Friday, December 31, 2010

Stand-in Father

Yesterday I visited a cemetery near the home I had sold two Christmases back. During my eight years as a resident in the neighborhood, I probably walked through that cemetery at least once a month. Even in winter months, sometimes under falling snow, I paced the pathways.

When my father died at age 90 in his New Orleans home, I returned from his burial to a New England fall and winter.

In my upbringing I had gotten to watch my mother grieve the death of her own mother. The drives to the New Orleans cemetery with my parents had been almost weekly at first. I received lessons in what people looked like when all they could do was place their hands on the mausoleum wall and whisper, "Mama..." I learned that rhythm and sound of grieving from the French Louisiana culture in which I grew up.

What would I do after the death of my New Orleans father if I was fifteen-hundred miles away from the cemetery where he was buried?

I found a grave to visit in that New England cemetery.

Yesterday I drove again to the grave where I had mourned my father in 2001 and 2002. I parked the car and rolled down the window as I had done that first winter. Fresh cold air on my face again, I recalled the determination with which I had focused on this man's gravestone back then. Deceased in 1964, he has no wife buried beside him. When Easter came in 2002, I put a pot of daffodils by his stone. I sometimes wonder if there was family that had come while the flowers were there, puzzled at this gesture by someone unknown.

What my sudden visit to this cemetery accomplished for me yesterday was a calming at the close of the year. It brought a reminder of the earnest pleading for guidance I had made on these walkways over the years. It was important to experience again within this landscape the affirmation I had found for the journeys I keep undertaking in my life.

And it is good to have a father nearby.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Two Mothers

Let me say it starkly – I had two mothers. None of my brothers would have a notion what I mean. The December sun had to remind me of the truth this morning.

When my twin brother and I were born, our mother had already been the owner for fifteen years of a mantle set of Roseville Pottery. The cornucopia vase on the left in the cabinet is an example of what antique dealers identify as the blue apple blossom pattern. No water or flower ever touched this or its companion vase. A wedding present, they were display pieces in my parents’ home, resting on a pair of gilded sconces flanking a framed sofa mirror.

House pride was a besetting sin of my mother. She purchased a mahogany dining room set and breakfront when I was in high school. No meal was ever eaten on that table until one of my nieces inherited the set five years ago. My eye, meanwhile, had been on the Roseville Pottery, nothing extravagantly valuable these days but evocative for me of an era of dark woodwork and sheer curtain panels pulled taut over glass-paned doors.

How we looked, how we sounded when my mother told stories of my brothers and me to relatives and visitors and hospital nurses and emergency room doctors mattered to her.

When my mother reached her late fifties, I entered seminary (a good story for her to tell to lots of people). What my mother did not realize was that a woman even older than she would begin to pay me a particular kind of attention.

Eighty years old, Katie had been a member of a religious congregation for fifty years when I met her. Meeting at Mass sometimes, we enjoyed the kind of conversations we kept having. It became a custom to arrange an occasional afternoon over convent china and to sit across from one another on cane-back furniture. She asked about my family and my training, about my experience with daily prayer and retreats. We would sometimes walk under the crepe-myrtle trees lining the walkways on the convent grounds. I heard about her family in Columbus, Ohio, and the discernment that had led her to convert and to embark upon her long, productive years in the convent.

When her sister died and her Ohio home was sold, Katie was sent some early photographs of herself. The pictures show a Katie before she entered religious life – earnest, soulful, intelligent. In a comment she had written to a family member on the back of one of the pictures, she poked fun at the seriousness of her expression.

One day Katie gave me two of those photographs. They would end up lost in the province archives if they were still in her room at her death, she confided in me. Katie seemed to want to acknowledge the kind of friendship we had enjoyed. They have gone with me wherever I have lived for the past thirty-five years.

The sun this morning hit the cabinet in my apartment as I sat reading the opening chapters of The Red and the Black. On this day off from work at the end of a momentous year, I was ready for the different world of bourgeois society in post-Napoleonic France.

Alert to the look of my home and alert to the transforming power of good questions, I was ready to nod in gratitude to my two mothers as well.

