Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ma and Pop

Within five days of Christmas and I was praying to my father today. Sitting in sight of an altar to St. Joseph, I asked my father for help. All his careful planning had brought his family each year to a Christmas that provided something for each of us. On Christmas Eve each year he used to sit at the kitchen table and cut up apples and oranges for the fruit salad that would chill overnight and be served at meal's end the following afternoon.

He was a quiet man. His opening of gifts on Christmas Day was accomplished in a corner armchair with no show, no exclamations, no insistent expressions of gratitude. He knew my mother needed her space amid the stacks of presents we laid at her feet.

What do parents think when their grown children try to do Christmas for them? What do parents think about their own children's lives that look different in so many ways from how their own once looked? I want to think they had startled their own parents once upon a time, once upon a Christmas. I want to think that all the generations had sighed over bowls of fruit salad year in, year out, and had wondered -- each of them -- when they were going home.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Winter Journey: Shubert's "Winterreise"

At a holiday open house this past weekend, I heard a guest talking about Three Pianos. I had already read about the Obie Award-winning play now in production at the A.R.T. in Cambridge. Winterreise, the Schubert song-cycle at the heart of the evening’s entertainment, is a touchstone for me, recalling a cold, sunny afternoon in an apartment in Boston’s Back Bay where thirty years ago a friend, a voice major, rehearsed the piece while I watched. A tall ficus tree had stood in the window next to the piano.

I have not listened to Winterreise with any regularity since then. I thought yesterday that I might try what a favorite high-school teacher had once suggested as a useful method for deepening appreciation of a piece of music. He had advised listening to a variety of recordings of the composition and noticing differences in the experience.

With YouTube as a source of recordings, I moved yesterday through three renderings of “Der Lindenbaum” (”The Linden Tree”), the fifth song in the cycle. The first performance of the song that I watched comes from a 1930 German film titled Das Lockende Ziel (The Alluring Goal), starring opera singer Richard Tauber. The movie tells the story of a singer, and an early scene of his singing “Der Lindenbaum” – almost off the cuff – in a restaurant or café is useful for showing the reaction of the people who hear it. This song touches something in a whole range of the restaurant’s customers. The scene told me to expect that I might encounter other people with a similar reaction to Schubert's song.

The next recording of “Der Lindenbaum” shows some of those other people. Some readers may be as surprised as I to learn that before The Sound of Music ever moved American audiences, first on the Broadway stage (1959) and then as an Academy Award-winning film (1965), there were two German-Austrian movies about the Trapp Family Singers. What appears an impromptu performance of “Der Lindenbaum” in Die Trapp Familie (1956) evokes reactions from listeners similar to those depicted in Das Lockende Ziel.

Sentimentality? There is no denying that both the 1930 movie and the 1956 movie strive for an emotional response. One movie predates the political victory of National Socialism; we witness the readiness on the part of ordinary Germans to respond to a song associated with the homeland of their youth and childhood. The later film follows the defeat of National Socialism by ten years; this time immigrants from all the continents respond to the very same song, reminded of the tie to homeland that they can all feel.

Without such external narratives, what does Schubert's musical setting of the poem by Wilhelm Mueller manage to convey? Listening for a third time to "Der Lindenbaum," this time to a 1935 recording by an all-male German choral group, a listener is ready to be haunted.

Ready for German text? Ready for English translation? Ready for the overarching structure of the twenty-four songs? I am.

I might be ready for a January project.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bringing the Greens to Henry James...Again

In Cambridge Cemetery is a plot where the family of American writer Henry James lie buried. One Christmas season a swag of greenery appeared at the writer's tombstone (I like to think) for the first time. The writer of writingcabin.blogspot.com had simply wanted to pay tribute to another, far greater writer in the way that members of a family do when they pay Christmas visits to loved ones. The urge to write, the need to write creates another kind of family. Again this Christmas the James family plot gets its bit of greenery.

The custom is repeated.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Saturday Morning Atlantic

Friday had been a day for Teresa of Avila and Wislawa Szymborska.

Sixteenth-century Teresa was familiar. Her autobiography had been sitting on a shelf in my office for three years. What urged me to pick it up and read on Friday, I do not know -- but it was a real "Tolle et lege" moment.

The passage I found was about the uselessness of trying to quiet thinking. A cloistered contemplative and mystic, Teresa knew that thinking must have its day. Thinking must go its paths. Thinking must move on and on, unmuzzled, unmuffled, ready to try out a new way of understanding life and the things of life.

Teresa was aware of the suspicious urge simply to appear quiet, to feel quiet, to mimic a mystic quiet. She knew that only some readers would understand what she was writing when she spoke about God's way of finally making space in us to hear what we would never know how to hear on our own.

And then the Polish poet.

A recent review in The New York Review of Books alerted me to Wislawa Szymborska. I am late in knowing her and reading her, even here in the United States. Reading her poems at home Friday evening was the experience of hearing a voice I did not know to expect, a voice I did not know I wanted to follow until its ways kept making sense.

It is the sort of surprise that you need when you discover what has happened to lives you thought you knew. It is the sort of surprise that you need when you discover what has happened to the life you thought you could always have.

Saturday morning, fresh from my Friday with Teresa of Avila and Wislawa Szymborska, I drove to the Atlantic. Unplanned trip, I returned to pathways that I have walked at times in my life when I faced the kind of change another person cannot measure.

