Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

Tomorrow I will get to watch two little boys at the family Christmas. With one of them there will be wild excitement, barely disguised if he has an audience. With the other, a little younger, there will be long stretches of wide-eyed wonder. At least I think so. If I use this past Thanksgiving as a gauge, at some point tomorrow I will be ready to take my seat in an armchair and just watch the show. I would not miss it for the world.

Sometimes I watch them watch me. They never do it for long, but four weeks can still invest some mystery around Great Uncle John – so called to distinguish me from “Uncle John,” my nephew in his thirties. The older little boy enjoys screaming with fright when I do my slow-motion approach, predatory and – I like to think – deliciously menacing. The younger boy’s eyes just get wider until he takes the cue from his cousin and scampers to his grandfather’s side.

The opening of gifts. The preparing of the meal in a kitchen steamier than usual. The stolid glow of a Christmas tree that stands aloof and largely forgotten in the corner. All of these elements go into making up a child’s Christmas.

I recall, however, that even as a child I envied the adults’ Christmas. I wanted their sense that they could walk from any room into another and not ask permission. I wanted their freedom to touch any ornament on the tree and read any card on the mantle. I wanted their busyness and their self-appointed stretches of leisure. I wanted the history of preparations – some of them careful and steady, some of them recent and impromptu (maybe even a stop on the drive to Christmas dinner?) – that trailed behind each of the grown-ups holding a cocktail or stirring the green beans and almonds.

At an open house last night not far from where I live, I was singing Christmas carols and hymns with the other guests around a piano. I looked around at the women who had taken time to dress with a little more flair. I watched the men who sang with gusto and precision and those who didn’t. I thought of Judy Garland as we all melted into “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Far from the life of my own parents, I have reached this Christmas of my own. Filled with gratitude for what my mother and my father made sure my brothers and I could recall of trees and lights and ribbons and fruit salad, I am ready to wrap the final gifts this Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fire on the Beach

A fire in the outdoors feeds on the wind.

Far from the updrafts that make fireplaces in our homes tamely rage, ocean breezes slap down a fire on the beach. They slap it down and rouse it all at once.

This past Sunday afternoon I got to watch someone who is used to starting fires on the beach. “Layers,” he had advised me when we were talking on Saturday about our venture, and so it was wearing a corduroy shirt, a sweatshirt and a canvas jacket that I watched.

From time to time I felt the pieces I was wearing tug and fill with air, but my cap stayed sturdy about my head. Moving our chairs from a growing heat, we leaned our faces a little closer and talked of family and early times in our lives. We tried out our tales, aware that a relentless energy in the air about us more than matched any energy that our stories unleashed within us.

A little lunch over, one stage of our visit over, we felt a colder air, a stronger wind. We packed, we looked up the beach and down as we collapsed the chairs, we smothered the wood and coals. We left the beach to energies it knew better than we how to handle.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"A Chance Meeting" by Willa Cather

In 1936 Willa Cather published an essay in which she described the Grand-Hôtel d’Aix as “not at all smart, but very comfortable.” Anyone looking for “noise and jazz and dancing” could look to the newer hotels of Aix-les-Bains – Cather preferred “large rooms and large baths and quiet.” She might as well have been suggesting something about how she viewed herself – a woman of a certain age, a woman writer belonging to a literary world then well nigh past.

How do you continue to claim importance as a writer? How do you explain an inexplicable tendency on the part of current critics to relegate you to the minor leagues? How do you continue to want to write when you do not see the readers emerging whom you consider your equal?

Maybe you do what Willa Cather did in “A Chance Meeting.” You recount a meeting with a fellow hotel guest whom you began by subtly dismissing as “an old lady, a Frenchwoman, who usually lunched and dined alone.” You might have avoided conversation with her because your own linguistic talents are meager, and then one day you discovered she speaks English perfectly well. Your exchanges were courteous; her suggestions of things to do and ways to do them, nevertheless, did not always convince you to change your own plans.

The day came in the very hot summer of 1930 when Willa Cather discovered that for several days she had been unwittingly conversing with the niece of monumental French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Cather had actually been familiar with a published collection of Flaubert’s letters to his niece Caroline, and here was Caroline – "Caro" as she used to be addressed regularly by her uncle.