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010 Ornament: The Nest

When I decorated a tree on Christmas Eve, I had no hesitation about the first ornament. It needed to be something I had received from a friend a few hours earlier. That friend understood that "The Nest" would be the theme for Christmas in a new home.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

City in Winter

Walking through the Old Port section of Portland this week, I recalled a photograph I had taken two summers back. It was an image I had been proud of capturing -- the balance, the morning light, the peaceful surface of the water. A picture like that explains why I used to sit there some mornings when I was visiting friends in the area. I would sip my coffee from nearby Standard Bakery and indulge in slow reverie, tasting a mood reminiscent of retreats I have made in years past.

Want to see a contrast?

Not a Chamber of Commerce shot, is it? Not an image around which to create a visitor campaign with an eye to local development and tourist dollars. But when does the way we spend our days in real life have to do that?

On the other hand, the picture actually fits the mood of some retreats. Some of us manage to take time out during the winter months and choose to stand under grey skies and feel cold winds off the water. With nothing merely picturesque to distract us, we get closer to feeling what our lives are like -- or what they could be. We yearn for lives that do not close down when the circumstances in which we lead them touch on grief and loss and economic uncertainty.

Briefly freed from the routines of holiday hospitality, I gave my eyes permission to see things that no tour guide would point out. I discovered myself across the street from a building that looks to have been at one time a confident addition to a busy portside neighborhood. The five windows on its second storey surprised me and encouraged me to keep my eyes open for architecture that may have had something to say in years past.

I kept my eyes open that day and I recorded what I saw. Time visiting with friends sometimes feels like it has to be filled up with outings and amusements. I ventured to presume on the better instincts of friendship and earlier today in a gesture of holiday sharing showed these pictures within an early draft of the post. I even asked to hear the first paragraph read aloud.

Gifts look so many different ways. I liked the way they looked this morning.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I Listened to Vinyl as I Wrote My Cards

I walked somewhere yesterday.

A mere week before Christmas and I walked rather than drove somewhere I needed to go, the countdown of holiday deadlines notwithstanding.

There is a post office a fifteen-minute walk from my new apartment, and around 9:30 on Saturday morning I set out on foot with the twelve Christmas cards I had written and stamped Friday evening. I had been playing Nat King Cole on vinyl as I wrote them.

I have never actually walked to this post office before; there is always on-street parking nearby and I usually tack on post-office visits to other errands with the car. I looked at the keys on the kitchen table as I put on my jacket and cap. I recalled a colleague’s exasperation midday Friday recounting the traffic frenzy she had encountered on her lunch break. I opted to avoid the possibility of frenzy.

I took what started out as an errand and made it work for me as a journey that I wanted. No one else was walking my street, and that solitary status let my imagination play a bit. The suburban neighbors along whose quiet sidewalks I made my way Saturday morning were already out, I presumed.

It was good to feel the cold air and know that house after house, I was passing story after story of people who did not need to think important any of the things that were preoccupying me – this year still again – a week before December 25.

What was the story behind that second-floor window, for example?

And then I stopped.

Could the story be any more unpredictable than the one that I have lived the past eight months behind my own second-floor windows several houses back – the story, in fact, that I was telling in the twelve cards in my hands?

Will twelve people behind their own windows in various parts of the country later this week read with the curiosity and intentness that I strove to inspire as I sat at my writing Friday evening?

And the people whose cards I addressed upon my return – will they sense the sun of my easy Saturday afternoon?

Friday, December 10, 2010

In Search of New England Holiday Reading

Sea gulls and a lobster roll in the middle of December.

I’d prefer a novel with these elements but – to be honest – I’ll settle for a cable movie. And I’d prefer an older novel off a library shelf but I’ll settle for a paperback from an aisle in a giant food store.

I know the flavor of the narrative to which I am ready to respond in these weeks approaching Christmas. Somewhere other than poetry and scripture and homily reflections, I am willing to be gently tricked into reflection. With the aid of character and plot and setting, I can ease myself into a consideration of life’s changes and time’s passing and unexpected disappointment and nagging hope.

