own life, all perhaps because of one person who asked for their portraits and saved them through the shifts and challenges of the last century and would not part with the pictures or discard them – until she had to.

Six weeks after September 11, I was journalling about the Gospel passage in which Jesus speaks about houses broken into and masters delayed in coming home. To me, his words communicated a compassionate awareness that people live one way when they do not expect that things can really change or end in their lives. They live another when they find out or are reminded that things can and do change. “At an hour you do not expect,” Jesus says, events in your life can demand of you every ounce of courage and honesty and intelligence and wisdom. Lives change, Jesus is saying. Be ready for the change.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Let the Good Times Roll

I enjoy having a good time.

It seems odd to start what will be a post of some length with that simple confession. I ask myself whether there could really be people who would not admit this truth about themselves readily and happily. Recently, though, I find myself at times laughing out loud in my office, and I wonder if I surprise anyone by that laughter. I surprise myself, I guess. I have a suspicion that I may not always have struck others as someone who could say that he enjoys having a good time.

Serious, thoughtful, dependable John – in the time left over from daily errands and the necessities of healthy living, what makes up his life? After the professional responsibilities and the household routines, next to life with Marc and what I’ll term political commitments, what do I do for the sheer delight and satisfaction of doing it?

The first thing that would occur to someone who knows me is that I do this. I reflect. I mull. I pose the question that almost seems as if it would answer itself until someone actually tries to answer it. I sit with Marc in a bar in New York and I wonder – about the people who visit the bar regularly, about whether we would have enjoyed a bar just like this when we were single and in our twenties, about the memories we both have of friends we knew in our twenties and the ways we would have spoken with them about hopes and dreams. I wonder often what goes on for any of us under our carefully maintained appearances. I wonder what memories remain the most vivid and life-giving for each of us.

Another thing that would occur to someone who knows me is that I do this. I write. And I do it well after many years’ practice. I write about the things I’m wondering. I write about the things I want to remember. In a basket next to my chair at home is a collection of journals that I’ve kept at different times and on various occasions over the past three decades – vacation weeks, religious retreats, journaling workshops, trips home to my family in New Orleans. I have entries that I’ve written in front of a Christmas tree in Pennsylvania, on a train ride between Rome and Florence, in an Anglican retreat house on the New Hampshire border, in an inn on Cape Cod.

Something that becomes apparent to anyone who regularly reads what I’ve written and posted online is that I enjoy reading. Last year I read again and again Mary Oliver’s newest collection of poems Thirst. I read biographies of American Romantic Nathaniel Hawthorne and British Poet Laureate John Betjeman and Southern novelist Harper Lee. I read The Master by Colm Tóibín and The Gathering by Anne Enright, two recent novels that have garnered a considerable readership. I read a number of memoirs, Seminary Boy by John Cornwell and The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl and Chaque jour est un adieu by Alain Rémond. I read a journal by May Sarton and a collection of her letters to Juliette Huxley. I read three tales set in Edinburgh featuring Alexander McCall Smith’s unlikely philosopher-sleuth Isabel Dalhousie.

Something of my hunger for a particular kind of conversation becomes clear to friends with whom I walk or sit, talking – sometimes for an hour at a time – about our questions, our lives, the books we’re reading, the things we’re trying to write, the plans we’re hatching for art projects, the hopes we have for the years ahead, the things we remember about even the earliest months of our acquaintance. Confidences shared, fears confessed, decisive realizations explored in an earnest give and take – so the most memorable conversations in my life have been made up. One friend recently exclaimed over drinks with Marc and me when I recalled to him what he had once told me of someone’s failure to celebrate with him on his graduation from law school almost three decades earlier. Other friends share with me an energy and fascination in discussing the range of personality types as sketched by systems like the Enneagram and Myers Briggs and the cues for directions for growth that such systems can provide.

Scattered about the house are mementos, records of other ways I have pursued leisure hours over the years. There are albums of vintage photographs that I’ve purchased and collected. There are shelves of decorative papers and note cards and old postcards and paper punches and rubber stamps and black photo corners and bronze grommets and envelopes in a host of sizes and colors; from the materials on these shelves have emerged artists' books and greeting cards and even wedding programs. There are photos that I have framed of Marc and me at the Eiffel Tower and at St. Paul’s in London, others of family in Venice and North Carolina and friends on their wedding day in Trinity Church in downtown Boston and pets on the back porch. On the floor in our living room are two baskets of all the Christmas cards that Marc and I have received over the more than two decades that we have been together; a yearly review of them is a ritual that I keep each winter when the light is low and the cold grows deep.