In the conversations that followed between the two hotel guests, the elderly Caroline revealed herself as the same astute reader and commentator on her uncle’s works that she had been in her earlier years. She knew her uncle’s works – really knew them and the characters in them. She maintained her opinions of what had been the successes and what the relative failures in Flaubert’s portraits of the men and women of his day. The towering achievement of Madame Bovary did not make it her favorite work by her uncle.

This close confidante of Gustave Flaubert might not have expected in her later years to find except by accident anyone willing to note her opinions much less agree with them. The authority that normally comes from long acquaintance and intelligence and personal experience did not automatically command respect. Like anyone else older and somewhat infirm in appearance, Caro might be overlooked, passed over, niece though she was. It would take a special reader like Willa Cather herself to admit her own slowness in taking the proper measure of this woman.

It would also take a special reader, Cather might have been suggesting, to take the proper measure of a writer like herself. Is it inevitable that a woman of a certain age, especially a woman writer of a certain age, become more and more invisible? How does she continue to want to write when she does not see the readers emerging whom she considers her equal?

The answer? She writes. She writes for herself. With luck she and what she writes become “not at all smart, but very comfortable.”

A worthy goal for any writer.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Birthday in the Mountains

Far from books, far from library shelves and their coded wisdoms, snow showers visited northeastern Pennsylvania this Saturday.

If you had chosen to stand with friends that morning in a mountain cemetery, the brief and sudden movement of flakes barely distracted you. You had to watch – one more time – your generation negotiate a landscape from which someone older had disappeared.

You got to listen to another summing up of a life. You recognized – one more time – that such a summing up, even when it is accurate and insightful and loving, does not restore that life.

If the Saturday happened to be your own birthday, you found it hard to convince anyone that there were few places you would rather have been – with friends, on a mountain, under a grey sky full of silences, about something so real it could not be delayed. The universe had trusted you to be up to it.

There was a lunch on the road home. Friends had undertaken to locate a spot beforehand where we could pause over fare carefully prepared. The Hotel Fauchere in Milford, Pennsylvania, will stay vivid in my mind for its creamy mushroom soup and its quiche with kale and onions, its table next to a window through which I watched a porch lined with wooden rockers responding to the winds.

This morning I am back among books.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Private Reading

It was a gamble.

I usually know what any of my writings sounds like as I compose it. I hear the voice I would use if I were reading the post aloud. I test how it flows, where a transition might be abrupt, how a particular word fits or does not fit the paragraph in which it appears. I edit as I write, I edit as I hear that voice reading in my head. Occasionally I read something aloud if I need to assure myself that the writing works.

This week I decided to ask someone to read aloud to me a piece that I had written. I wanted to hear it in another’s voice.

Almost exactly a year ago I had written about a wake I attended for a family with its roots in Irish Boston. As that anniversary approached this year, I decided to share a link to the posting with a work colleague who is a member of that family. I asked that she be cautious about sharing the link to my blog with too many people, but I wanted her to read what I had written about her family. A writer herself, she might appreciate what I had been trying to achieve.

About a week later her son – a man in his twenties – came up to me. His mother had let him read the writing I had done about their family. He wanted me to know that he had enjoyed it on a number of levels.

I took a gamble. I told him I had an unusual request to make of him. I asked whether he would be willing to read aloud what I had written. I asked him whether he would read it to me.

If he was taken aback by my request, his natural sense of courtesy kept him from showing that. I have spoken with this gentleman a number of times. I suspected something of his own bookishness would make my request intriguing and maybe even oddly pleasing. We arranged a time when he would stop by my office and read to me.

I will admit that I was eager at the prospect. On another occasion a few years back I had asked someone else to do just this. It had been a regular reader of the blog, though, and I had simply wanted to show my gratitude for his faithful and attentive reading.

What was this request about? Why had I suddenly asked someone for this private reading? What was I looking for? Validation? Assurance during a week that had been difficult on other fronts? Maybe it was just company in the solitary venture of writing. I do not really know.

