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