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.