Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Retreat Morning in Late December

There are mornings that you wake up in a room that is not your usual room. You don’t always remember at first that you chose to forego home in the interest of… well, of something that you don’t yet have the words for.

That’s what retreats are about: venturing into wordless regions of your heart that you may lead your daily life acknowledging without knowing how to enter them, feel at home in them, speak the truth from them.

The words are just not there.

Not yet.

It is hard to expect the people who are family and friends and colleagues to ask you about regions of your heart for which you yourself don’t yet have words. So any retreat is a solitary venture.

There can be sadness that surfaces in a retreat. It is simply a sadness most of us manage not to feel in our daily lives. At times, that sadness is a first step in recognizing that we are a little lost, that there is no map for this.

So what is the wise step after waking up in a room that is not your usual room?

You break the fast. You walk yourself into a kitchen. You find the cup around which you can curve your hands.

And you look out into a cold morning sky that only gulls seem yet to have found a home in.

Monday, December 28, 2009

How I Dispassionately and Somewhat Capriciously Explained 2009 to an Old Friend Responding to my Christmas Card

1. After two months of dividing household goods and packing them, I sold a house in March; I moved a few items to my present rooms and put others in a storage facility.
2. Since March I have one of the cats living with me.
3. During the spring I flew to Paris for a sudden visit.
4. In April my niece had a baby boy, the first member of that generation of the family.
5. In April I attended my high school reunion, the 40th for the Class of 1969.
6. In May I took part in a weekend parish retreat; I gave one of the talks.
7. In June I became the owner of a photograph exhibited in a show in Portland, Maine.
8. In June I got a BlackBerry.
9. In July I visited with a friend in New York City.
10. In July I entered a gallery on Cape Cod and discovered and purchased the painting Two Warm Trees that I had featured on my Christmas card last year.
11. Over Labor Day weekend I visited my brother in New Orleans.
12. Since September I have been enrolled in an introductory German class.
13. I continue writing for my blog Writing Cabin; my favorite postings this year include one about washing dishes;
14. one about encountering a red fox on a snowy morning;
15. one about making the Stations of the Cross;
16. one about visiting my parents’ graves;
17. one about preparing a Friday evening meal;
18. one about not making plans;
19. one about expecting change;
20. and at least two about walking through a cemetery.

The highlighted numbers provide links to pertinent posts on Writing Cabin.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Allagash White Christmas

Card basket. Belgian Style.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Another Nutcracker

No viola da gamba and no harpsichord tonight. The satin ribbons by which melodies of the Italian baroque can tie up a golden winter evening will remain wound on the Early Music spool. New England weather will take those of us with an evening of live performance in mind and return us to comfortable homespun and kitchen warmth.

Sadly but wisely the concert has been cancelled.

What would have been a night out becomes a night in. A number of us have the familiar experience ahead of us of digging into the store with which we have – squirrel-wise – surrounded ourselves at winter’s approach. Chapters of books, Netflix episodes, replies to emails, candles burning on a sideboard, an early doze on the sofa before the lights of a tree – what abundance...

And when would we have gotten to it all if we had once again this evening abandoned our homes to thermostats on low and lights on timers?

Time for the crack of walnuts and filberts. The spray of an orange slice against our tongue. The cold of the window pane through which we glimpse our well-shoveled walks and steps.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Calm and Silence

Growing up, I loved going to the local public library in December and taking out books about Christmas. It was secret solace to read and re-read tales of this time of year. The books told deliciously predictable stories whose weakness lay – at times – in how hard it could be to talk about them with family at home.

If I wanted to be efficient, I sometimes borrowed the library books in July or August or September. Something eye-opening happens in reading about Christmas in those humid summer months in Louisiana. Yes, I yearned for the picture-book Christmas but knew better than to expect it. What people want to believe about holidays is what sells books about them – not the actual tenor of those December days and nights for a New Orleans family like mine.

My first Christmas away from family took place when I was 20, the year I entered seminary. I did not mind the institutional aspects of the community observance of the feast. In fact, they were a relief in ways I could not have foreseen. I did not have to disguise the eagerness with which I could enter a darkened chapel and approach an altar banked with poinsettias and greenery and sit in the dimness, unhurried and alone.

My parents had been informed beforehand that neither I nor any of my seminary classmates would get to travel home for Christmas dinner. So no aunts and uncles for me that year, no cousins and their spouses, no drives to be part of a clan that could create a feast and efficiently clean up after it, buy gifts and open them and say – each of us – the words of thanks that family feeling required.

After all of the Christmas morning Masses that my family had attended, Christmas Midnight Mass in the seminary chapel that first year was a beautiful experience. The service, its music and its readings and its silences, was the centerpiece of a busy twenty-four hours that would find the community together in the dining room at noon the next day. The festive meal once over, however, we were on our own.

Walking out into the fields behind the seminary later that afternoon, I discovered a calm that I had never before associated with Christmas Day. There was no discomfort looming out there under the leafless trees and country paths. In all the gray sky open above me, there was not the least emotional volatility to be careful around – no chance of someone saying the wrong thing, serving something the wrong way, coming across someone in a back room at the wrong moment.

It turned out a refreshingly different Christmas Day in a number of ways. For once, there would be no drive home in a dark car at the end of the day, my family suddenly just us again, the trunk loosely packed with the gifts we had opened during the day.

There was no silence that first Christmas afternoon in the fields that was not welcome.