Other important pleasures are waiting to be described. There are indeed people who visit churches on a vacation because of the architecture and the art and the ceremony and the associations that certain places have with the writers and poets and saints of the ages. When I enter a church in an otherwise empty hour on a trip to France or just on a visit to a neighborhood near home, I go with an added expectation of being invited deeper into my own life. I subscribe to the mood evoked by British poet Philip Larkin in “Churchgoing”:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in…

When I enter a church at a quiet hour, I enter a world where prayer books and rosaries and candles and statues speak a language that I understand. Far from hierarchies, it becomes the language of mindfulness that I find myself wanting to hear and to speak in settings like retreat houses and old cemeteries and even an armchair in my own house for an hour each evening. It is the language I encounter in the best spiritual writing and in the best poetry, in the breakthrough moments in therapy and in the conversations that I have to have or risk being untrue to myself. It is the language in which I hear myself asked on the deepest level "What do you want?"

This language feels like my native tongue, and to my ears I sound most like John when I am using this language in conversation or writing. I can speak other languages, but then I feel that I am translating what actually started in the language of my heart. At times I even avoid certain topics in conversation if I’m not sure I can translate what I most deeply want to say into a language that the other person will understand. What gets lost in translation, though, is some important stuff that makes me the John I am.

During social evenings that Marc and I spend with friends, it can sometimes feel that there is little or no chance for me to show up as someone with a history of these passions and interests. I know that not every meeting with friends has to accommodate major themes from my own life, and sometimes there is the delightful surprise of a new, refreshing focus around a play or movie that we are all attending or a new restaurant that we are trying. I know what happens to me, though, when an evening progresses and none of these buttons of mine has gotten pushed or acknowledged. I slow down, grow quiet, move inward, wonder what there is I can say or do to move back into the currents of the evening. I take it as a sign that there is more work I need to do to make the kind of conversations I want possible.

But I have been laughing more in recent months.

And I have been growing in a sense of the vitality of the interests by which I am delighted and strengthened and the non-negotiable need for the kind of conversation that recognizes that vitality and helps keep me the John I want to be.

In the language of my native Louisiana, “Laisse le bon temps rouler!”

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Noah and the Flood of Loss

Sitting in the library at home on recent evenings, I have held in the palm of my hand an image of Noah greeting the dove with an olive branch in its beak. The ark from whose high window Noah extends a bearded face tilts on the crest of a powerful wave.

The bronze square that I have been contemplating is a miniature reproduction of a panel in a church door in Italy. I bought the article four years ago in Amsterdam in a religious arts store near Café Luxembourg, a favorite spot where I had my first taste of the Dutch drink known as genever. From a brown leather banquette, I could look through the tall windows at the back of the café and glimpse the steeple of the beautiful Gothic church known as the Krijtberg.

How can four years ago seem a lifetime away?

On one of those March days in Amsterdam Marc and I had an argument. Where would we celebrate Christmas later that year? I had proposed spending it in New Orleans for what could well be my mother’s last Christmas. Marc countered that this was the year for us to spend the holidays with his sister, especially since we had spent the previous Christmas – their first Christmas after their own mother’s death – with my family down South.

It had been a hard argument to have on the streets of Amsterdam. For each of us family feeling, fueled by normal vacation fatigue, made us look at the other in disbelief given what felt like a clear failure to appreciate the emotional needs of a partner.

Fate reduced our argument to an academic one. My mother would die two months later, my New Orleans brother’s partner five months after that, and my favorite aunt the first week of December. The devastation of Katrina the following year removed New Orleans from our consideration for any holidays in the foreseeable future.

In the close to two years since my first post-Katrina visit to New Orleans, I have worked hard to fathom the flood of loss since those days in Amsterdam, since the purchase of the image of Noah that I have held in my hand the past few nights. I have worked hard to repair the inadequate ways I long ago learned for handling anything that looked like grief, for handling changes in my life over which I had no apparent control.

Reflecting on the image of Noah this past week and wondering what this story from the Book of Genesis might have new to say to me, I recalled something about a flood.

The wave bears up at the same time that it overwhelms.

Despite the submerging of so much that had been familiar to Noah, I want to think that at some point he might have felt reassured. I want to think that Noah at some point might have realized that God had trusted him with this challenge, this opportunity, just this life – his life. Noah may have felt at times the critical glances of his family, the silent judgment on the faces of people recalling what they had lost of the routine goals of a life.

The dove brought Noah reassurance that somewhere over that endless expanse of water was life as he had known it – or maybe something even better, even stronger, even better suited to helping him start over.

The wave bears up at the same time that it overwhelms.

Noah will not be the same when he comes on shore.

Photo from Café Luxembourg