It was actually good to be back.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Irish Wake

The mother of a colleague at work died last week. She had lived to her early nineties, and in her later years there had been that sad wandering from self that can make death a release and a relief for a family. When I offered condolences early one morning passing my colleague in the halls, Pat gave me a gentle smile. She had managed her farewells to her mother a long time ago.

A Catholic of my own generation, Pat is articulate, well educated and utterly efficient. Her family gatherings – among the most recent her own daughter’s wedding – get into narratives that people at work recognize as Pat’s. It is a large family that many of us met just a few years back at the funeral of a sister; her struggle with cancer had been quiet and heroic.

I arrived at the funeral home in a suburb of Boston yesterday in the late afternoon. It was a place whose address I needed to check on my phone at a certain point. I parked a block before the turn off for a parking lot that I expected to find crowded.

I did not see people from work on the walkways leading to the home. Some colleagues had talked about finishing their Friday work early in the interests of an easier commute to the suburban neighborhood. I got ready to greet Pat and her family on my own rather than as part of a familiar group.

At the front door of the white clapboard building, an employee of the parlor was waiting to greet me. When I nodded at him and started toward the line of people ahead of me down the hall, the gentleman extended his arm in the direction of a room to my left.

“This way, sir.”

With his guidance I found myself walking through two rooms to where the real end of the line of visitors was. I would eventually wend my way through still another room and then down two hallways before I got to the viewing area where Pat and her family greeted the arrival of wave after wave of friends and neighbors.

The laughter of recognition. Expansive embraces. Introductions and conversations, one head leaning close to another in confidential exchange.

Everywhere around the rooms and down the hallways had been photographs of a large, active Boston Irish family and their matriarch – wedding portraits, graduation groupings, vacation vans, anniversary celebrations. Everywhere had been flowers with the names of their donors prominently displayed and easily legible.

This was a Boston I could brush up against again and again and never fully know – a Boston of neighborhoods and Catholic parishes and parochial school friendships that lasted for decades. It was a Boston that had once boasted a priest in every family. It was a Boston down whose funeral parlor hallways generations of families had lined to greet the newly bereaved of other families they knew.

I arrived home over an hour later and amid the familiar intimacies of a Christmas season felt a newcomer still.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Ease of It All

Late Saturday afternoon a week ago, I was walking the Cape Cod National Seashore. In the company of four members of my family, I withstood the winds along the nearly empty beach. It was a dramatic landscape onto which we had launched ourselves for the short time. Everything about the wide sky above and before us spoke of winter coming, of cold deepening as each week passed, of darkness settling in earlier and earlier.

According to plan, early that evening two cars with those four members of the family pulled onto Route 6A. Within an hour they would be off the Cape; in another hour they would all be home. I would be sitting on the back deck of my niece's house in Eastham by then. Away from the shore there were no more winds, and a forecast rise in temperatures had already set in. The moon was big in the black sky. From the radio in my niece's kitchen I could hear a station familiar from last July, Outermost Radio in Provincetown. With summer instincts, I raised my BlackBerry camera to the sky.

Waking up alone in the Eastham house the next morning, I took my time showering, got in the car and went for breakfast at the Fairway. Afterwards I took a coffee with me and parked in the lot at Nauset Light. I rolled down the windows, sent out a couple of text messages, and wondered at the ease of it all.

What winter ever had the final word?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Along a November Trail

Imagine living a life in which no one else has to be interested.

I am enjoying Piano Lessons by NPR commentator Noah Adams. A friend in his forties who has recently begun to take piano lessons mentioned the book to me. The copy that I borrowed from a nearby public library has been well handled, well used since the appearance on the shelves of this 1997 first edition. I live in a Public Radio kind of town.

You write a certain way if you are an NPR commentator. Your livelihood depends on living a life in which people are interested – or at least writing about it as though they should be. My friend learning the piano admits to being sad approaching the end of this narrative of a year in the life of an adult learner like himself.

This past weekend I accompanied my oldest brother, his wife, his grown daughter and his two-year-old grandson on a morning walk through a nature preserve on Cape Cod. The path we followed was quiet that early on a Saturday, but it was not empty. The wind was up, and we kept up our pace. When we had completed the trail and returned to the visitors' center, we seemed to separate fairly quickly and settle before different exhibits and into various interactive spaces.

In our walk I had been explaining to my brother some of the dynamics of writing a blog like Writing Cabin. I mentioned to him the variety of readers – a woman from France whose English class had once translated a posting about our mother's grandfather clock, twin brothers who had been classmates of mine in a New Orleans high school. When I took a picture of red berries on one bush along the trail and another picture of blue berries on a juniper tree, I did not inform my brother that the images would likely appear in a posting I would soon write for Writing Cabin.

Sturdy and hale, my brother is barely a month into his seventies. I watched him seated in the visitors' center after our walk. He had taken one of the chairs that was set up for observing the birds and squirrels in a protected area beyond a large picture window. He was very still. I don't recall ever having seen him that still before or for that long.

Ordinarily at the side of his grandson on these outings, pointing things out, naming and explaining and describing, my brother looked briefly like someone who had a morning hour that only he could live, a life that only he could explore. It was as though he were testing out what it might be like to have a morning in which no one else needed to be interested.

Bloggers – as well as NPR commentators – love to write about moments like that.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


On November 1 of this year, I observed the tenth anniversary of my father’s passing.

The evening before, I had begun work on a project that had as its earliest goal the easy creation of a Christmas gift that I could give to each of my brothers and each of my nieces and my nephew. With the thought of publishing a small book on a site like Blurb.com, I had set out to collect any postings in this blog in which I reflect on my parents and what I remember of them. A touching tribute, no?