I expect more refreshingly different Christmas Days in my life.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas, Family and Hospitals

I forget sometimes what hospitals and nursing homes feel like during the Christmas season. I forget that I am likely to enjoy the holidays again this year without a reason to pay daily visits to either one of those institutions. That freedom isn’t the good luck of everyone I know.

Almost two decades back my mother had emergency bypass surgery a few days before Christmas. Airline tickets purchased weeks earlier were going to get me and my partner to my hometown of New Orleans just in time to spend Christmas Eve with my elderly father in a guesthouse attached to Ochsner Foundation Hospital. As hospital staff dropped to a skeleton crew to permit as many employees as possible an observance of the holiday with their families, I walked with my father and my partner through increasingly quiet halls to the Intensive Care Unit for visiting hours.

The temperatures in the hospital corridors and patient rooms were eerily steady. No matter the time of day or night, a jacket or coat or sweater eventually got to be too much in that well-modulated environment.

Walking through glass doors into the parking lot at the end of a visit brought breathtaking relief. There was air moving around me again. There was unscheduled, chartless life waiting for me. I had gotten a second chance to do something with my life, I felt as my partner unlocked the doors of our rental car.

Choice is what fills your lungs and powers your legs when you are the one who can walk away from a loved one on a hospital bed who has a menu to complete every day every meal.

Sometimes it is just the choice to walk away from Christmas decorations that you would never want in your own home. You can be an adult again when the safe and antiseptic corridors with their cardboard garlands are behind you.

The chance we each of us want for our parents and our spouses can make a hospital or a nursing home the gift we can’t explain offering to someone who may himself, who may herself a few years earlier have walked out of a hospital into a parking lot, eager as well for life, eager as well for choice.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bringing the Greens to Henry James

Click on the picture to read the inscription better.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Seeing in the Dark

"People who’ve never really been in the country are most surprised by its darkness at night. 'It’s so dark!' they say in disbelief, as if darkness weren’t an ancient, long-enduring experience, well attested in the human record. 'So dark!' they repeat, as if there were no other words for it. And sometimes they add, 'Aren’t you ever afraid?' Though we laugh, the frisson is wonderfully expressive. We know that the darkness of country nights is as precious as its fresh air.

"Every night it comes, not just a matter of the sky, but a feeling all around, like a meta-silence, a fifth element, more bodily than air, more humanly habitable than water. In it a different dimension of our senses comes forward. Sight modulates. We learn we can see in the dark and move around familiar territory. In fact sight shifts away from its analytical mode to become something more elemental, an easy confidence in the familiar, a being widely at home. Contrary to our instincts to take flashlights into the dark with us, we need sight less at night, because then it gives up the lead and falls into a lively, working fellowship with our other senses. Then we realize that our whole body is one delicate sense, creating at every moment the outline of energy of the other things in the world."

From Naming the Light by Rosemary Deen

Saturday, December 5, 2009

December Mood




Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving Day Walk on the Beach

No matter what goals regularly demand your creative energy and conscious attention, there are days when personal goals take their place within a wider landscape. You have no control over that earlier landscape that is known as family. In fact, much of your life has been taken up making peace with that older context, its wisdom, its values, its offer of love.

Festal days like Thanksgiving give an opportunity for that wisdom and those values and that offer of love to take new shape.

Sometimes on a seashore facing the Atlantic Ocean.

I joined two of my brothers at a niece's house on Cape Cod yesterday. Mid-afternoon we began the customary discussion of a walk before the Thanksgiving meal. The walks have taken place in years past on a nearby college campus or through an old New England neighborhood, uncle in conversation with niece or nephew, brother in conversation with sister-in-law, the late November sky clear, cold and blue or sometimes - like yesterday - grey and cloudy.

As we headed to Cape Cod National Seashore, I watched my oldest brother. He has become a grandfather this year, and I am adjusting my image of him to accommodate the fresh outpouring of love with which he invests each interaction with his grandson. Seeing the two of them on the beach, I felt fortunate to be witnessing the family in the midst of a new burgeoning.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Birthday Weekend

The first occasion that you wear a gift shirt should be an occasion.

Selecting the occasion well is a token of gratitude to the giver.

You get to walk through part of a day looking different from how you have looked for a while. If the fit is right and the color a favorite and the first washing successful in bringing a desired softness to the fabric, you look – and feel – like new.

Or so you hope.

And gifts are about hope. They are about a hope that connections will deepen and prospects improve for the important people in your life and the ways you get to interact with them.

This last Saturday I wore my new grey plaid flannel shirt. It was my birthday weekend, and I was going places during the day for what would prove in the end a series of treats.

I would not expect everyone to choose to start a birthday weekend with a stroll through a sprawling urban cemetery. The morning was a delicately cool one, however, and the garden spaces through which I got to wend my way were landscaped with monuments and tombstones and chapels. The end of fall was all quiet and November mood.

As meditative a walk as I had chosen, I discovered every now and then that I had not been the only person alert to the attractions of this kind of morning. I spotted other individuals on the cemetery paths, wearing the same easy layers as I, appearing at times engrossed by the paved road beneath their feet, at other times directing their gaze up and around to all the high and quiet drama of the monuments.

One particular view caught the attention of two of us at the same time. As one man raised his iPhone to click on the image of a cemetery chapel, I walked up behind him and aimed my BlackBerry at his careful focussing. I enjoyed the prospect of capturing a scene similar to one I must occasion from time to time for other visitors.

And you know what? I was glad to have on my new shirt at that moment. I was glad to feel like new.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Year in Review

I regularly re-read what I write.

