Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Retreat Morning in Late December

There are mornings that you wake up in a room that is not your usual room. You don’t always remember at first that you chose to forego home in the interest of… well, of something that you don’t yet have the words for.

That’s what retreats are about: venturing into wordless regions of your heart that you may lead your daily life acknowledging without knowing how to enter them, feel at home in them, speak the truth from them.

The words are just not there.

Not yet.

It is hard to expect the people who are family and friends and colleagues to ask you about regions of your heart for which you yourself don’t yet have words. So any retreat is a solitary venture.

There can be sadness that surfaces in a retreat. It is simply a sadness most of us manage not to feel in our daily lives. At times, that sadness is a first step in recognizing that we are a little lost, that there is no map for this.

So what is the wise step after waking up in a room that is not your usual room?

You break the fast. You walk yourself into a kitchen. You find the cup around which you can curve your hands.

And you look out into a cold morning sky that only gulls seem yet to have found a home in.

Monday, December 28, 2009

How I Dispassionately and Somewhat Capriciously Explained 2009 to an Old Friend Responding to my Christmas Card

1. After two months of dividing household goods and packing them, I sold a house in March; I moved a few items to my present rooms and put others in a storage facility.
2. Since March I have one of the cats living with me.
3. During the spring I flew to Paris for a sudden visit.
4. In April my niece had a baby boy, the first member of that generation of the family.
5. In April I attended my high school reunion, the 40th for the Class of 1969.
6. In May I took part in a weekend parish retreat; I gave one of the talks.
7. In June I became the owner of a photograph exhibited in a show in Portland, Maine.
8. In June I got a BlackBerry.
9. In July I visited with a friend in New York City.
10. In July I entered a gallery on Cape Cod and discovered and purchased the painting Two Warm Trees that I had featured on my Christmas card last year.
11. Over Labor Day weekend I visited my brother in New Orleans.
12. Since September I have been enrolled in an introductory German class.
13. I continue writing for my blog Writing Cabin; my favorite postings this year include one about washing dishes;
14. one about encountering a red fox on a snowy morning;
15. one about making the Stations of the Cross;
16. one about visiting my parents’ graves;
17. one about preparing a Friday evening meal;
18. one about not making plans;
19. one about expecting change;
20. and at least two about walking through a cemetery.

The highlighted numbers provide links to pertinent posts on Writing Cabin.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Allagash White Christmas

Card basket. Belgian Style.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Another Nutcracker

No viola da gamba and no harpsichord tonight. The satin ribbons by which melodies of the Italian baroque can tie up a golden winter evening will remain wound on the Early Music spool. New England weather will take those of us with an evening of live performance in mind and return us to comfortable homespun and kitchen warmth.

Sadly but wisely the concert has been cancelled.

What would have been a night out becomes a night in. A number of us have the familiar experience ahead of us of digging into the store with which we have – squirrel-wise – surrounded ourselves at winter’s approach. Chapters of books, Netflix episodes, replies to emails, candles burning on a sideboard, an early doze on the sofa before the lights of a tree – what abundance...

And when would we have gotten to it all if we had once again this evening abandoned our homes to thermostats on low and lights on timers?

Time for the crack of walnuts and filberts. The spray of an orange slice against our tongue. The cold of the window pane through which we glimpse our well-shoveled walks and steps.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Calm and Silence

Growing up, I loved going to the local public library in December and taking out books about Christmas. It was secret solace to read and re-read tales of this time of year. The books told deliciously predictable stories whose weakness lay – at times – in how hard it could be to talk about them with family at home.

If I wanted to be efficient, I sometimes borrowed the library books in July or August or September. Something eye-opening happens in reading about Christmas in those humid summer months in Louisiana. Yes, I yearned for the picture-book Christmas but knew better than to expect it. What people want to believe about holidays is what sells books about them – not the actual tenor of those December days and nights for a New Orleans family like mine.

My first Christmas away from family took place when I was 20, the year I entered seminary. I did not mind the institutional aspects of the community observance of the feast. In fact, they were a relief in ways I could not have foreseen. I did not have to disguise the eagerness with which I could enter a darkened chapel and approach an altar banked with poinsettias and greenery and sit in the dimness, unhurried and alone.