What happened, however, is that I searched the blog and read – again and again – a record that was not always and everywhere a tribute.

I found questions.

I found what had been hard at times to say, what had been difficult to admit.

What right, I found myself eventually asking, did I have to present to the members of my family a book punctuated by those questions, those admissions, those difficulties?

Would I transgress some ethical boundary if I suggested that life growing up in that house had sometimes been hard?

Would I disturb in others memories best left forgotten or, more painful still, private and unnamed?

I have time to mull. I can give myself the leisure of some days and weeks to ask: better not to touch this topic? better to let it stay just mine? better to look across a Christmas table and smile and laugh and give a future the chance to unwind without its real past?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Places We Need

A friend is enjoying the final morning of a weekend retreat. He is in a place I know well, and it is easy to imagine the options from which he chooses the path for his last walk under a cool but sunny October sky. It is his birthday today, and he returns this afternoon to his family and its plans and its needs. With the retreat, he made a distinctive choice for how to usher in this next chapter of his life. It is a choice I understand.

Another friend is walking the streets of New York this morning. He is alone after an evening gathering of old friends and former colleagues. His train leaves in a couple of hours, but he heads this morning to places that he knows well from living here twenty years ago. He is a planner, and so I imagine he walks with a departure time guiding his steps, his pace. The city around him is an environment in which some people walk comfortably with themselves. This friend certainly does.

I reflect this morning on fresh memories of standing in a sunny field threaded by low stone walls. I had set out early yesterday with maps and directions to an old farm in the Blackstone River valley. Driving there alone, I got to make as many wrong turns as I needed near the end of the trip. Far from highways and interstates, I had almost resigned myself to not finding Cormier's Woods. I was ready to undertake the hour drive home when the road sign appeared, and in ten minutes I was standing alone in a quiet New England field.

We all get to the places we need.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Father Love

I will admit that I cried when I first saw this photograph on eBay.

I did not need to know who the father was, where he had lived or when. I did not need to know who had taken the photograph. I wager a reaction similar to mine, however, had motivated someone to pick up the camera just then. The record of a father's love on a Sunday afternoon...

Who does not want a Sunday afternoon like that? Who does not want a father like that? Who does not want to live with that memory somehow touching every Sunday he still gets to live?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Red Beans

It is the early morning hour of a day you have dinner guests.

The red kidney beans have soaked all night.

After work yesterday you went to the grocery store and picked out your sweet onions, the green peppers, the stalks of celery. You hunted and found the smoked ham hocks required by the familiar Paul Prudhomme recipe. You decided against more white pepper and cayenne pepper -- you know your mother's Monday pot of red beans never needed them.

Twelve hours to let all those ingredients bubble and thicken on the right front burner of your stove before you are ready to fix each of your guests a Sazerac cocktail. And then your New Orleans act can end.

You know these two guests well. You know you can get them to tell you more about Spain and the vacation there that they arranged for their families this past summer. You know they will be ready with questions about your own venture last weekend into the rainy Berkshires. They will understand a Melville pilgrimage.

You will not talk, though, about the grey skies above the field behind Arrowhead, the Pittsfield farm where Melville completed Moby Dick within sight of the mountains. You will keep that memory for yourself, the quiet, the cool air, the sense of yourself that comes in those moments.

Your guests are bringing a creamy Spanish dessert. The moment in which it comes out at meal's end will find each person at table smiling with his distinctive memories.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

French Teacher

In a bookstore in New Orleans this evening, a woman will read from a recently published book of her poetry. Emails from the bookstore keep me posted on such events. Ever since the December after Katrina, when I ordered my Christmas gifts from the store, I have received these regular prompts to imagine literary evenings in an uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.

I do not hesitate on a busy day to delete emails sent from the bookstore. After all, what’s the likelihood of my being in my hometown anytime soon?

In this morning’s email, though, I discovered a name that started me remembering. Forty years ago, as a sophomore in college, I had taken a course in twentieth-century French literature. It was a 400-level course taught entirely in the target language, and I had just begun my study of French the year before. After summer courses on the 200-level and a readings course from a delightful dandy of a teacher who taught perched on the edge of his desk, I resolved to take a serious plunge.

Madame was my serious plunge.

In my years of schooling I had grown accustomed to teachers who clearly took pains to win their students over. There were rewards for doing well – praise, smiles, the suggestion that we were on our way to interacting as colleagues. In contrast, I sat in my first week of classes on twentieth-century French authors and encountered a teacher who was not going to woo me or anyone else in the room.

Every class I listened to a French that was classically calm, sophisticated in its distinctions, never sentimental or fussy or confused. About Madame there was the severe elegance of the French academic. Or so I surmised, barely twenty years old myself and five years away from my first view of Paris.

The truth, hard to credit, is that she had been a woman in her mid-30s at the time, a young woman who had grown up in Colorado and Texas. She spoke, nonetheless, with authority about Gide and Giraudoux and Sartre and Proust.

Somehow or other, I have to think, she was even then in the process of becoming the woman who could write thirty years later:

…at most periods our lives just flow through undifferentiated and unremarkable territory… But there are exceptional moments when we become aware of the terrain, or realize it has changed under us, and at crucial times we find ourselves on an apex, looking Janus-like at ourselves and our possibilities—the past sloping one way, the future another.

I continue to learn my lessons.

So, I suspect, does Madame.