Once a day I re-read the most recent post on Writing Cabin. I freshly edit as I read, add a definite or indefinite article, delete a sentence or sometimes a whole paragraph, break up a longer sentence into two, even three shorter, less complicated sentences.

Generally I opt for greater clarity and simplicity in my editings of a text.

Occasionally, though, I am wary of simplicity. I make the choice to leave something subtle or nuanced or mysterious -- even at the risk of baffling present and future readers.

There is one future reader for whose reaction I know to be prepared. It is a reader who will inevitably understand better than I do now what I am busy trying to say, the mood or tone I am attempting to create in a given piece of writing. It is a reader whose opinion does matter to me but over whose reaction I have no control. I know (or think I know) that I can count on his good will, his interest, his insight -- and, maybe most importantly, his compassion.

I am that future reader.

I am writing things that he may be the only reader genuinely invested in decoding and deciphering a year from now.

On the threshold of another birthday, I read what I wrote about my birthdays in previous years.

At times I read and I am close to saying to that earlier John: "You have no idea."

At other times?

I admit to him: "Actually you do."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


In New England there are industries that survive by creating potent images of warmth.

A flannel shirt came to my office today from LLBean. With this early token of recognition that November is my birthday month, I acknowledge an eagerness for the kind of weather that makes this fabric, its softness and its hearty thickness, suggest home.

I will wear it with warm thoughts.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fall Backward

Sometimes you go along with situations in your life, tell yourself you're doing what you can, acknowledge that there may be no easy way for things to look or feel different. And, after all, how difficult would it be to continue with certain expectations on hold? Dreaming big has a stubborn lure, though, and experience suggests that there is a truth in dreaming big that you ignore at your peril.

But you just don't know.

And then a sky opens up before you one early fall evening. The space above you that you had sat with and accepted as inescapably limited by October cloud cover starts to move. November winds that should not surprise you do something that does surprise.

You fall backward at the possibility that a sky can look different. You fall backward because, yes, the sky definitely does look different.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Abscission and All Saints

One autumn day a colleague walked into my office for the customary exchange of morning greetings. I was sitting at my desk as we chatted, and she could look over my shoulder at the trees in front of the building.

"Abscission!" she suddenly remarked, staring past me.

At this word I didn't recognize, I swiveled in my chair in time to see leaves fall slowly through the windless air outside my window.

My colleague brought her background of a degree in biology into play. She helped me understand that point at which tree branches naturally prepare scar tissue and shed an organism like a leaf or flower.

Around All Saints' Day, I become a native of New Orleans again. I recall a cultural acknowledgment that used to make cemeteries throughout the city and the neighboring parishes of Louisiana gathering places for families. Every November 1, we learned to pay tribute to the inescapable shedding that populated these cities of the dead.

Something of the feel of those cemetery visits comes through in the final act of Thornton Wilder's play Our Town. On a stage full of rockers, former residents of Grover's Corners in New Hampshire are shown as they wait out hours and days and months and years in the cemetery in which they are buried. Something patient and unhurried prevails among them.

I used to enjoy the holiday from school that enabled me to visit the family tombs along with my parents. They themselves didn't look like they could ever be old enough to die and be buried.

Watching my parents in their final years, I began to see how I will look and move one day. I began to see the kind of scar tissue by which members of my family prepare for a slow, unhurried shedding.

On this anniversary of my father's passing in 2001, I take in what I am ready to see about his life and about mine.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Boston Book Festival

Growing up, I knew that books were a reason to get to Boston.

I didn't know what a book festival might be, but I could guess. A book festival in Boston would be worth making plans for weeks and months in advance.

I didn't have that kind of time to make plans this past week. I had two days. The first I read of the Boston Book Festival was the Thursday morning before the major Saturday presentations. Luckily, all earlier weekend planning of mine had focused on Sunday afternoon and evening. I smiled to realize that I could put regular Saturday errands and chores on hold and make the drive into the city and see authors and indulge the urge to feel literate.

I confess with penitence and a firm purpose of amendment that I enjoyed the envy in a few colleagues' reactions when they asked about my weekend plans.

I confess without a shred of remorse, however, that I relished the freedom I had to consult no one about this literary gambol. I did not have to explain why I would want a second-row seat in front of the speakers' rostrum in the Rabb Auditorium at the Boston Public Library. I could even admit to myself that I was willing to bypass presentations by poets and novelists to enjoy filmmaker Ken Burns speak about the nature of historical documentary.

It was good to walk through Copley Square afterwards and think how perfectly appropriate a fall day in New England I had happened upon. I think it was then that I determined that the subject of my next venture on Writing Cabin could indeed be waiting all around me -- moist and cool and verbally luscious.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hawthorne on His Way Home

In November 2007 I quoted on this blog part of a poem by Lawrence Raab. Entitled “Hawthorne on His Way Home,” it had appeared in the New Yorker five months earlier: the June 25 issue, to be exact. A friend had pinned it to his bulletin board after its first appearance in print. In the coming months he would share it with me.

When I return to the November 18 posting of the poem on Writing Cabin, I am startled to recall that a week later I would be wheeled down a workplace corridor and hospitalized for suspicious symptoms related to my heart.

Raab’s words can seem prescient: “Unforeseen events occur.”

When I return to the November 18 posting, I can click on the accompanying image and virtually enter a backyard that I had owned in 2007 and then left in 2008 and sold in 2009. The image still stuns me with its detail. I seem able to smell again the cold of the flower beds next to the garage that November day. The autumn colors are vivid, and the branches appear to trust the yearly transformation in store for them.

