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.