I had been right, though. As I heard his reading begin, it all sounded right. He did not rush. He did not flatten his voice to sound cavalier about what he was doing. He let the words I had written carry him into re-creating that afternoon in a Boston funeral home a year ago. I was moved as I listened. He paused just where I had imagined pauses. He opened up where the piece transitions from details of that afternoon into surmise and reflection on what I had encountered that day.

I had taken a gamble. I had simply named what I wanted. I got more than I expected.

Now I get to say thank you.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Rodin Google

I did not expect Rodin this morning.

Not on Google.

I did not expect to remember walking in the hot July sun along the paths of the Hotel Biron in Paris.

All the roses.

My first visit to the Rodin Museum.

Taking slow steps, taking slow pictures.

Finally there!

Sometimes the universe has a way of telling you that you are just where you were meant to be.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Birthday Month

Who have you become?

Conventional wisdom would have you expect consistency as you age, the return of a recognizable self as each new birthday approaches. Part of each birthday is a prompt to acknowledge goals reached within the past year or perhaps subtly modified.

In the collection of psalms called the breviary, there is a serious note sounded on Friday of each of the four weeks into which the psalms are divided. Regularly for someone praying with this volume, after the lulling rhythms of day to day, just when you think you know what to expect from the prayers, a Good Friday scene is set. There is again a passion and death to recall, there is the real possibility of free fall within a human life.

At the end of some weeks, that Good Friday mood in the breviary can feel abrupt, disruptive, needlessly somber. Not always, though.

Tonight was going to be a theatre night. A friend with whom I worked years ago had contacted me two months ago and proposed a drive into downtown Boston this Friday evening. A production based on the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid would be starting its run. Former Latin students, we each understood the other as the ideal companion for this Friday entertainment. We had selected a Malaysian restaurant close to the theatre and planned to meet there at 6:30 and catch up on the news.

His call this morning struck a serious note. One of his young daughters was going back into the hospital today. A long-term condition that had appeared to be improving re-appeared in the last round of tests. Taken anew out of the weekly rhythms of school and work, my friend and his wife would be by their daughter’s hospital bed the next three days.

They would be practicing hope again, each awaiting the return of a recognizable life.

In two weeks I reach another birthday. Some years it may be good enough just to turn on a lamp at day's end and recognize most of what I see.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Man Reading

This was my third morning with the poem “White-eyes” by Mary Oliver. It was five-thirty, and I was sitting in my usual place on the living room couch. Coffee in hand, I opened the volume Why I Wake Early to a clearly marked page.

On two previous mornings I had stayed with this same poem, each time arriving at a point where I felt my heart leap at something I had forgotten to expect. No matter what else my mind had been working through just a day before, I seemed to stop, go still, grow lighter as the poet’s communication came into focus. I was drawn each time by someone wanting to say something – something about her experience of a marvelous world, something about her life.

That urge on the poet’s part to open a door with her words regularly leaves me breathless. At words offered with intelligence from a generous heart, my own heart opens.

In my home I have on display two vintage photographs of men reading. I love to ponder what may have prompted someone years ago to pick up a camera at the time each man was reading. I like to think the photographer found his own heart awakened at the sight, stirred at the nearness of another’s inner world. Imagine the conversations waiting to begin!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

At the Writing Cabin

Recognize the writing cabin from the heading? Yesterday was a late October day and the leaves were brown and the leaves were everywhere around Edwin Way Teale's writing cabin at Trail Wood in Hampton, CT. Without a wind or breeze the leaves were descending, one after the other, through the branches to the ground.

It was a cloudy morning, and the farm maintained by the Connecticut Audubon Society was empty. I loved it that way.

The caretaker had unlocked the writing cabin earlier that morning after a request I made to him the day before. To be able to push open the door and stand once again inside the cabin and face Teale's desk was something I needed to do.

I had come home in a way.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Middle of the Night

Two o’clock in the morning is not a time I usually see. If I am going to find myself awake “in the middle of the night,” the clock will usually show that it is already 3:30. During the past week, however, twice I have been roused – almost suddenly it seems – nearer two.

When I walk through the neighborhood the next morning, the mood of 2 am is something I have to work to recall. Seven hours later, the sun is shining on a world that most people would agree upon. I expect no one to guess where my heart goes sometimes when I get out of bed at two o’clock.