I still have in electronic form emails that I had sent and received the week before the November 18 posting. They tell other stories, any one of which might have become the major thread that would follow through most prominently in the months ahead. The issues referenced in those emails sound important, decisive, principled, non-negotiable. Fate would not give them the final say, however.

We are given any number of Novembers in our lives, and they can each seem powerful in the gravity of the perspectives that open up and the energies that re-arrange how a heart works.

We are given any number of Octobers as well. In my personal experience, Octobers are months that do not yet touch the tall shadows cast across lives by All Saints’ Day, by All Souls’ Day, by Thanksgiving. That month that I claim as my birthday month is still two weeks away, and I get to remain a little longer the age I was at the turning of the year almost ten full months ago.

I want to pack October and November and December of this year, pack them in brown paper and tie them with sturdy cord, and carry them into the new year with no sudden changes or transformations or challenges to show during their long weeks.

I suspect I will not get to do that. I suspect that I will need once more to let a year go where it will.

I actually suspect that will be OK.

Hawthorne on His Way Home

Walking through the village
of Danvers, late one afternoon
in the fall of 1836, Nathaniel Hawthorne
saw an old man carrying

two dry, rustling bundles
of cornstalks, and he thought:
A good personification of Autumn.
Another man was hoeing up potatoes.

What did he represent? It was October.
The wild rosebushes were bare.
In the fields—brittle Indian corn,
pale rows of cabbages.

“A landscape now wholly autumnal,”
Hawthorne wrote in his journal, and perhaps
he noticed the way now means then
as soon as it’s written down,

the way remembering conceals invention,
or tries to. Idea for a tale:
a man, composing a story, finds
it shaping itself against his intentions.

The characters act otherwise
than he planned. Unforeseen events occur.
Hawthorne paused. Above the village,
clouds were being carried off by the wind.

In a story, he thought, what a man observes
might shadow forth his fate:
wild roses, barberry, Indian corn.
The down of thistles flying through the air.

Lawrence Raab

Monday, October 12, 2009

How I Live These Days

In the past two weeks I have bought one person a birthday gift.

In the past two weeks I have attended someone else’s funeral.

In the past two weeks I have held a six-month-old in my arms and felt his hands in my beard.

In the past two weeks I have sent flowers to people who are grieving.

In the past two weeks I have attended a performance of Mozart’s Requiem and a production of August Wilson’s Fences.

In the past two weeks I have driven a hundred miles to sit with a friend whose parents had both been hospitalized the week before.

In the past two weeks I have watched in six episodes Ken Burns' documentary film on the National Parks.

In the past two weeks I have visited the grave of Henry James.

In the past two weeks I have fried crawfish tails and baked stuffed bell peppers.

In the past two weeks I have sat by an open window on a cool morning and prayed with a verse from the prophet Haggai: “Go up into the hill country and build a house; and I will take pleasure in it, says the Lord.”

I think I am indeed building such a house. And in a way I am living there.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Paese d'ottobre

I just bought the cheapest and oldest copy of Ray Bradbury's October Country that I could find online.

That seemed the perfect edition of a book of short stories that opens with a description of "...that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain."

Reading Bradbury for the first time in high school, I recall feeling that this book touched a truer chord than the beloved but predictable Halloween displays in libraries and childhood classrooms. With its light, its temperatures, its dying leaves, October did have a message. The message was neither obvious nor, I suspected, always comfortable, but it was worth my attention. In fact, it was only attention that could do justice to what Keats had called the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness."

Tackling texts written in a foreign language, I found that I experienced another call to attention. An ode by Horace before me, I could feel summoned to meaning during Latin classes rather than confronted by it in any easy way. While household words could reveal household truths, other truths beckoned behind the words that no one I lived with had ever spoken to me or read aloud to me.

I wanted life's mysteries. And an intellectual adventure or two.

Today I came across an unexpected Google reference to Paese d'ottobre. The mention of Ray Bradbury made me realize that I had come across someone writing in Italian about a book that I had first read and loved decades earlier. What would someone be saying about October Country if he had read it in a language different from Bradbury's and mine? Trusting a rudimentary familiarity with Italian, I went to the website and began to read with fascination: ottobre la luce del sole declina facendo sfumare gli oggetti quotidiani tra le ombre ed è allora che, dietro le apparenze più comuni, ci è dato di vedere il fatto straordinario che spalanca la possibilità di realtà misteriose e di mondi diversi, nascosti dietro la facciata sonnacchiosa della provincia americana.

Yes, la possibilità di realtà misteriose. I want it still, I realize. Yes, on those rainy days of October.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Direction of a Life

If I know what to do on a retreat and how to be myself in those circumstances, if I know how to talk to a spiritual director, I have Tom to thank.

The news of his passing this past Friday prompted me this afternoon to visit the grounds of the retreat house where I had first met him. I had applied to make an eight-day retreat twenty years ago, and although no stranger to retreats, I had not made a directed retreat since my seminary days. The application asked me to put on paper some of my present circumstances, and I determined that I would be as honest as I could. I had to trust that I would get assigned the right kind of person to listen to me and guide me through the days of quiet and prayer.

Tom delighted me.

The chance to sit in his office and talk to him once a day for eight days was a privilege and a comfort and a challenge. He would not let me serve up unexamined judgments about my life and what I had done with it. He would not let me apologize for things that had taken courage and intelligence to do in the face of centuries of a spiritual tradition.