Passage quoted from Finding Higher Ground: A Life of Travels (2003) by Catharine Savage Brosman

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Writer's Home: John Greenleaf Whittier

What does the bookish life look like? Some people visited Amesbury, Massachusetts, seventy-five years ago with that question in mind – enough people, it seems, that custodians of the Whittier Home had postcards printed for sale to its visitors.

In the 1930's there might well have lingered about a writer's house like this a kind of nostalgia. Sturdy hardcover readers that visitors would have encountered in their grade-school classrooms regularly featured writings by John Greenleaf Whittier. Here was the flavor of daily life in New England much as Thornton Wilder tried to evoke it for theatergoers in his 1938 play Our Town.

The wallpaper as it appears in the old postcards is still on the walls of the Garden Room. I saw the old green paper in the poet's study this past weekend. Likewise, the guide pointed out, the rug on the floor is the very one across which the poet had walked.

I got to stand this past Sunday by the window beside which the poet had rocked sunny days and snowy.

But then so had any visitor to the house in the 1930s.

What I would like a chance to do is stand by that window at night – lie in a bed upstairs later and listen to the house settle through the night – wake up at three o'clock and hear rain on the roof – drink a first cup of coffee on the steps to the backyard in the early morning. Unfortunately, I probably know all the practical reasons why the custodians of such literary properties cannot allow an overnight visitor, even one willing to pay generously for the privilege.

I bet a modest guestroom with a firm, modern mattress and a private bath would sell, though.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Nearing Summer's End

One of my brothers collects random pieces of old hotel china. He and I have not spoken of the exact nature of the lure these items have for him. His decorating instincts are impeccable, though, and mismatched plates and saucers appear in just the right places on walls or atop side tables in his New Orleans home.

My brother has not put into words for me the imaginative place to which these old dishes invite him. I can hear him say, "They're just fun."

I suspect there might be something lost for him in anyone's attempt to probe the secret behind a vanished hotel or its dinnerware. He may not even think there is a secret.

He might sigh with a hint of exasperation if he knew I was writing about the whole situation.

Hotels that are no more suggest long seasons that will never come back.

The Checkley House no longer stands on a promontory in Prout's Neck, Maine. A vivid evocation of the life that once swirled on the beaches below it came from the brush of Winslow Homer. The painter's studio was not far from the Checkley, and it was a member of his family who later linked the hotel to Homer's 1890 canvas Nuit d'été.

That summer night is over.

All the summer nights that guests at the Checkley had the good fortune to enjoy are over.

An old postcard is a way to summon a ghostly glimmer of those days and nights.

A piece of old Checkley House china might do the same.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bowls of Flowers

Three Augusts ago a niece of mine was getting married. When she and her fiancé began planning the rehearsal dinner, I was able to offer them the use of one of the public rooms where I work.

The morning of the dinner I worked with the gentlemen from facilities in setting up eight round tables. Tablecloths hung neatly over the seats of the metal chairs.

I did not remember hearing anything from my niece or my brother and his wife about flowers for the tables. Amid all the wedding planning that they had been doing on their own, how easy it might have been to let something minor like that slip.

I got into my car and drove to a local market that had an extensive outdoor nursery. Eight hanging baskets of white impatiens fit into my hatchback for the short ride back to work.

Wicker baskets could effectively hide the clay-colored plastic pots, I thought. I headed to a nearby bargain basement. Before I could find eight identical wicker baskets deep enough for the impatiens, I came across a stack of ceramic serving bowls, each the same deep red orange.

In a short while I was back at work. I had placed each of the eight plants in its own bowl. The line of orange bowls, the row of white blooms made me stop. The calm regularity touched something inside. They might possibly prove unnecessary for the evening's tables, but I recognized that I had done something that provided me a distinctive pleasure.

I walked into my apartment yesterday after work. Twenty-four hours after Hurricane Irene, the windows were open and sun filled the quiet rooms. The previous week I had used one of the red orange bowls from three years back for flowers to celebrate the successful completion of a work deadline.

The bowl of flowers made me stop. The calm and regularity touched something inside. Three years of conscientiously building a new life, and I have learned to recognize more surely the things that provide me that distinctive pleasure.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Lugustrum and boxwood and arborvitae.

Hydrangea and coleus and begonia. Sometimes zinnias and caladiums. One rare summer, sweet peas climbing up a trellis.

Childhood gardens hold sway over our hearts and memories. If there is a photo that brings any of them back, it brings them all back. There are mysteries about why only some things grew in the summer gardens my mother planted. Governing the front yard were landscape principles lost in generations of family gardeners long past.

So I have three pots of coleus on the edge of my side porch. They started a year ago as shoots from one summer annual that continued to flourish near my kitchen window through autumn and winter and spring.

Early this summer I bought the three clay pots and a bag of potting soil. I transplanted the shoots from their transitional jars of water. I placed the pots outside, a little unsure whether they would survive real air, real sun, real rain. Daily I carried my watering can down the stairs to the side porch connected to my apartment.

They take their mid-August bow before my camera.

They are all that remains of the begonia and hydrangea and caladium around which my mother dug her hand shovel decades ago.

The black-and-white photograph inspired an earlier post on Writing Cabin. Please feel free to visit it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer in the Old West

This was one of those years in the Territory when Apache smoke signals spiraled up from the stony mountain summits and many a ranch cabin lay as a square of blackened ashes on the ground and the departure of a stage from Tonto was the beginning of an adventure that had no certain happy ending…

“Stage to Lordsburg” (1937) by Ernest Haycox has a well-paced opening sentence. The images are the commonplaces of a Western tale, and their accumulation is unexpectedly calming. I sense I can sit back, seated once more in the darkened movie theatres of my childhood. The black-and-white landscape before me and the characters who ride across it or walk in its moonlight will make only familiar demands.