Let the reader of the first page follow a car through late afternoon village roads.

Let the camera pan and tilt up to a background of gray waves off a New England coast.

There should be a simple house on a side street, a family home. The headlights of the car briefly illuminate a realtor’s sign in the front yard, and then they go dark. Sound cues: the click of a key in the front door, the cry of sea gulls suddenly muffled as the door is pulled closed.

A man in his forties stands alone in a hallway. He lifts his face and catches the familiar smells that intrude on him from the darkened rooms. At the moment he turns on a floor lamp, you see him from afar, paper bag in hand, framed by a kitchen doorway.

Do you know where the story is going? Can’t you almost tell?

Maybe this novel, this film won’t use flashback – visual or auditory – although that would be an easy way to suggest what used to be the life of this home, a Christmas in this family, the feel of growing up as a tow-headed boy of eight. Maybe you won’t see or hear anything about the funeral of this man’s father within the past year.

I prefer to catch our hero at chapter’s end seated at the kitchen table, half-finished lobster roll in a nest of crumpled deli paper, when the door bell chimes. Or the text message arrives. Or the wall phone rings.

I want to think I know what he would say next.

I want to think there are holiday messages I know almost by heart.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Staying Green

Will I learn anything from the people who took these pictures of Christmas trees long years ago?

What must have seemed crisp magic to them proved elusive.

I think I know why people take pictures of their Christmas trees, and I think I understand why such photographs disappoint. Without the equipment or expertise of magazine and catalog photographers, some trees look a muddle in the picture on which you or I click. Our trees with their lights and ornaments appear the earnest efforts that they are when they promised instead to be something mystical.

The truth is, I fear, that photos of Christmas trees rarely appeal to anyone other than those who decorated them.

I salute – somewhat wistfully – these three photographers and the earnest hopes at the heart of their Christmases.

I am safe for a few more days from the temptation to preserve a memory of any tree this year.

Might Christmas trees stay best and greenest forgotten?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Courage to Shake and the Courage to Be Still

Who needs Christmas?

Who needs the ruthless lesson of darkening days, winter tides, stone surfaces cold to the touch, winds moving through bare branches?

I surprised myself this past Sunday morning thinking about Christmas, and I surprised myself thinking about it at the Cape Cod National Seashore. I leaned against the weathered fences and railings beyond which, signs warned me, loomed the danger of sliding cliffs. I watched what the wind did even that sunny morning to the low undergrowth covering the cliffs. I thought of the nights ahead when the shivering of the undergrowth would not lessen or stop.

No one would call it courage to shake when there is no alternative, no defense, no energy or even way to stop.

No one would call it courage to shake unless nature had long ago decreed this capacity as vocation – unless nature had decreed it as identity.

Ten years ago I visited a Romanesque abbey church in the Loire valley. In the remote village of St-Benoît-sur-Loire in the 1930s, French poet Max Jacob had made his home in the shadow of Abbaye Fleury. In flight from a Montmartre that no longer sustained his hopes for authentic identity, Max Jacob had taken quiet refuge near the ancient abbey even though there was no monastic community in residence there.

I remember standing outside the church ten years ago and staring up at the rough-hewn capitals topping the twelve columns in the church porch. In my mind’s eye I pictured the same stone columns in late December, icy in the early darkness of the afternoon before Christmas, festooned with wreaths of evergreen. It seemed that something about Christmas would be comprehensible only in that remote winter stillness of stone.

No one would call it courage to be so still unless nature had long ago decreed that capacity as vocation – unless nature had decreed that patient stillness as identity.

In a shop attached to the rebuilt monastery guesthouse, I purchased a greeting card. Into the white card stock had been embossed an impression of one of the Romanesque capitals in the church porch. The scene comes from the Gospel story of the Flight into Egypt. I had the image framed when I returned home to New England.

It is in my new home – a place to be still with the slow approach of Christmas, a place to shake as well at times with the danger of sliding cliffs. No Christmas worth the name will come if I consider myself exempt from either vocation.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Month of Birthday Treats

The modest but loyal Provincetown Bookshop carries a ready supply of signed works by hometown poet Mary Oliver.