The fresh air in that office was something I realized I craved, and I asked to continue to visit him for ongoing spiritual direction. It was not directives that I was looking for in that context, and it was certainly not directives Tom was doling out. The goal of spiritual direction, he explained once, was to help people discover the scriptures written in the events of their own lives.

I will never forget the day he listened to me lament what I felt had been some significant failings. He let me talk and then finally asked me where the “lily-white perfectionism” in my life had come from. He asked whether I preferred to reach the end of my days with a record of irreproachable correctness or whether I could emerge as someone who had risked and taken chances and tried to discover what his heart was saying.

I envied how Tom managed not to be afraid of his life.

I vowed I would not be afraid of mine.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

No Frigate Like a Book

At my urging, a friend visiting Provincetown this past summer stopped in the town library and went upstairs to the children's section. I had told him that he had to go there, that there was something upstairs he had to see.

My phone vibrated when I got this image from him:

The caprice of a ship on the second floor of a library delights me. Whenever I put my hand up against the sides of its painted hull, I feel buoyed up. The waves on which I am personally traveling at any given moment may be invisible to the other patrons of the library, but I share with them the confidence that each book on a library shelf seems able to inspire.

There is a way, I sense afresh then, to get where we are each going.

An explorer's heart will tell you the truest maps emerge from within.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


As a child growing up in New Orleans, I was used to the pleasures of Audubon Park, in particular its zoo and the miniature railway. My mother’s brothers and sisters would regularly bring all my cousins to the city on a Sunday afternoon, and we would commandeer one of the public picnic tables. My aunts would open their coolers and set out bowls of potato salad and plates of cold cuts and jars of pickles and mustard and mayonnaise. As the afternoon progressed, it would become clear who had gravitated toward the tall-neck bottles of Jax beer in some of our coolers and who had stayed with what people in Louisiana called soft drinks. I recall such open-air meals as a welcome reprieve during those years before home air-conditioning.

As a college student, I had not outgrown all that Audubon Park offered. In free time between classes, I would sometimes cross St. Charles Avenue and settle with my books and binders in one of the gazebos with which the park was dotted. The structures were old even at that time, and layers of dark-green outdoor paint gave the benches a rustic, uneven feel. I could have studied at my usual desk in the stacks of the university library, but I was regularly drawn in good weather to savor the quiet of the great city park in the middle of a weekday. Overlooking what was termed a lagoon, the closest gazebo to the campus was a setting that fostered in me not just study but deep and wide-ranging reflection.

On my recent visit to the city, I joined my brother for a Saturday morning walk around Audubon Park. Although we were part of a steady stream of walkers and joggers on the pedestrian roadways, the sudden appearance of the familiar gazebo stopped me. Without walls, it had been, I realized, another era's response to the confines of rooms; it had been an invitation to relax and breathe more easily and think more widely.

There was no time to sit just then and interrupt my brother’s constitutional, but I pulled out my phone to take a picture of my old haunt. The digital image would signal me on my return home to think back to this place, to appreciate how it had been the precursor of many quiet spots that I have found over the years to enjoy an hour of meditation and whimsy.

Black-and-white image from the Audubon Institute

Friday, September 11, 2009


September is back to being September for me.

A drizzly Friday evening, blessedly nondescript, two weeks from the official start of fall.

Last year September was “my first month on my own.” It was a time of settling, of being unsettled but earnestly wanting to feel settled, of finding places for books and pictures and occasional flowers from the grocery store. It was a month of new curtains and new curtain rods. It was a month of new drives to the nearby conveniences – the bank, the wine store, the movie theatre, the dry cleaner's.

With the close of the work day, this September day has beguiled me by its coolness, its quiet, its ease.

I got to sit on my couch with a volume of Mary Oliver’s poetry and just read.

I got to listen to slow, steady dripping outside the window.

I got to enjoy the summer’s purchase of Willoughby Elliott’s Two Warm Trees on the wall across from my couch.

I recognized the familiar invitation of a Friday evening to let a tightly wound week unfold and unfurl and drift easily off to the corners of consciousness.

I recognized some familiar ways of being John.

Monday, September 7, 2009


I got to visit family in New Orleans this Labor Day weekend. I enjoyed a cup of turtle soup and an oyster po-boy at Mandina’s on Canal Street, I attended a production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida at Le Petit Theatre in the French Quarter, and I sat with a high school friend in his living room after a midday thunderstorm, paging through the books by which he has embarked on a reading of The Iliad in Greek.

The city had just held commemorations of the fourth anniversary of Katrina. The first Sunday after Katrina wrought its devastation in my hometown, I had written a response that reflected some of my own history with the city:

Throughout New Orleans statues stand today in empty churches.

In the now still, hot air of the parish church I attended growing up, a white marble figure of the young Roman martyr Agnes cradles a lamb in her arms.

In a silent uptown church where a cousin got married when I was a student in parochial school, a polychrome Francis of Assisi welcomes into his arms a crucified Jesus leaning down to converse with him from the cross.

In the church on the campus where I completed my undergraduate degree, a cassocked Francis Xavier extends his right arm, holding high over an invisible congregation his missioner’s cross…

I had set myself a project for the days I was in the city this past week. I determined that I would go to each of those churches if I could, walk inside them once again, and take pictures of the statues that had stayed vivid enough in my memory that I was able to reference them in what I wrote at that sad time four years ago.

Would there be a message of hope in this venture, I wondered? Would I find reason to think that these places in my personal history still held the key to a kind of healing I needed?

More than once I needed to ring a doorbell at a rectory to gain access to a church that was locked midday. Surprises awaited me, though, in the people who interrupted their workday duties to accompany me on these visits to my past.