I get up having learned not to trust the other places I could end up if I stay in bed.

I am willing to fall back asleep if it is possible. Experience tells me, though, to settle in a corner of the living-room couch, to turn a lamp on, to take up a nearby book of poems or prayers. Something there is that I have to sit with.

I do not feel particularly religious at that point. I am exhausted actually. I am trying to figure a way to carry something. I am trying to find a way to carry myself.

Last night I took time to find my place in the breviary, a book of psalms arranged in four weeks. When I found Week Three, I stayed with one of the psalms collected there. And then the awareness dawned. Here was a psalm I could encounter a month from now when Week Three comes back in the cycle. It will be November then, and I will be able to sit with it again. I will be someone who may need to sit with it or something like it at two o’clock of another morning.

Whenever I might need it in the two or three or twelve months to come, not only will it be there. I will be there too.

The message – and with it the return of sleepiness – turned out to be a simple thing.

Something I might need one day is possible.

The someone I might need to be is possible.

How did I get to live in a world as good as this?

In the words of the old hymn, Blessed assurance.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fall Landscape in Miniature

When I close my front door these mornings of early October, I look up and around. I want not to miss what new traces of the season may just have appeared.

Today I remembered to look down as well.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Beets and Sweet Potatoes

There are times when you need to eat something you remember your parents eating. You need to eat what was on your dinner plate when you were barely in your teens. Some staple of your mother's meals. Something like beets.

Years may have gone by when evening meals could pass with nary a baked sweet potato in sight. You ate well but your mother had regularly treated the family to sweet potatoes carried from a rack in the oven directly to your plate. She might not recognize lime aioli or salsa as accompaniments worth learning the names of -- much less using in place of cinnamon. But she knew how Louisiana in the 1950s could feed a family.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Last Week of September

In September a radiator can serve as a convenient shelf for plants. Fall may be here, but no one in your neighborhood has turned on the heat yet. It is safe for me to park a chrysanthemum right under a window.

It is still the weather when I can open a bathroom window wide during a Saturday morning cleaning. Ammonia does its job in concentration in the narrow enclosed space. Tub and basin and toilet get a particular gleam as I squeeze the bathroom sponge in hot water and pass it one more time over all the porcelain and tile. The floor dries after its mopping.

The last week of September wears a little bit of summer some years. You don’t yet put away the box fans but leave them in corners on the hardwood floors. You know that soon you will retrieve the space heaters you stored last spring.

You enjoy the evening meals that end with the taste of honey and apple and pear. You look forward to the occasional tiny glass of port with a blue cheese.

It is quiet when it rains at night in late September. You welcome that quiet.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Weekend Breakfast

There is a place I often go for breakfast when I spend time on the Cape. To avoid going to a grocery store to buy what I need to make coffee for one morning, I get up at my leisure, shower, and drive five minutes along State Highway 6. The doors of the eatery I head to are open by 6:30, and some weekend visits I am there before 7.

It is an easy menu, uncomplicated. There are listings for daily omelette specials, but I never go that way in my ordering. I nod to the coffee that is offered within two minutes of my being seated. I do not make pancakes at home and I do not know how to make hash so any breakfast out often features one or the other.

I relish the quiet in the paneled tavern room where I sit. Regulars at the counter may chat with the staff, but other early customers like the quiet too. Sometimes I bring a book.

This past weekend on the Cape, I slept in later than usual. I had been visiting with two women the evening before, longtime friends whose wedding I attended in 2004. Their home is tasteful and comfortable, their table a hard place to leave. The evening went easily on as we caught up and dug a little deeper on some issues. Just what old friends do when they have the chance to visit.

At 8 o’clock the next morning I walked into a tavern room that was filling up.

The conversations were no longer just the quiet banter with staff. I heard things I had not planned on hearing, spoken with the bonhomie of professional travelers. One group seated at the counter talked about their college choices fifty and sixty years earlier. For some of the women speaking, college had frankly been a strategy for finding a husband. One well-heeled woman confided that she had known she would have no trouble getting married and so had not considered college for a second.

They sounded like people intent on enjoying themselves. They were glad to have others at hand to whom they could say what they liked.