All this while the coach went rushing down the ceaseless turns of the mountain road, rocking on its fore and aft springs, its heavy wheels slamming through the road ruts and whining on the curves.

Since the story is the basis of the 1939 movie Stagecoach, I obviously expect to read about the movement of a coach. I am not surprised that the author writes about the sounds of the wheels along the mountain roads. With nothing but the written word the author creates sounds that I seem almost to hear. With nothing but the written word the author plausibly re-creates for this armchair reader the discomforts and sudden motions of a kind of carriage in which I have never actually traveled.

When he came back to the yard night lay wild and deep across the desert and the moonlight was a frozen silver that touched but could not dissolve the world’s incredible blackness. The girl Henriette walked along the Tonto road, swaying gently in the vague shadows.

I am taken by surprise. This writer knows where he is taking his reader. The short story that first appeared in a 1937 issue of Collier’s Weekly would claim an hour at most of a reader’s time. To claim the full hour, a writer like Ernest Haycox had to know what he was doing. Haycox is not a name that has entered any literary canon that affected my reading lists in college or graduate school. There are other reasons to write then? Well, yes, says the history of American cinema.

Henriette sat with her eyes pinned to the gloved tips of her fingers, remembering the tall shape of Malpais Bill cut against the moonlight of Gap Station.

Ernest Haycox had created a quiet, composed character travelling in a “dove-colored dress” and named her Henriette. Dudley Nichols, writing the screenplay for John Ford’s Stagecoach, recast the complex Henriette as rough-and-tumble Dallas, played by Claire Trevor opposite John Wayne’s Ringo Kid. No one wants John Ford’s masterpiece different, but Henriette is worth meeting.

There was this wisdom in her, this knowledge of the fears that men concealed behind their manners, the deep hungers that rode them so savagely, and the loneliness that drove them to women of her kind.

The writer who created Henriette seventy years ago is good reading, I reckon, on a summer morning of vacation.

Excerpts from “Stage to Lordsburg” (1937) by Ernest Haycox collected in Stephanie Harrison’s Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen (2005)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Provincetown 2011

It is fun to leave a place by water.

The 7:30 ferry had just pulled away from the Provincetown pier. I took my BlackBerry out onto the windy deck for a final picture of the day.

Let me record that early evening sky – and nothing else of yesterday’s gamble. I had taken a chance that the day could be merry and easy. I get to keep its memory that way.

Monday, August 1, 2011

August Morning

It is the first of the month. I wrote the rent check at the kitchen table this morning in the quiet between 5 and 6 o’clock. It is a familiar time to me in these rooms.

Without straining, I let part of a dream return.

I am sitting at another table in last night’s dream. I am explaining something to a small group of people around me. Among them and seated directly across from me is Anne, a woman in her eighties whom I have known for almost thirty years. Every meeting with her over those years, not one of them planned or expected, she has been gracious and centered. She is listening to me now with her usual attention.

I have reached an important part of the explanation. Is it the plot of a fairy tale or myth or heroic fantasy? Whatever it is, I know clearly what I have to say next, but emotion makes speaking difficult.

I look across to Anne:

“You have to go to your deepest fear – or your hardest sorrow. That’s the door. You go in there if you hope to make it through.”

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Book That Got Away

When you take an hour of your vacation and visit a used-book store, you run a risk.

You start by making the same choice you would in any book shop. You move toward some sections and ignore others. You pass the travel section to spend more time amid old volumes of poetry; you let the vintage cookbooks rest in peace so you can make an extra careful perusal of the published journals and collections of essays.

There is a better than average chance that most of the books on the shelves in front of you are out of print. You smile to see familiar editions that you have had on your own shelves at home for thirty years. You examine other editions that you had no idea existed, covers that must have been redesigned by the time you were born. You hunt to see whether there might be a copy of a book you had read as a guest in someone’s home years before.

The risk, of course, is that the volume you return to the bookstore shelf in one town is the book you will be thinking of twenty-four hours later at your rental in another. You may even be describing it over drinks with a vacation companion, reminding him of the novelty of an anthology of short stories that were adapted into well-known movies.

Yes, this week I returned to a bookstore shelf in Wellfleet a soft-cover copy of Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen. What was the likelihood that I would really want to read Mary Orr’s short story “The Wisdom of Eve” on which the Joseph Mankiewicz classic film All About Eve (1950) was based?

Back from Cape Cod two days later, I went promptly to my hometown library and signed out that very collection of stories edited and published by Stephanie Harrison in 2005. In the comfort of home I read from my library book Mary Orr’s “The Wisdom of Eve” before signing onto Netflix and watching All About Eve.

The book that got away? It didn’t really.

And the movie is better.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Summer heat is a graceful black gondola.

It will take you places. You may have thought you were securely moored in this year of your life. Slowly it occurs to you, though, that you are adrift.

If you live with someone or work beside people, the heat is an issue, a problem, a complaint. It becomes and stays the topic of conversation. It is an excuse for things not going the way they usually do.

At times in the day when accommodating the heat is a solitary task, the surface of your life can ripple. You may remember things that don't bear mentioning. The sound of the exhaust fan in your childhood Louisiana home. June sun reflecting off a canal in Venice. The touch of bare feet on hardwood floors.