One of my treats to myself this birthday month was a trip to the Cape to purchase Swan, Mary Oliver’s latest volume of poems. I knew last May to expect the book in September; Amazon had offered to let me pre-order it. I determined that I would wait.

I got to the Provincetown bookstore Saturday afternoon within a half hour of its four o’clock closing. If I had splurged on an overnight stay at one of the local inns, I might have taken my new purchase there and begun my reading by a window in the common room. Instead of an armchair, I found a nearby restaurant overlooking the bay and perched on a stool at their bar, ordered a half dozen Wellfleet oysters with a martini, and began reading.

It was not a crowded place in late afternoon on a Saturday. It was not noisy. It was not likely that anyone would elbow too close to a man with a book of poetry open on the bar. And I refused to hurry the pleasures before me.

An hour later, however, I felt reluctant to order a second martini with the evening’s drive back to my niece’s house in Eastham before me. I paid my bill, returned my new book to its bag, and headed down Commercial Street.

It was darker than when I had first arrived, and only a few shop windows were lit. I walked almost alone down the street, in a direction no one else appeared headed, and that seemed just fine.

The next morning I took the Mary Oliver volume with me on my morning drive to get coffee. Within an hour of waking, I was sitting in my car overlooking the Cape Cod National Seashore with coffee and poems in hand. The wind coming off the water shook the car from time to time, but I cracked my window open. The cry of gulls was loud, and the moment was perfect.

I did not need to be anywhere or anyone else. There was nowhere to hurry to, nothing to hurry from.

Experience tells me that the only thing that can deepen a satisfaction like that is to hear someone ask at that very moment, “What are you thinking now, John?”

Experience tells me it can happen.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

All Souls Day 2010

“I am sorry. It actually seems to be a problem with the hard drive.”

I knew to sit quietly. I took in the information with a look of courage to match the sympathy in the eyes of my colleague from IT. She had broken the news like an exhausted surgeon.

I closed my laptop and put it aside, opening my conference binder on the table in front of me. I had taken the laptop to New York last week for a workshop my supervisor had been sure a number of colleagues would enjoy. A laptop was not essential to that enjoyment. Toting the laptop on the subway had been a bother; I could leave it in my hotel room the next day.

I knew that nothing irreplaceable had been lost or jeopardized. I knew that with a practical, no-nonsense assurance.

Two mornings later, my inert laptop packed away, I was ready for the four-hour trek home to New England. I decided to take advantage of the early hour and walk over to Fifth Avenue and St Patrick’s Cathedral for a moment of quiet and reflection. I took a seat in one of the pews off the far aisle where the fewest visitors were strolling with guide books.

I claim no special devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa but my pew was across from the side altar with her traditional image. My gaze wandered to the lofty ceilings and arches of the cathedral. I let myself imagine all the people who had sat here in other times, with God knows what cares and hopes, with what hard news or unexpected possibilities. I began to understand this (or any) church as a place people go when their personal hard drive goes – or threatens to go – or seems not at all the familiar, dependable thing on which they were counting for the life they wanted.

What wild, mysterious hope is needed then!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Serious Buds

I try not to stare.

It is early to exercise the imagination about these small cactus buds. Enough that they are already there, apparent for the first time just recently when I was attending to something else.

I know what these flowers will look like when the weeks ahead are over. I recall the process of daily irresistible burgeoning into silly flounces of color. When the blossoms flair and fly up, I will be hard pressed to understand what could have gotten me writing today about these seriously round buds.

Maybe I am getting better at letting the present be, lowly and gently promising. Maybe I know that the aftermath of any blossoming will require an adjustment of perspective, a heart permission for the universe to do its customary and cyclical fading.

There will surely be distractions to make the smudging of that beauty and that intense color hurt less.

Maybe buds of another sort, soft white sift across a January window, early movement in the air that sets explorers' thoughts racing.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Simple Monday

An eight-month-old sat on my lap last night. He watched his mother and his father on their chairs across my dining room table, heard their voices speak his name and mine, raised his hands and touched his hair.