In one church I met a man whose family had moved to the parish in the very years that I had been an altar boy and a member of the student choir. Names of the teachers and parish priests from my years there met with recognition as this kind man and I talked. I pointed out to him the side pews where my mother and I had sat on Tuesday evenings in the summer when the novelty of air-conditioning had drawn us to the parish novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

In another church a parishioner employed at the rectory turned on the lights in the church and permitted me to photograph a remarkable statue above the main altar. Despite the vividness of my memory, I had never been this close to the two plaster representations of Francis of Assisi and the crucified Jesus. The tenderness of their embrace made me freshly aware of the hope that churches of my childhood must have given me that the kind of emotional and physical tenderness of which I felt myself capable could eventually find a place and meaning.

At one time a student for the priesthood, I sat in the pews of another church and gazed at a very familiar statue of Francis Xavier. Friends in seminary had lived out more faithfully than I the life of that traveler to distant climes. The unmistakable smells around me recalled visits to this church that I had made with my parents, who used to sit dutifully and resist my impatient urges that they come up closer and see these images.

In place after place I recognized the lure that these statues had wielded over me as I grew up. A tradition had wanted me to move beyond the written and spoken words of my faith. The training I received had urged me at times to rest in the presence of these life-size images of individuals whose hearts had mattered enough to them that they were willing to change their lives.

These images from my youth truly were life-size.

A click on each of these images will reveal details worth examining.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

To Live Largely by Words

He was a handsome man. At least if this photograph tells an accurate story.

I was a junior in high school when I first got C. Day Lewis consciousness. The Doubleday Anchor cover of his translation of The Aeneid from which I gleaned an initial sense of Vergil’s epic plot carried no photograph of Lewis. The Latin teacher who had assigned us the reading of the translation was more interested that we not confuse Cecil Day Lewis with C.S. Lewis rather than that we know what either Lewis looked like.

Clive Staples Lewis was the Oxford don responsible for Mere Christianity and a pair of other books we were planning to use in our religion classes that year and next. The other tripartite Lewis name seemed of a piece with what we were learning British intellectuals do: they wear tweed, smoke pipes, spell color and labor with a u, frequent Oxford and Cambridge pubs, and read their work as radio talks on the BBC. My classmates and I may have been told when C. Day Lewis was appointed Britain’s Poet Laureate in 1968, but my acquaintance with his work was not to be broadened in any English class that year or later in college.

Subsequent years have been kinder to the reputation and writings of C. S. Lewis, who even got Anthony Hopkins to portray him opposite Deborah Winger in Shadowlands. The Day Lewis name has not been absent from movie theatre marquees, but the poet’s literary works garner less frequent public attention these days.

Nevertheless he crashed into my reading life a second time a few years back when I read his autobiography entitled The Buried Day, published in 1960 and written in large part when he was about the same age that I am now. By that time he had already translated The Aeneid and completed the other ten works that I have read – a verse translation of The Georgics, another of Vergil’s longer poems; one of his volumes of lyric poetry called An Italian Visit; and eight early novels, murder mysteries centered on the exploits of an Oxford-educated sleuth named Nigel Strangeways and published under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake.

It had been thanks to the very successful murder mystery series that C. Day Lewis was able in his mid-thirties to leave his first career as a schoolmaster and devote himself full time to writing. He would confess in the final paragraph of his 1960 autobiography:

My own basic pattern compelled me to become a person who lives largely by words and for them. In my young days, words were my antennae, my touch-stones, my causeway over a quaking bog of mistrust. After some false starts and fruitless detours, they began to lead me toward the human condition as I knew it within myself: I gradually understood the paradox that a poet must make sense of “real” things through the process of creating works of a quite different order of reality.

Writing that leads us to ourselves – sounds like what I trust my own words to do. What I have trusted them to do over the past fifty-plus years.

Photo of Cecil Day Lewis on

Monday, August 31, 2009

Daily Company

I have just finished re-watching the eleven episodes of the BBC series Brideshead Revisited. What I had never expected to see portrayed on television in the early 1980’s – the romantic friendship of two young Oxford gentlemen and the enigmatic Catholic life of an aristocratic British family – seemed to give public expression to two important sides of my own life. Thanks to Granada Television, I would not grow as a gay man, I would not grow as a Catholic in the same fearful isolation of earlier generations.

Among my parents’ belongings distributed among their children and grandchildren when their estate was settled five years ago, a plentiful collection of prayer books and religious medals and old rosaries surfaced. I remember some of these religious articles vividly from my years growing up, and in a family meeting the day after my mother’s funeral I had expressed an interest in some of the items. A few months later I became the unwitting – but not unwilling – recipient of almost all of them.

Sorting through the cache of religious articles belonging to my parents – some of them dating from the years depicted in Brideshead – I felt as though I were touching relics from these two Catholic lives. In a compelling study of American Catholic devotional life, Harvard professor Robert A. Orsi puts into words some of the awe I felt handling these objects: “There was something mysterious and frightening about the sacred world to me as a child, frightening because I could sense in the postures and tonalities of adults engaged with the saints secrets and stories I couldn’t fully understand, like a child trying to figure out what’s going on at an adult dinner party.” (Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, 2005) Secret places in my parents’ lives suddenly felt closer.

One of the most familiar items that came to me was a 1930 Manual of Prayers from a Catholic publishing house in Baltimore. For many years the book, bound in black leather, had accompanied my mother both when she went to church on Sunday and when she went to bed each night. Even now, in the right light, the edges of some pages reveal traces of the original gilding; among the pages whose edges show the most wear are those with a Litany of the Sacred Heart and the Stations of the Cross.