When I saw my copy of Joseph Brodsky's Watermark this morning, I gave in. I read, letting his thoughts of Italy and his memories of Venice take me again past parts of my life, even the palazzi and gentle waters of summers I barely remember.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


In effect, I got unplugged.

Whatever plans I had for the evening, whatever priorities topped tomorrow’s to-do list, whatever tickets I had purchased for the weekend ahead, I became whoever I could continue to be in an emergency room cubicle.

Without drama and fortunately without pain, I had entered the work day of a number of people I did not know. Nothing these professionals might uncover about symptoms that had begun earlier in my afternoon would be reason for any of them to re-think their own plans for the evening or their to-do lists for the next day.

As someone with high blood pressure and a heart episode in his history, I had not been surprised by my doctor's nurse and what she told me over the phone when I called her an afternoon six weeks ago. Directed to get an EKG at the nearest emergency room, I suspected there were various readings for the physical sensations I had begun to have after lunch that day. Only an EKG, however, could rule out the most troubling possibility.

It was with relief that I stood outside the emergency wing entrance later that evening. A friend was on her way to pick me up. I was going home - that was the good news. For a few hours I had not needed my ordinary Thursday routines and expectations. I had effectively been unplugged from them.

I work better now.

Evenings are fun.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Brimfield Antique Show

Some part of me is still walking in the sun at the Brimfield Antique Show.

I may be sitting right now in the early evening rooms of my apartment, comforted by the presence of what months and years have made familiar in my life. This morning I walked amid what other people's lives had once found familiar and comforting. What had sat on shelves and tables in other homes, what had made earlier kitchens convenient, what had passed as decorative and interesting lined the tables of vendor after vendor.

The friend who had introduced me last summer to the Brimfield Antique Show was walking on her own elsewhere through the maze of displays. Linked by the pledge of a call on our cell phones every hour, we acknowledged the capricious lure we might each of us experience in the face of entirely different objects. We did what good friends do at times - we left one another alone.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Summer Humidity and Sweet Foxing

I had first been attracted to the volume because it was in French. It was a library cast-off standing forlornly unread on the shelf of a library annex in a Louisiana seminary I had attended in the early 1970’s. A visit to old friends at the seminary some years back and a solitary perusal of dusty tomes up on the third floor of the building brought me in contact with La Prière missionnaire (1936) by Pierre Charles, S.J.

The author’s name had certainly been familiar to me. The seminary's library shelves had been home for a considerable number of English translations of this man’s collections of meditations. As first-year men, however, we had been gently warned off such “pre-digested” reflections. Reading them, we were told, would be no substitute for our sitting in our rooms in the presence of the words of the scriptures themselves, letting anything – or sometimes more importantly, nothing – suggest itself to our conscious reflection.

Some years earlier the soft-cover volume by Pierre Charles had evidently been withdrawn from another seminary library in Mobile, Alabama. The “Date Due” slip glued to the first page was blank; no one must have been enticed to practice his theological French with even a brief borrowing of the book. When I boldly asked whether I might be permitted to take the volume back home with me, the superior of the house graciously – almost eagerly – acquiesced.

Care had obviously been taken long ago with the look of the publication. The title pages of each of the thirty-three reflections in this volume have a distinctive layout with a page header of lines and bars of various thicknesses conveying somehow a flavor of the Thirties.

Opening the book some evenings and haphazardly selecting a reflection to read, I can be reminded of reading – and writing – blog entries.

Pierre Charles seemed always to start with a short Latin phrase, something taken from a scripture passage in his breviary or sometimes a directive clearly lifted from a liturgical text. And then he allowed himself to weave his thoughts into a meditative essay. The essay was not based exclusively on logical conclusions from definitions and distinctions he might have learned years before in theological textbooks; rather, it focused on the concrete realities of a vast world around him that the Belgian theologian was continually reminding himself not to ignore or dismiss or simplify.

There is foxing on most of these seventy-year-old pages – that's the book antiquarian's term for the discolorations that result on paper with the passage of years. Sitting in a summer living room one evening this week, I recognized my characteristic reaction against the humidity that had seeped through my open windows during the day. In a time before airconditioning and other archival protections, such humidity had been a cause for those changes on books' pages, but people had luckily not valued their books the less. With some of us, the evidence of a book's survival through years of exposure to days and nights of weather draws us into reflections that feel close to wisdom.

Some evenings I let my rusty French slow my reading of the words of Pierre Charles. I value those words and the journey they make through the reddish stains of the pages into my conscious reflection. I need at times to hear such a man try to make sense of his world, his life in it and his life for it – no matter the weather.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Peach and a Pear

I felt a breeze through the window above my kitchen sink this week. It was breakfast, and I had decided to try one of the peaches I had bought a few days earlier. I felt the serrated edge of the kitchen knife cut through the skin of the peach and move easily through the meat to the pit – and with a twist the two halves of the peach separated.

It was a relief to discover that I had not waited too long for this treat – and a relief that I had waited long enough.

I began to slice half moons of peach and carry each slice to my mouth on the side of the knife. I recalled as a boy standing next to my mother at the sink, watching her hand move carefully to my open mouth and deposit a fresh slice of peach on my tongue.

Canned peaches appeared regularly as dessert at our kitchen table when I was growing up. Fresh peaches were always eaten at the sink, however, with the faucet running so my mother could wash the knife and her fingers from time to time.

It was a rare taste of wildness in our careful home.

When a pear yielded just as easily to my serrated knife this past Thursday evening, I knew my dinner salad could sport still another shade of green.

