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!