It wasn’t clear how long he would let someone hold him when beyond the plates and glasses of our simple Monday meal my niece and her husband were within sight but out of reach. Their attention stayed focused on Paul as they cooed their approval at his ease in a stranger’s arms.

Could I manage it? Could I maintain a comfortable position for him and distract him with bounces and sway him to left and to right and back again and feel him willing to be held?

And suddenly he looked up and saw my face.

And I looked down and instinctively rubbed my beard against his forehead. Gently I joined my coo to the easy movement of my chin against his small head.

And then we started – now touching, now not, now touching, now not. A playful rhythm that made a stranger less a stranger to Paul.

A baby in my arms, an infant in my home, a grandnephew joining the memories that will collect around this quiet table.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Feast of the North American Martyrs

I shouldn’t have liked them as a child but I did.

I shouldn’t have found the wilderness landscapes through which they pressed a source of fascination – nor the autumns and winters that darkened their travels.

On this yearly feast in the calendar of saints comes the reminder of a connection that is fresh and stubbornly powerful.

Not everyone chooses the French explorers Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brébeuf for soul companions. If I prefer to call them explorers rather than missionaries or martyrs, it is because I find myself on a day like this attuned to the unknown into which they kept venturing. Surer than any of the certainties I may at one time have imagined centering or grounding them was the inevitability of those unknowns – the next minute’s safety, the next day’s destination, the next chapter to unfold in a story that could go anywhere.

On a day like this I want the courage and the intensity that made those unknowns life-giving and profound.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Evening Kitchen

I was coming up from the basement with pants on hangers, fresh and warm from the dryer. The upcoming week's laundry was that much closer to being done, I thought. Shouldering open the back door of the kitchen, I should simply have headed down the apartment hallway to the bedroom.

But the evening sun stopped me. Movement and light in squirming squares on the wall above the kitchen counter stopped me. The tossing branches of treetops from backyards two houses away filtered the horizontal sun that found my second-storey kitchen wall.

The surprises that do come! And for free!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Please Touch

When you frame a photograph, you plan for it to be seen. You imagine at least one visitor who will stand before it or sit beside it and then turn to you, an expectant look on his face, saying, “Can you tell me about this?” You know that you will welcome that look and that question. You hope that the conversation is about to happen that the framing was originally meant to signal your readiness for.

Sometimes the better-than-expected happens. The pleasure you had first felt in fitting a favorite photograph in a frame and setting it in its space revives at the sight of someone else picking it up. You may not have known that you were waiting for that response on the part of anyone. There it is, though, the familiarity and confidence that your framing was after all – all along – an invitation.

And it was. Of course it was.

I might not explain to everyone the comfort I derive from the vintage portrait of an Australian curate and his dog. The priest’s thoughtful, intelligent ease, though, and his readiness for the dog’s companionship had made the purchase of the photograph a prompt and heartfelt one. I knew I wanted his company.

I am glad, even relieved that the flavor of that company appeals to others.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Speaking of Angels

That's exactly what I was doing one day almost twenty years ago -- speaking of angels. A group with whom I met regularly in those days had asked me to compose a reflection for the Advent season. A friend who remembers the talk asked me about it last week near the feasts of the angels. Some passages in the reflection sound like I could have written them twenty minutes ago rather than twenty years ago. I still need such angels.

Like Gabriel, angels appear in our lives in the people
who by their very presence invite our lives to be different.
Such angels appear in the people
who refuse to abandon a message before it has been heard,
in people who tirelessly ask us to respond,
to believe the good news of what’s possible.

Like Michael, there are angels in our lives
who fight and speak up for us.
They give us the courage to face whatever’s in our way.
Like Michael, these angels give us strength
against those voices that tell us we can’t do something,
that we’re not good enough.

Like Raphael, there are certain angels
who travel with us
through darkness, through pain,
even to the foot of a cross.
Like Raphael, such angels may be hard to see, to discern,
especially on journeys whose end we cannot guess or imagine.