On one of the inside front pages is my father’s crisp printing of my mother’s married name, the address of their first apartment in Baton Rouge, and the request “Please return.” The book that I imagine as a special purchase on the occasion of my parents’ wedding in 1935 reached my home almost seventy years later.

In his study Orsi warns against a simplistic imagining of twentieth-century American Catholic life as a matter of linear narratives – “from immigration to assimilation, from premodern to modern, from a simple faith to a sophisticated faith.” Something richer and truer to the real life that we all live might be possible if we are ready, as Orsi puts it, “ look for improbable intersections, incommensurable ways of living, discrepant imaginings, unexpected movements of influence, and inspiration existing side by side – within families and neighborhoods, as well as psychological, spiritual, and intellectual knots within the same minds and hearts.”

In recent months I have needed to do occasional maintenance on one of my father's rosaries from that cache of family articles. It is a rosary that I have daily carried in my pants' pockets the past few years. The wiring that connects the wooden beads had gotten loosened, and repeated efforts to untangle the resulting knots weakened the wiring and made further knots even more difficult to repair. This week I came to the conclusion that it was time to lay that rosary aside, although I have no replacement as yet for its daily company.

And, you know, sometimes you realize that living for a while without certain familiar comforts will be all right.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Joy Comes with Dawn

Yesterday suggested fall in New England.

Something about the light.

Something about the ease of temperatures after a long, steady lack of ease.

In years past I have experienced an eager anticipation at the approach of this particular season. At the mere mention of it, a writer friend yesterday began cataloguing corduroys, fleeces, the crunch of fallen leaves -- the reliable euphoria awaiting her in her imagination.

Cozy and picturesque, another such season on its way, its routines welcome, even welcoming.

Around six o'clock yesterday evening, I took my collapsible camp chair to a spot on a nearby campus and settled beneath a tree. The scene before me was quiet and soothing, summery and sunny. Aware how regularly in my life I have searched out such settings for a reflective hour, I thought about the season of fall. I thought about the ways its characteristics are applied to patterns in an individual life. I thought how comforting those comparisons can feel in the abstract, the utterly natural ebbing of strength and productivity that should surprise no one, panic no one.

I was surprised, though. An ordinarily optimistic man, I was aware of a kind of panic.

My life really could change.

I could in time want something that I had always thought possible and perhaps not get it. I could think of myself in an habitual way and one day find that I was no longer just like that. The wisdom that over five decades of experience had brought me could end up being needed not just to set goals and accomplish tasks more realistically and efficiently -- it could be needed to face and accept real loss.

I stammered something out loud. Solitary in that green setting, I had to say something to record the arrival of this unexpected awareness. I had to try to put it into words.

I looked down at the open book of prayers in my lap and read this verse from Psalm 30:

At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn.

I knew what such joy could feel like -- the joy after a night of tears. In that moment under the tree, I somehow knew that in the year ahead I would feel such joy again. And maybe not just once. Whatever tears might accompany loss and change in my life, joy could still surprise me, overtake me, reassure me.

I pledge myself to expecting it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Comforts of Home

An inviting armchair in a hotel room sometimes seems an anomaly, a prop in a stage set, a conscious extravagance. Experience tells you that the most you are likely to need to do in that chair is keep your balance as you put on your socks or tie your shoes in the morning. While someone else is taking a shower or getting dressed, you might sit in the chair and glance through a newspaper, a telephone directory or a guide book. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t spend enough time in a hotel room to be overly concerned about such furnishings. How comfortable does the seating really need to be if there is a lobby in which to wait for people or a bar in which to entertain them or a sizeable bed in which to prop oneself up against several pillows and watch TV?

I recently returned from two nights in a hotel in mid-state Pennsylvania. A work friend’s wedding had drawn a significant number of her colleagues to take advantage of a block of hotel rooms available at special rates for guests of the bride and groom and to participate in a long weekend of celebration and camaraderie.

The sole occupant of my hotel room, I had more space than I needed. A well-upholstered armchair took up some of that space; a coordinating ottoman and reading lamp completed that section of the room. Few things suggest the comforts of home as readily as a chair, an ottoman and a reading lamp, and this hotel was charging its prices to ensure that guests experience something more like the feel of home than they might regularly find even in their own home. This is the way you really want to live, isn’t it? the furnishings seemed to say to the overnight guest.

Who more than a reader would welcome the sight of a well-placed floor lamp next to a comfortable chair? Even an inveterate reader, though, may think that there is enough time to read back at home and that a stay in another part of the country is best spent getting better acquainted with a new environment – walks, drives, tours, visits, meals, at the very least drinks in a downstairs lounge.

Having arrived Friday afternoon and enjoyed an early dinner with friends at one of the local restaurants recommended by the bride and groom, I had a full Saturday morning to myself. I had not committed to meet anyone before the one o’clock ceremony at the church five minutes from the hotel. I eyed the armchair, looked at the biography of Emily Dickinson I had brought to read in the airport and on the plane, and toyed with the idea of spending an hour or two in that armchair and with that book.

Even as I settled deep into the upholstery, I felt some minor twinges of guilt. Was this in the spirit of the weekend? Was this coming close to being antisocial? Shouldn’t I get outside, drive to a mall, shop or do something? Shouldn’t I at least turn the television on?

