Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Family Time Used to Feel

In January 1995, I had both of my parents hospitalized. My mother, 81, had fallen in the living room of their house, breaking her hip. My father, 84, had suffered a second minor heart attack after a first attack the month before. For about a week my two parents were on the same floor of the hospital in New Orleans, their rooms only a few doors apart, but neither my mother nor my father was able or permitted to visit the other.

As long as my parents were in the hospital, my presence in New Orleans would not have been that much of a help to my brother who lives there. In February, however, I took a week off work to spend with my parents in their home. They were both doing pretty well, my mother gripping her walker as she slowly walked from her bedroom to the kitchen, my father taking his afternoon naps after getting up in the middle of the night to help my mother to the bathroom. I spent one evening in the emergency room with my father, waiting for a doctor to examine the swelling in my father’s right foot that was making it hard for him to wear his shoe.

Sitting by myself in my parents’ living room one morning, I was praying, and the challenge came, could I presume to say that God could not be in all of this for me?

Actually the challenge was more – could I dare to say that I could not be in all of this?

I had felt for a while that I was disappearing in the midst of it all; that there was no room for both me and this sadness. But, God seemed to assure me, I could, and God could.

In early March I became my father’s main family contact while he was in the hospital anew, recovering from an angioplasty. Four hours after my second arrival at the New Orleans airport in a month’s time, I was at my father’s bedside in the coronary care unit for the eight o’clock visiting session. The television set in his cubicle was carrying a PBS program on Cajun cooking while my father and I talked about the medical equipment beeping around him.

One of my father’s earliest concerns was about recovering his Timex watch, which he had confided to my brother before the surgery. Upon his transfer to a private room the next day, my father asked me for my watch. I slipped the timepiece, a gift from two Christmases earlier, around the patches of white surgical tape on my father’s left hand and secured the band around his wrist. My father seemed happy.

The next day I brought my father’s watch to him. My father took my watch off and handed it to me. I removed his watch from my own wrist, and we made the exchange. The band that I snapped on in the next minute was still warm from my father’s wrist.

Image from Spanish Meadows

Monday, February 21, 2011

Serious Fun

I know this book, I said to myself. I know this book, I said in the car, although it seemed the most unlikely book to hear about on NPR during morning commute. I don’t mean that Public Radio avoids religious topics or books about them. I mean that this was not a recent book or a bestseller or the work of someone newly deceased. By coincidence February 11 was indeed the 96th birthday of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, author of A Time to Keep Silence, and novelist Adam Haslett was introducing the book for the NPR series “You Must Read This.”

It is a slim book, 95 pages, first published in Great Britain in 1957. Its availability made an impression on me in March 2004 when I saw it on the English-language display table in an Amsterdam bookstore. Bookstores exert a lure whenever I travel. I do not visit them because I am technically in need of something new to read. I just like to imagine those other kinds of readers for whom shelves of poetry and tables of memoirs are arranged.

The price sticker of 17,50 Euros on the Fermor book in that Amsterdam bookstore had given me pause, however. I was not sure I needed to spend over twenty American dollars for the soft-cover volume. On the other hand, I had not heard of the book before although visits to monasteries were a familiar theme in my reading history. I might never find this particular book in print on the other side of the Atlantic, I rationalized, and I brought my purchase to the cashier.

The very habit of introversion that makes trips to monasteries and weekends on retreat appealing generally leads me not to expect friends and family to want to hear a lot about them. Something inside felt validated, though, by the time the on-air review of A Time to Keep Silence ended. How many listeners felt in tune with this comment of Adam Haslett’s after he had read a passage from Fermor’s book?

"To read that beautiful, restful sentence is to experience a small piece of the restfulness Fermor himself found. When we say that a book transports us, this is what we mean. The music of the words themselves sing us into a different world."


I often did long for the appearance of placid restfulness when I was a younger man on retreat.

Luckily, retreats sometimes bring exactly what some of us with our habit of introversion might never have expected but genuinely need. A God who tells us we need more fun in our lives? Yes, it happens. Thank God it happens.

And it is good to discover that sometimes the best fun happens with the very people who take us most seriously. I might need to write a book about that one day.

A slim book, no more than 95 pages.

Image from MorBCN

Monday, February 7, 2011

That Which You Desire

Sometimes we do not know what we need or want until an individual who seems capable of understanding that need stands before us.

In the church where I attended services this past Sunday, there is a window dedicated to St Veronica. A tradition outside the scriptures places a woman on the narrow street where Jesus was carrying his cross to Calvary. Understanding what the condemned prisoner needed, Veronica emerged from the Jerusalem crowd and wiped his face with her own sweat-cloth (sudarium), or towel.

I kept looking up at the window yesterday morning. There is a solemn beauty of expression as Veronica holds open the towel which she had held up to the face of Jesus.

I got to thinking of the likelihood that within the century that this church has stood in its downtown location, there have been individuals with a quiet devotion to the saint. I pictured them in a pew beneath this window, looking up into the face of the saint as I did yesterday and spontaneously confiding a need or a worry, a desire for their lives that they had not tried to articulate before.

I got an insight into the tradition that directs someone to pray for a particular need nine days in a row. In the directions for a novena, an individual is urged to complete the nine days of prayers faithfully and to be confident of an outcome. Novena prayers regularly have a place where an individual names what he or she hopes to receive through the intercession of a particular saint.

It is one thing to confide a need or desire in prayer once. It is another to come a second and even a third time into the presence of a power that might understand what we are asking. In a counselling situation, the good therapist doesn't usually say to a client, "You've told me about that already. Go on to a new topic, please." The important psychological truth is that the teller might be changed by each telling.

Do we have the courage to face ourselves as people whose desires could change our lives? In sixteenth-century manuals used to direct someone on retreat, a spiritual director is advised to ask individuals to name the grace they want from a particular session of prayer: "Name that which you desire."

Do we realize that feeling alive will require at some point claiming the utter wildness of what we actually want?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Heading Home from the Office

How did the end of the work day feel to my father?

What did he think about as he glimpsed an evening sky in winter through his office windows?

Was the signal to return home a welcome one?

What did he picture waiting for him once he had opened the back door of his home?

Was there somewhere a final stretch of quiet he counted on, a time to be himself a little longer, a reason to slow his pace even slightly?

I hope he got what he wanted in his life. The way he wanted it. The way he always hoped it would be.

When Snow Arrives in the Morning

I live no more than a five-minute drive from my work so I take my guilty pleasures on a morning like this. I can sit in my office and actually enjoy the strange white punctuation covering the view from my window.

I hear colleagues down the hall talking about cities and towns an hour away and the snow those places are already getting. I sense the urgency in their quiet voices.

I recall the homes I drove past a half hour ago on my usual route to work. For the first time in a long while I was aware of which windows in each home were yellow with lamplight and which had stayed dark from the winter night just ended.

I do not think in my childhood in New Orleans I ever dreamed of being a man in his fifties living a morning like this one. I like that idea, though.