Summer routines.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Modern French

I like thinking back to a time when I did not know something that I now know. When it is something that I ended up knowing well and that I have enjoyed for most of my adult life, I can be curious about that earlier John -- the John whose wonder and desire to know were not yet transformed by the effort of learning.

An eager student in high school, I regularly paged through a textbook the very week I purchased it. Before any teacher's lesson plans or quizzes or quarterly tests could make some pages and charts and photographs more familiar than others, I liked seeing things for myself.

I knew there was a likelihood that the final chapters of a textbook would escape even the most conscientious syllabus. There is about the final fifty or a hundred pages of a textbook what I can only describe as a mood of loneliness. Some vocabulary will always remain unmastered; some laboratory experiments will never be done; some short story will survive at best as a solitary summer read.

Modern French (1964) by Dan Desberg and Lucette Rollet Kenan was selected by the American Institute of Graphic Arts for inclusion in its collection Fifty Books of the Year (1965). In the academic year 1969-1970, my freshman year in college, I used this textbook in French 101. Click on the photograph for greater detail.

You can view this page in AIGA Design Archives. Among other features described by the archives, Modern French boasts a cover "stamped in blue ink and black leaf."

When we emptied my parents' house in 2004, I uncovered my copy of the textbook. There is a stateliness to the design. I am happy these days to see on my shelves the simple Baskerville typeface, the title in blue on the tan spine of the book.

The simplicity retains its challenge.

PAUL Et vous vous êtes bien amusés?

PHILIPPE Enormément.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Last Day of May

I sat with the comfortable shadows of the last evening of May.

I had opened all the windows in my second-floor apartment.

I did not turn on the lamps.

In the quiet after dinner I began to read next to a window.

Putting down the book, I let an hour pass while I thought:

What is the right question I should be asking myself these days?

I have reached a point in my life when there is no more important consideration.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Assigned Reading

I am reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King (1959) in part because it showed up on a table at work where my colleagues – a literate bunch – drop off books they no longer want.

I am reading Henderson the Rain King as well because it had shown up on a list of titles from my sophomore year in high school. It had been a list made up just for me. The compiler was a young teacher in his twenties for whose English class I had particularly enjoyed reading A Separate Peace (1959) by John Knowles. Full of questions about life and God, I had asked to speak with this teacher one day after school. Some recommendations for my reading followed. The only other title on the list that I recall is Atheism in Our Time (1965) by Ignace Lepp.

The man who compiled that list is about to retire.

Confession time: I did not read everything on the list. I am fifty-nine years old, and I am only now reading Henderson the Rain King. Not that I didn’t try to read it back in 1967. Henderson the Rain King was no Separate Peace, however. Forty-four years later, I read it – and read it with pleasure – but perfectly understand that Bellow was no easy assignment for that younger reader in love with the friendships at Devon School.

“I went back to the Devon School not long ago...”

The New England prep school setting that John Knowles had begun to create with that opening line of A Separate Peace is not too different from the setting to which my sophomore English teacher eventually moved for a forty-year career. Reading the brief biography that his school linked to an announcement of his retirement, I can locate the years he taught me in New Orleans. I watch the accompanying slide show and smile at the earliest photographs of him. An elegant man now in the signature bowtie of his professional maturity, he wears a turtleneck and sport coat in a black-and-white picture from the initial years of his employment.

I recall the pages of poems with which he used to supplement the bound texts for our English course. Across some of the ditto masters with their carefully typed verses he would slash random lines with his pen, arcs of enthusiasm to startle his students into spontaneity and fresh reading energy. His in-class recitations could approach a yawp if he suspected my classmates and I were unnecessarily passive or complacent.

I heard my teacher’s voice last night as I read one passage by Bellow. It is American millionaire Henderson speaking here to an Arnewi prince in the deep solitudes of the African continent:

“I know,” I said, “superficially I don’t look sick. And it sounds monstrous that anybody with my appearance should still care about himself, his health or anything else. But that’s how it is. Oh, it’s miserable to be human. You get queer diseases. Just because you’re human and for no other reason. Before you know it, as the years go by, you’re just like other people you have seen, with all those peculiar human ailments. Just another vehicle for temper and vanity and rashness and all the rest. Who wants it? Who needs it? These things occupy the place where a man’s soul should be.”

I can understand now why my teacher would have thought this just the book for a young man grappling with questions about life and God.

For a time as an adult, I followed him into the English classroom – a career choice on my part that kept me close to writing and reading. One day in the early 1980s, I went to visit him unexpectedly at his school; the National Council of Teachers of English was holding its annual conference nearby. I found him in his office discussing an essay with a student.

How much younger we both were then, my former teacher and I. What must we have looked like, though, to the young man whose writing was under the spotlight?

I want to think that in "the place where a man’s soul should be" that student now has what he needs – thanks in part to a remarkable teacher he and I both had.

And what list of books did he get the next day?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Cloud of Movies: Five Months of Home Viewing

Word cloud made with WordItOut

Sunday, May 8, 2011

On Mother's Day

I do not feel like going to services this Sunday morning. I do not feel like sitting in a Mother’s Day congregation.

I do not want to intuit the family stories in the ways people sit in the pews surrounding me. I do not want to guess whether any of the women feel nervous that a homilist might presume to tell their story on this day.

I have to admit as well that I do not want to change out of jeans and the corduroy shirt that hangs comfortably outside them.

It is the sixth Mother’s Day that I have not needed to mail a card early enough to ensure its timely delivery to a house in New Orleans. I can walk into a Whole Foods today and not be sabotaged by the potted hydrangeas.