I forgot those questions as I opened to my place midway in the six-hundred pages of the biography. From time to time in the next two hours I looked up from my book to the view through the window, a range of mountains and the green valley over which the hotel was perched. The peacefulness of the scene and the quiet sent me back into the chapters depicting Emily Dickinson in her twenties. Her awareness of a vocation as an artist was being born in her, and it would be accompanied by a heightened sense that home was her proper setting for responding to that call. What was before her was a spiritual adventure in self-expression that did not require or particularly thrive on the prospect of publication: “…the manuscript books were a private hoard, or a secret garden of work done, or a thing put through for its own inherent excellence.” (Habegger, p.353)

What was ahead of me? In a few hours I would watch a good friend walk down the aisle toward a man she loved; I would sip a gin and tonic amid other guests at the reception; I would initiate conversations with seven table-mates as I cut into the filet mignon; near the end of the evening I would laugh finding myself on the dance floor amid so many people I usually saw only at work.

But for a couple of hours on Saturday morning I chose this quiet time, this book, this armchair.

A year ago to the day I had been sitting at a table for my first breakfast in a new home, a home on my own. On Friday a good friend had written me: “I want you to enjoy yourself this weekend – be in the moment, relax, eat, drink, laugh.”

I can assure my friend – and myself – that I did all that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Reading Biography

I am in admiration of the biographer. The resolute step with which someone begins to commit days and long summer weeks, steady months and eventually years to the understanding of another human life has to be an act of faith. It certainly takes interest and little short of fascination to motivate and simultaneously reward the choice that must be repeatedly made to be about the elusive heart of another’s life. There needs as well to be a sense that the biographer’s own life is being sustained and brought to light the more it directs its focus on the mystery of another’s choices.

At some stage in the meticulous process, I imagine, a biographer acknowledges that there is reliable insight emerging. What becomes available to him or her after immersion in the questions of another time, another family, another education, another geography will make possible something worth saying about how someone became just this person and not another. How far to trust logical analysis, how far to trust intuitive grasp, how far to put into words creative vision and plausible hypothesis: these are the challenges – and delights – facing the biographer.

Almost a third of the way into a six-hundred-page life of Emily Dickinson, I am aware of understanding better not just another’s life, not just the biographer’ s task, but my personal history of loving a writer. That Alfred Habegger was the scholar who could bring Emily Dickinson into particular focus for me should have been evident from the title he had selected for his work: My Wars Are Laid Away in Books (2001). That opening line of Emily Dickinson’s expresses what I expected or at least hoped growing up – that what mystified me about the circumstances of my own life could be illuminated by what poets and other writers had written about their own.

And let me admit: I am in admiration of the reader of biographies. The resolute step with which someone begins to commit days and long summer weeks to the understanding of another human life has to be an act of faith. It certainly takes interest and little short of fascination to motivate and simultaneously reward the choice that must be repeatedly made to be about the elusive heart of another’s life. There needs as well to be a sense that the reader’s own life is being sustained and brought to light the more it directs its focus on the mystery of another’s choices.


Isn’t that fundamentally what love is about as well?

Daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson from Brooklyn Museum

Writing Cabin Mascot

Sometimes I settle myself in front of my laptop and begin moving through the steps that can lead to the kind of writing destined for a post on "Writing Cabin." A fellow cabin mate, though, likes the mood of those moments and can figure out a way to rest against me. Last night she became too comfortable too easily and fell asleep on my arm. No posting last night but a grand image of contentment, eh?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Summer Meals I'll Own Up To

Summer can give permission to eat out a little more often than we might otherwise do.

On the other hand, take a stab: which of these images of summer meals shows a homemade chili omelette? Taking its inspiration from a traditional offering at Camellia Grill in the Carrollton section of New Orleans, this version boasts green onions and Tiger Sauce at a friend's savvy suggestion.

Anything else I should be sure to try before September rolls along?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Making It Through

It was another summer visit to the Cape house that my niece assured me was mine to enjoy last week.

Paris this past March, New York two weekends back, and now the Cape – each time I have walked into familiar settings for the first time since being no longer part of a couple. Each of these three times I have been wary of the emotional toll the venture might exact.

A new John has been emerging, and the birth pangs are painful at times, energizing but scary. Could I really have expected otherwise?

What does keep happening, though, is a sense of making it through, of facing the fear, shedding the tears and talking to the person who is in the process of living with himself in these new circumstances.

Hard work. The outcome unclear. The surprises ready at different points. Like one afternoon of sudden ease this past week – the winds calmed and just a day lying before me.

There were moments at the start of my stay on the Cape, I admit, that I wanted these vacation days over. I wanted to run. I wanted not to have to be alone this way and in circumstances as ambiguous as these. What my therapist had just recently explained as two signs of growth in mental health, being willing to be alone and being ready to accept ambiguity, were goals, it seemed, not yet perfectly realized.

And then “Two Warm Trees.”

Walking into a particular gallery that memories had made difficult to imagine revisiting, I moved unexpectedly into the presence of the painting by Willoughby Elliott that had hovered over my last year, even appearing in postings on this blog not once but twice. The painting whose digital image I had used to represent the year 2008 in my Christmas card – the painting that had earlier hung in a gallery across the state in Williamstown – there it was in a gallery on the Cape.

It was a bit like my life hanging there and waiting for me to claim it. It was being offered, and it was only right that I make it mine. Stunned, startled, I did what I needed to do to walk out of a tricky setting more fully in possession of what I had determined I wanted my life to be like.

Something is now on the walls of my home that was always destined to be there.

Thursday, July 30, 2009