When I had paid my bill and walked outside to my car, I welcomed the soft cold air of a September morning on the Cape. As I pulled out of my parking spot, I watched three couples from the counter approaching their cars. In each case, a husband walked to the door on the driver’s side; the woman took her time reaching the passenger door.

It looked so clear. As though it would always be this way.

I felt surprised in remembering that it did not need to.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Love and Absence

"Do you really believe in ghosts?"
"Maybe I shouldn't even call them ghosts. It's just stuff you can't see. That I believe in, probably more than most people. Certain kinds of love you can't see. That's what I'm calling ghosts."
Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, page 357

A savvy supervisor at work is fond of commenting: “The data always tells an important story.” Numbers. How many people attended a conference session? How many more attended than last year? How many people bought a copy of a presenter’s book after the session?

The data often seems to tell a story that we do well to heed. How many diners rated a restaurant’s cooking as excellent? Very good? Fair? Terrible? How many people found a particular review helpful? How many visitors logged onto a blog in the last twenty-four hours? What’s the largest number of comments to appear on any of this blogger’s recent postings?

Are we doing well?

Are we making it?

Do we have the life we want?

Suppose a novel we were reading challenged the notion that the people we loved were only the people that others could see and count or the people we actually managed to see as often as we wanted? Is there any data we could find to counter the idea that love requires the sight of the beloved?

Because love is never more evident than when the object is absent, that being the time when the beloved’s importance cannot be overlooked, Persian poets in particular dwelt on the pangs of separation to deepen their love of God and thereby draw close to him.
Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, page 259

It used to be called The Religions of Man. For the sake of a more enlightened readership, the title was changed to The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. It is twenty years since I gave the Huston Smith classic my last read before today.

Something made me reach for the text as a diversion during a two-hour session that would call for nothing more than my bodily presence. Today it was just important that someone – anyone – be in a place rather than have it appear unstaffed or unsupervised.

The deeper I read about Sufi mysticism in the chapter on Islam, the more I sensed a world I would not know how to collect data on. The critical question, I understand, is not how many contemporary adherents of the Sufi tradition there are or how many translations of Rumi’s poetry are printed and purchased and made available on library bookshelves and bookstore tables.

Rather…. In a world with so much to count and measure, how does a life ever get to approach absence – or the presence of something you can’t always or maybe ever see – and understand on some level that there is something here to take seriously? That there is a kind of sustenance here that you do not wait for data to validate before you acknowledge your need for it and yield to its power working in you?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

September Again

This past Friday morning it was almost September. The sunlight on one of my bookcases at home was like honey.

I realized then how much I wanted September, this great month of beginnings. Some clock had been patiently ticking inside, and I would soon hear the rich chimes again.

The day before I had taken up a volume in my office at day’s end. I had sat beside a table lamp re-reading the first chapter of Edwin Way Teale’s Autumn Across America. Separated from its dust jacket some time earlier, the red-cloth cover was comfort in my hands, the gold lettering of the author’s signature a familiar solace.

The chance last night to attend a screening of the 1963 classic Hud led a friend and me into a favorite university neighborhood. On the way we stopped at a monument to American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. We attempted to identify on the sculpture each of the characters from the poet’s writings.

A few hours later we were walking back from the film. We kept talking about Hud and Lonnie and Alma, their conflicts and tensions, the dust in the black-and-white Texas landscape.

A New England night sky opened above us.

Yes, September had opened within.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


I was sneaky, I thought. I was going to find a way to get back into that hotel room. Days and weeks after I had checked out of my vacation lodgings, I would trick my senses with a bar of French soap. Rubbing it across a wet wash cloth back home in New England, I would be back again from a long day of sightseeing, ready to wash away traveler’s fatigue. I would recall the colors of the hotel bathroom, the feel of the tile floor under my feet, the point at the doorway where the vapors of a warm bath mixed with air-conditioning from the bedroom. Hotel living at its most compact and convenient!

I crossed the street corner after I walked out of my hotel that first afternoon. I found a pharmacie with just the thing: Roger & Gallet products in the display window and along the shelves of an étagère. Cédrat was the fragrance I selected, steering clear of soaps that looked too proudly colorful in their packaging. I trusted the images of yellow citrons hanging from their leafy branches. The cashier even nodded in approval of this American’s choice.