An invitation has been quietly extended to each of us
to give a name to what we know is unnameable.
It is the experience of grace,
grace felt when we are inspired to pray,
to quiet ourselves,
to acknowledge that ours is a God
who protects us and challenges us,
who speaks to us and invites us to respond.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Gate Opens

No one needs what I am about to write.

I am the only reader who may want one day to be reminded of something.

Winds are moving. Some life needs no record in ship’s journals to convince that its power has cleared the decks and filled the sails.

If the logs are without detail, believe that a new tale is nonetheless ready for the person who can tell it.

Meanwhile meals are prepared, laundry is carried down to the basement, sandwiches are cut in manageable halves. Windows are closed against the customary fall in temperatures. Books lie open and candles are ready for lighting.

Seasons are noted by their changing.

Night’s dreams, vivid and relentless, recently make each awakening an adventure.

Gates open.

Another fall begins.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Roast Chicken

I am roasting a whole chicken this Sunday morning. Within an hour I turn on the oven and begin preheating.

This is the time of a meal when all is still prospect and possibility. I am guided by family memories of open windows in a September kitchen, a bulletin from 8 o’clock Mass on the counter, sections of newspaper stacked on a chair.

There is no television on and no radio. I get the flavor of Sunday quiet rather than Sunday programming as I change my weekend schedule and prepare a noontime meal.

Black-and-white photographs hang on the walls. A cat sleeps on the sofa. Lives move on in a way that consoles and surprises.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Writing in a Mountain Lodge

As a high school student I picked up a Scribner’s paperback edition of Look Homeward, Angel (1929) by Thomas Wolfe and fell in love. My oldest brother had purchased the book for a college course; he had written his name on the inside front cover. I was taken by the exuberant, lyrical prose of the North Carolina writer and hunted for Of Time and the River, the sequel which a New York editor had carved out of mountains of manuscript. It was easier to find paperback copies of two posthumous volumes of Wolfe's, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again. In time I took an unprecedented step in my life. I had a local bookstore order Of Time and the River, available then only in hardcover, directly from the publisher.
I planned a car trip to the author’s home state the summer after my freshman year in college. In the car that one of my best friends had received as a gift from his parents, he and I headed to the Smoky Mountains. The route was a familiar one to my friend from summer visits to a particular mountain lodge that his parents had favored year after year. Knowing my fascination with Thomas Wolfe, my friend had agreed to continue on to Asheville so that we could visit this favorite author’s grave and childhood home.

Look Homeward, Angel is autobiographical, and in a key section of the novel Wolfe narrates the days leading up to the death of his older brother Ben in the flu epidemic of 1918. Within an hour of arriving in Asheville, I got to the city cemetery, stood at the family tomb and read Ben’s name. The next day I toured the home where the Wolfe family had lived. I moved from room to room, reading next to each doorway passages from the novel about what had taken place in that room. It was particularly important to stand in the room where Ben had died and read the familiar passage affixed to the doorway.

In the presence of a close friend, someone who had known me well enough to accompany me on this pilgrimage to Asheville, I still could not summon up in that public place the kind of feelings that each private reading of Thomas Wolfe’s novel had inevitably evoked.

I was there – at the grave, in the room where Ben had died – and I could only acknowledge that something had happened there about which I had read and been moved reading. Miles and miles of travel, and I was not touched in the ways I might have expected.

At least not immediately.

Within twenty-four hours, however, in the mountain lodge where my friend had stayed so many times before, I began my writing about the Asheville visit. I wrote about someone who had been so moved by a favorite author that he had been willing to visit the place where that author had lived his early years and been buried.

The visit to Asheville sounded significant when I wrote about it.

It might also have felt significant – even as it was happening – if I had been able to sit still for a while in each of those places. If I had turned to my friend and said, “You know what’s happening now?” If I had thought to whisper to my favorite author, “I’m here. I came here for you and to thank you.”

I’m better at that now.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Back to the Writing Cabin

Almost three years after my first visit, I was hiking again today along the pond at Trail Wood. The visitors' register for the 200-year-old Connecticut farm showed only one other signature from earlier in the day. It was a quiet bridge I crossed to the writing cabin.

