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.