Were I looking for a place for spiritual strolling, I might visit a priests’ cemetery in a town nearby. The place is a familiar one, located on the grounds of a retreat house I know well. Men like these were actually a kind of mother to me at times in my life, sitting at a kitchen table with me over a cup of retreat house coffee, agreeing to meet me after class with a ready word of advice, writing me a note of encouragement when my life was taking turns I had not expected.

No sons or daughters ever needed to remember them on Mother’s Day. So maybe I will. Whatever their lives felt like to them through the years, whatever regrets or satisfactions their own aging brought them, I can pay attention to them as I walk up and down the cemetery pathways.

Do they walk calmly now somewhere?

Are there spaces of freedom through which their arms move at times, in something like a dance?

Do their necks (uncollared now) turn easily to left, to right, their faces raised up to an air that is friendly and kind?

I hope so.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Its Own Good Time

At $3.99, I took my Easter lily home in a reusable grocery bag.

It was the Thursday afternoon of Easter Week, and the last of the potted tulips crowded a display table at the entrance of my food store. On the floor around the table were the lilies, most of the blooms sad and browned and spindly.

Except for the one I bought.

On the Thursday after Easter, two white wax trumpets sounded above a stalk of green curved leaves. Five days earlier these blossoms would have spoken a traditional message, reassuring and timely but a little predictable.

On the car seat next to me that Thursday, they asked a question: do you think it could all be true even on a Thursday after work?

Yes, I thought after turning the key in the ignition, I still opt for hope, still want this life, still thank the lucky stars, still pledge not ever to give in or give up.

I will not prefer anything to this moment, to what is unfolding in its own good time.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Space Odyssey

Approaching a colleague at work a few months back, I asked whether he had any ready-to-hand impressions of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001. He and I have a playful routine of exchanging etymology and syntax questions in the morning when we are almost the only people on our floor. We trade Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger trivia. We reveal our adolescent literary crushes.

He paused and looked up from the book he was reading with his morning coffee.

2001: A Space Odyssey? 1968? Keir Dullea?” he asked.

While he narrated the first time he had sat in a theatre viewing the film, I recalled listening to the soundtrack album with my high school friend Ted. Coming from a home where the purchase of a phonograph record was considered an extravagance, I almost memorized the tracks of each of the records that Ted played during our visits at his house. The experience of sitting in a theatre and watching a film like 2001 could get replayed in that pre-Netflix era each time he or I lowered the needle onto the vinyl.

Amateur Super-8 filmmakers, Ted and I listened closely to the music behind the film. Something in us knew to listen just as closely to the bands by contemporary Hungarian composer György Ligeti as to those by Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss. We felt we understood what inside us was responding to Also Sprach Zarathustra and The Blue Danube Waltz. On the other hand, we had to submerge ourselves in Ligeti’s music. Or rather we had to allow Ligeti’s music to submerge us. We explored what happened inside us when we did.

In Boston’s Symphony Hall this past winter, I got to explore one more time what happens then.

In late January the BSO had brought in as guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, and the man who had conducted Ligeti’s double concerto for flute, oboe and orchestra at its premiere in 1972 revived that performance. It was like lowering the needle back onto the vinyl, and I was watching again, listening again, a young man in his teens before new music and new images.

I watched again and listened again when 2001 arrived in the mail in February.

I recall my favorite English teacher in high school speaking to his classes about 2001, about the film’s structure, its symbolism, its use of music and silence. My colleague this past winter admitted that even without a fresh viewing of the film, he was sure he could write a two-page essay on what Kubrick had created.

Sometimes a challenge like that just appeals to me.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Taxes are done.

They were not any more complicated or difficult than most years, but I had turned down a couple of invitations this weekend just in case.

My reward was the freedom of a Sunday morning with nothing that had to get done in the next sixteen hours.

So a weekend breakfast -- how to use that sour dough bread from two days earlier? And the fresh parsley from a Lenten Friday's tuna salad?

Easy enough.

Friday, April 8, 2011

To Act Out of Character

I could not do that, could not make even one person believe I was capable of something like that – although there are parts of days when I wonder if people have not for a long time thought I was capable of just that but then I hasten to find my conventional voice, my predictable style, my telltale pacing and tone – well, it would be like claiming I could sculpt a statue in bronze and, no, the utter frankness of three-dimensional art does not call to me to be its creator – although I love the memory of purchasing a statue when I was in grade school, plaster and chalk and gleaming blue paint, and I wanted candles in front it (though we never lit candles at home) but I would like to have a candle lit in front of words like these, I would like to watch the computer screen later blink into darkness and hide my words but have the candle's flame mark the spot where they used to be, where they used to read safely and calmly and serenely – in character or out

Not the expected read? I am deciding to include on Writing Cabin an occasional experiment with what can be said when the customary rules are not the only rules.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

By Your Own Best Lights

Sun is getting to places in my apartment that it has not been in a long time.

Or maybe I've just not been around when it comes.

Each morning I sit some time in my living room. I sip a first cup of coffee. I may open a book. More often than not my cat settles beside me.

Few mornings the past three years have started differently. As the first full year in the apartment is coming to an end, I am beginning to see things that I may not have known to look for twelve months ago.

This morning's sun painted the tops of the spines of some of Thomas Merton's journals. It brushed the bottoms of collections of Mary Oliver's poetry. "That's me, those books -- that's who I still am," I realized with relief.

The light was a message I needed. "Continue," it said, "continue to live by your own best lights."