For a second time I had signed my own name in the register. Leafing back, I was able to find my signature from the Sunday in October 2007 when I first visited the home and study of Edwin Way Teale, the American naturalist writer whose books had lured me here.

For a second time I got to sit today on the stone steps leading to the front door of the log cabin that Teale had built facing his pond. A guide had unlocked the cabin that Sunday afternoon three years ago, and the chance to walk into the rustic space with the writer's desk and chair had been stirring.

When I understood what Edwin Way Teale had set out to do at Trail Wood at age sixty, I knew that dreams of my own were not negligible. Why not acknowledge the right to center my life on what my heart longed to do? Why shy from the journey that opened before me?

If the register I had twice signed in the last three years could not vouch for a larger number of visitors, it nonetheless testified to the power of something that I might otherwise have ignored or dismissed. Dreaming happens in the quiet of the night, in the stillness of a Saturday meadow. Such dreaming is everyone's right.

I knew people I wanted to contact today as I grew calmer and calmer in this holy site.I read out loud the handwritten letter from one friend. I spoke into the early afternoon air all the gratitude and wonder that I could muster at what human lives can manage to be. I thanked Edwin Way Teale for his dream on behalf of all the lives it has already touched.

It will touch more.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

August 14 ... again

My father was ten days away from his sixtieth birthday when I sat – not yet twenty myself – in the back seat of the family Chevrolet on the entrance day assigned for my seminary class.

Each summer the anniversary of that drive looms, a drive with my parents on hot Louisiana highways to a rural seminary. Each August I expect the invitation to reflection. I never resist the reflection nor fear it. It is, in fact, a yearly challenge and even a delight to which I look forward.

The significance of the day derives from what I was finally stepping out of, a life at home that had not been easy. The significance of the day also derives from what I was getting ready to try, a life that I might still be leading if later discernment had not directed me elsewhere.

Where I got to do that reflecting this August 14 was new. The windows of my second-floor apartment were open to a drier New England morning than we have had for most of the summer. The neighborhood streets were quiet. After breakfast and coffee, I settled in an armchair that I had selected just for this living room. Despite its arrival two months ago, I had not yet spent a Saturday morning in it.

How had my father prepared for that drive almost forty years ago? I am barely two years away from the age he was that August morning. By this point in my own life, I know my patterns and my rhythms, my predilections and habits. I know there is nothing more natural for me than to review my life before milestone events and on anniversary occasions, to muse on it, to write about it, to sit before its surprises and directions. Two years in that rural Louisiana seminary may have taught me how and why to do that kind of reflecting – even, in some circumstances, how long to do it.

I do not know how my father went about facing the departure of another son from his household. We did not have a long conversation – father to son – about my decision. I wish I could say it was customary to hear my mother say to him, “Come, talk to me. You know this is an important moment in our lives as parents. When you get quiet like this, I know you’re mulling things over. Tell me about it.”

Like me, my father had an understated way of suggesting that things with him were all just fine. Like me, though, and like any of us, he could have used some patient prodding. He could have used a listener who knew how to get him to talk.

He could have used some help that August day forty years ago.

I could have, too.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Cézanne, Corona, Crawfish Étouffée

Sunday dinner nourished on all sorts of levels today.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

What Are You Reading?

I am -- briefly -- holding off finishing the book I brought with me on this vacation week, fifty pages from the end.

I just turned my gaze away from the open windows behind the couch where I have settled to read off and on this day, resting the open book on the back cushions, finding myself again and again drawn to reflect on this familiar activity.

It is a book that was recommended by a friend who claimed to see me in one of the main characters. I started it in the evenings last week as these vacation days loomed. I did not really expect to be surprised by anything I read in its four-hundred pages. It read like the page-turner that people claim to love to bring to the beach. (I do not love to read on the beach.)

A key premise of the novel is that people can mistakenly think they know what is happening around them and who the people are with whom they deal daily.

In my reading on this holiday, I too began by thinking I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. Isn't this one of the most predictably enjoyable things I have done on summer vacations through the years?

