Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Spring Triptych

It is one of those first spring evenings when you return home at six-thirty, walk through your rooms, and debate about turning on lamps. Something of the late sunlight through which you just drove home from therapy has followed you inside – or rather seems to meet you, already there, in each room you enter. The profoundly human instinct to dress the lamps is momentarily quieted. The world as it is feels like it just might be enough.

The world of memory and intention and repair through which you just walked for fifty minutes while sitting in a familiar office chair is ready to become invisible again. You feed the cat, you measure the cup of rice, you feel the texture of the floor through your socks. Home-making emerges as the task by which you build a healthier world of memory and intention, and you wield each week a surer hand in creating it.

A third paragraph completes this spring triptych. Within the space created by the hinged panels, an altar table is covered by linens, and candles are lit. No choreography predicts the movement of the flames, the movement of the shadows. Tall figures whose conversation flickers across the three panels watch over your life. You have learned to trust them a little more today.

Photo of Downside Abbey Triptych from Andrew Cusack

Saturday, March 28, 2009

What Was That Like

It was one thing ten years ago to feel ready to say goodbye to condominium living and to buy a single-family house.

It was a qualitatively different experience to buy a home with a staircase connecting its two floors.

Steps as part of everyday life – I was wooed by the prospect of coming down in the morning with a hand on the railing, of climbing upstairs at the end of each long day. Many a Saturday morning, I would carry a small canister vacuum cleaner and dig the nozzle deep into each corner where tread and riser and stringer met. Occasionally I got to sit on one carpeted step and talk to a cat seated above me on another; the perspective – somewhere between one level of the house and the other – intrigued me. And an animal and I got to see eye to eye.

One day six years ago I ended up sitting on a landing of the staircase in circumstances I could not have foreseen. It was at the end of a summer work day, and I had gotten home first. With my back against the wall, I was as rattled as I had been in a long time.

Summer routine had had me upstairs changing into walking shorts and T-shirt when I heard an unaccustomed cry from one of the two cats. By the time I got downstairs, the larger of the two cats was lying on the hardwood kitchen floor. A cat that had greeted me at the front door fifteen minutes earlier, as demonstrative and social as ever, had died suddenly and now lay still, unmoving, eyes open.

I remember saying the cat’s name out loud several times as I touched, tested, tried for some sign of revival. I remember looking around me and wondering whether there was anything to do. I remember the other cat coming closer and sniffing at what remained of her former companion.

I knew at the time nothing of what I would learn in the next few days from the web, searching by some combination of asymptomatic and cat and sudden death. I would eventually discover how common it was for pet-owners to record online their experiences of this kind of major disruption in the life of their household. It was important for them to tell what it was like. At that moment, however, I was alone and face to face with the totally unexpected, illogical, and strangely nameless.

So I looked for a place to wait out this solitary time. I had arranged a nearby dish towel over the cat, a towel clean and large enough to cover most of him. I could think at that moment of none of the usual chairs or sofas or recliners that felt suitable for the wait before me. Nothing habitual or comfortable could provide the kind of space I needed to think through how I was going to explain within a half hour the news I had.

I did not want my visible distress to be alarming. I needed words to have ready to say that something very sad had happened but that it was nothing tragic.

And so my place on the landing. That in-between place. That I-don’t-know-where-else-to-be space.

These past two months, I took part in packing up items from that household, thinking at times of places in the house and significant events that had occurred there.

That landing stays with me.

I find myself now thinking about the wait that day. What had that been like? I don’t remember ever telling anyone about that half hour. I don’t remember wanting anyone to ask me what it had been like. But I should have.

I am ready for that kind of question these days. My words, recorded here in a blog, are an attempt to acknowledge that it is an important question to hear and an important question to answer.

In a way I am getting ready for that question about this time in my life, getting ready for anyone who might one day ask, “What was that like?”

Photo from Stairs UK

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Conversation Continues

He looks utterly familiar although your most frequent and consistent images of him date from your years in the same high school class. You are both in your late fifties now, and the conversation is lively, compassionate, at times earnest and philosophical, at times sneaky and confessional and not a little proud of a reputation for early exploits that his grown children could scarcely credit.

His wife is as winning and intelligent as her years in high school would have prepared someone to expect who was lucky enough to know her both then and a few decades later. Over drinks before dinner, she reflects on her children’s lives, their opportunities, their values, without any need to claim them for her best friends or make them her or your equals. She is amazed by their lives but not envious of them.

She can talk about the experience of a serious year facing cancer without expecting that the topic should dominate the evening. He can let her choose the tone and length of that discussion and not presume to be the person most in need of understanding and support.

The message both he and she communicate again and again is the delight of our all being together again – in a different city from the one where we had all grown up, at a point in our lives that we might never have expected to be enjoying, with common bonds and vocabulary that make another meeting in the near future a clear priority.

And, indeed, what happened that night over good food in a creative restaurant and down the streets of a city we none of us call home will have a chance to happen again in a city we all of us called home at one time in our lives. The fortieth reunion of a high school class will bring us to New Orleans in two weeks, and the conversation will resume.

Despite Katrina.

Despite recession.

Despite cancer.

Despite changes in lives that none of us would have predicted a few years back.

The message again and again, I suspect, will be to hold on to what proves capable of sustaining life, to hearken to familiar voices that speak of reasons to hope and that communicate a well-placed trust.

We will all of us at that reunion remember times that felt and looked different. We will marvel as well, I imagine, at what in each of us seems never to have changed.

Image of Kir Royales from My Recipes

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Friday Stations of the Cross

A Friday evening in Lent.

The afternoon of this sunny March day once past, cold settles back into the air.

The walk down sidewalks to an old downtown Catholic church is making me regret not bringing my cap.

Up steep steps and through the main front doors, I feel suddenly the intimacy of air heated by a furnace, thickened by distant incense.

I am wary, I admit. I have made a decision to attend the Stations of the Cross this Friday evening in Lent. I am prepared to find myself distracted by the logistics of a march around a church with twenty other congregants. However, I am ready to enter into this bit of theatre once again.

I am hoping the formulas and movements and genuflections wear me down as they have in the past. I am waiting for that familiar moment when I am indeed watching Jesus and not myself, when I am again wondering what it must feel like to walk to a death that with each step feels more clearly inescapable.

I am hoping that something in my heart is startled afresh with the progress of this dark evening of imagining and intoning, of following someone to his end.

A moment can come then when my heart opens a bit, breathes a bit, feels able to let itself be in whatever state my current life has left it.

My breathing can slow as I continue with these twenty others and follow a presider in ceremonial white alb moving down the shadows of the side aisles of the church. With earnest concentration, he lets his voice send the words of the prayers into his own heart and ours.

It seems amazing then that all this unfolds for just us twenty or so on just this evening.

It seems amazing that lives make a little more sense when they enter this simple drama once again.

In a dark church in the city.

On a Friday in Lent.

Photos uploaded on Flickr by Nathanael Archer