My parents had been informed beforehand that neither I nor any of my seminary classmates would get to travel home for Christmas dinner. So no aunts and uncles for me that year, no cousins and their spouses, no drives to be part of a clan that could create a feast and efficiently clean up after it, buy gifts and open them and say – each of us – the words of thanks that family feeling required.

After all of the Christmas morning Masses that my family had attended, Christmas Midnight Mass in the seminary chapel that first year was a beautiful experience. The service, its music and its readings and its silences, was the centerpiece of a busy twenty-four hours that would find the community together in the dining room at noon the next day. The festive meal once over, however, we were on our own.

Walking out into the fields behind the seminary later that afternoon, I discovered a calm that I had never before associated with Christmas Day. There was no discomfort looming out there under the leafless trees and country paths. In all the gray sky open above me, there was not the least emotional volatility to be careful around – no chance of someone saying the wrong thing, serving something the wrong way, coming across someone in a back room at the wrong moment.

It turned out a refreshingly different Christmas Day in a number of ways. For once, there would be no drive home in a dark car at the end of the day, my family suddenly just us again, the trunk loosely packed with the gifts we had opened during the day.

There was no silence that first Christmas afternoon in the fields that was not welcome.

I expect more refreshingly different Christmas Days in my life.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas, Family and Hospitals

I forget sometimes what hospitals and nursing homes feel like during the Christmas season. I forget that I am likely to enjoy the holidays again this year without a reason to pay daily visits to either one of those institutions. That freedom isn’t the good luck of everyone I know.

Almost two decades back my mother had emergency bypass surgery a few days before Christmas. Airline tickets purchased weeks earlier were going to get me and my partner to my hometown of New Orleans just in time to spend Christmas Eve with my elderly father in a guesthouse attached to Ochsner Foundation Hospital. As hospital staff dropped to a skeleton crew to permit as many employees as possible an observance of the holiday with their families, I walked with my father and my partner through increasingly quiet halls to the Intensive Care Unit for visiting hours.

The temperatures in the hospital corridors and patient rooms were eerily steady. No matter the time of day or night, a jacket or coat or sweater eventually got to be too much in that well-modulated environment.

Walking through glass doors into the parking lot at the end of a visit brought breathtaking relief. There was air moving around me again. There was unscheduled, chartless life waiting for me. I had gotten a second chance to do something with my life, I felt as my partner unlocked the doors of our rental car.

Choice is what fills your lungs and powers your legs when you are the one who can walk away from a loved one on a hospital bed who has a menu to complete every day every meal.

Sometimes it is just the choice to walk away from Christmas decorations that you would never want in your own home. You can be an adult again when the safe and antiseptic corridors with their cardboard garlands are behind you.

The chance we each of us want for our parents and our spouses can make a hospital or a nursing home the gift we can’t explain offering to someone who may himself, who may herself a few years earlier have walked out of a hospital into a parking lot, eager as well for life, eager as well for choice.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bringing the Greens to Henry James

Click on the picture to read the inscription better.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Seeing in the Dark

"People who’ve never really been in the country are most surprised by its darkness at night. 'It’s so dark!' they say in disbelief, as if darkness weren’t an ancient, long-enduring experience, well attested in the human record. 'So dark!' they repeat, as if there were no other words for it. And sometimes they add, 'Aren’t you ever afraid?' Though we laugh, the frisson is wonderfully expressive. We know that the darkness of country nights is as precious as its fresh air.

"Every night it comes, not just a matter of the sky, but a feeling all around, like a meta-silence, a fifth element, more bodily than air, more humanly habitable than water. In it a different dimension of our senses comes forward. Sight modulates. We learn we can see in the dark and move around familiar territory. In fact sight shifts away from its analytical mode to become something more elemental, an easy confidence in the familiar, a being widely at home. Contrary to our instincts to take flashlights into the dark with us, we need sight less at night, because then it gives up the lead and falls into a lively, working fellowship with our other senses. Then we realize that our whole body is one delicate sense, creating at every moment the outline of energy of the other things in the world."

From Naming the Light by Rosemary Deen

Saturday, December 5, 2009

December Mood