Reading as a child and reading as an adult, however, I think I have actually expected more than simple enjoyment. Other things happen or don't happen while you read. People often don't bother you if you're reading. People can wonder less why you're not joining them in activities that they themselves enjoy. Some people don't think that a reader needs anything other than space and time alone and a little bit of quiet.

On the other hand, comments you hear suggest that some people don't think anything particularly important is happening while you read. They don't realize that you may be traveling somewhere and trying on worlds and maybe meeting your habitual ideas and finding them simplistic or one-sided.

But you know that a communication is underway. You know that with certain books, certain authors, places inside you are getting attention that they may not have gotten in years.

Fortunate are those readers who can remember as children having an adult sit next to them and ask, "What are you reading?" At its most powerful, the question was never a ploy to get you to substitute talking for your reading. It was rather an acknowledgement that the world you had entered as a reader was worth hearing about.

It was an acknowledgement that you were worth hearing about.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Midway through a Summer Lunch

I met my oldest brother and his wife for lunch this afternoon.

Vacation has officially begun!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

On a Saturday Walk in an Old Cemetery

Why is someone else not here? How do I get to be the only one to enjoy this right now?

I shake my head at times, incredulous at my good fortune. Without needing to make way for others or wait my turn, I step up to a view that reveals depth upon depth of morning green. Early sunlight conspires with the highest branches of trees and outlines leaves that no ladder could reach.

I do nothing to make this moment possible except show up, but a whole world seems ready to address a message to the fortunate person who does.

Who wouldn’t listen to a message when it comes with such generosity?

Who wouldn’t send a message in reply, speak words into the morning air and the silence and the welcoming heights above which these leaves lift their green?

Who wouldn’t vow to be back in the same place at the earliest opportunity to speak again?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Lake Cabin

There is the smell of pine needles about the pictures of this cabin on a lake in New Hampshire.

There is the smell of summer sun on the wooden boards that make up the deck.

It takes imagination to understand a need for that desk lamp visible through the windows.

It is the imagination that any writer loves to use.

Thank you to a reader of Writing Cabin for these photos.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Summer Blue

I enjoyed the prospect of reading one of the first ten Penguin paperbacks from their inaugural year 1935. I had never heard of Poet's Pub nor was the author's name familiar to me -- Eric Linklater. I followed the links on, however, and placed my order for a used copy of the 1929 novel with a bookseller in Guelph, Ontario. IMDb revealed the existence of a 1949 black-and-white British film based on the novel, but I could find no leads to copies of it available for purchase or rental.

Eighty pages into Poet's Pub, I confess that I am enjoying myself enormously even in these hot New England days.

One passage early on provides a taste of the Twenties and near-Gatsby excess. Proud of a blue cocktail he has created, a bartender named Holly prepares a sample lot for guests of the inn where he works:

'Anything that a lady like Miss Benbow suggests is all right, sir,' said Holly politely; and deftly poured measures of this and measures of that, crystal clear, faintly yellow and richer orange, a glass delicately poised with the rising meniscus unbroken, a drop, two drops of wormwood, a fluid ounce of sweetness and an ounce of twice-distilled strength...gravely, intent on his task as an alchemist seeking the elixir, the aurum potabile, Holly poured his chosen liquors into a long silver shaker, added broken fragments of ice, screwed down the top, and, like a man with the palsy, shook. His hands were clenched on either butt, his muscles were taut, his face was set like a mask. And all this time his audience watched him silently as if a conjurer were at work, and where paper flags had gone in the doves of peace might emerge. Then the rapid shaking changed to a long swinging movement like an old-fashioned concertina-player swinging his instrument to spread his melody wider, more powerfully. And at last he was done. He set six glasses on the bar and poured into each a liquid, at first cloudy-blue like the sky at morning, that slowly cleared to a hue ineffable and serene.

The writing is rich fare, perfectly overdone, excessive and amusing.

May I join in the fun and provide hints of the blues with which I am entertained these warm summer days, both in the kitchen at home...

...and above a bookcase in my office at work?

I am just trying to stay cool. These serene hues help.