One used bar I left in the hotel bathroom after my Paris week. A freshly wrapped soap I packed in my luggage.

With tomorrow morning’s shower I will get to mimic yet again that resolve to make the most of the vacation day before me.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy, Massachusetts

You want to write something.

Does it have a chance of being better written if you compose it at a desk in a beautiful room?

I just walked around my kitchen with a turkey sandwich in hand working on those opening sentences. I am still changing them.

Twenty-four hours ago, however, I was sitting in a beautiful room. Everything I had read about the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy, Massachusetts, was proving true. The photographs I had seen of it in books on the most beautiful libraries in the United States had not misled me. There was a reason I had held on so long to the goal of seeing this place for myself.

My hand kept going up cautiously and quietly with my iPhone camera. I tried to make some of my own images of these spaces that architect H.H. Richardson had created for readers and writers.

I always thought there must be life like this somewhere. Somewhere there should be a space as ambitious as this in acknowledging what happens when some people write and other people read.

I just had not expected it to be a mere forty-minute drive away.

I had to read something here as well, though. I wanted to respond to one particular corner where I leaned against red leather.

A volume containing poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins emerged from my book bag. I opened to lines from The Wreck of the Deutschland, composed in 1875-1876 – seven years before this library was opened:.

“I kiss my hands/To the stars…”

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Poppy in the Valley of the Somme

It was early afternoon in Picardie two weeks ago, and the tour leader asked his group of six our preferences for lunch. Our van was parked in front of the Historial de la Grande Guerre in the town of Péronne. Nodding to his suggestion of sandwiches, we crossed the Place André Audinot and took our places at the sidewalk tables of the Castel Pic-Nic.

The sandwich offerings on the menu each had a creative name. I opted for Le Medievale -- a round sandwich of tuna and boiled egg with lettuce and tomato. To drink? I took a hint from a poster on display next to our tables and ordered a local beer called Poppy.

I had not expected the label on a beer bottle to mention the Battle of the Somme, but this one did, together with the year the battle had taken place: 1916. "Remember" and "Souvenez-vous" were both printed on the label, recognizing that visitors to the area were as likely to speak English as French.

At meal's end I asked the owner of the eatery whether I might take home the bottle with its distinctive label. She smiled and let me walk off with my souvenir.

Well cushioned, the bottle crossed the Atlantic in my luggage. The poppies will help me remember.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Birdsong" by Sebastian Faulks

It was a reading day yesterday. Hours of reading.

A vacation day in summer like ones I had spent as a child. One book – and a library book at that! – through the afternoon and into the evening.

On a couch with a fan on low and windows open onto a sunny August neighborhood. A glass of water, refilled from time to time.

Walking shorts and t-shirt, sandals off, feet up.

The occasional doze, a makeshift bookmark keeping the spot.

A dinner break, lemon wedges in a white beer, carrots and celery and onion on the cutting board, seasoning for the simple fare easily heated and quickly eaten.

Dishwasher on.

A determination to get within a hundred pages of the end of the book by bedtime and lights out. Made it to only sixty pages left for today.

And I don’t want to start until lunch with a friend is over and the few necessary hours can roll by with little to distract me.

A book to hold at its conclusion and lay beside me on the sheets as another summer sleep comes on.

Farmstand and Garden Center

It is August in New England.

I stop weekly at a farmstand for fresh corn for dinner.

Then I walk back to the car through the hydrangea trees in the garden center.

Giddy abundance!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Sounding All Right

An older woman was walking uphill in the Père Lachaise Cemetery this past Tuesday. There may have been a couple of people also part of her party, but they were not sticking with her. Nevertheless she was gently smiling as she put one step in front of the other. Her weight would not have made that any easier.

I was walking downhill on the same path, and I was working at equanimity. It had been a warm, humid afternoon, and I do not like the feeling when my clothes are not doing what they did at eight o’clock in the morning. I get distracted when I feel that my undershirt is moist with perspiration and the cuffs of my pants are lower on my shoes than I had planned.

I want to look all right.

I also want to know what I am about. A friend had accompanied me for his first visit to Père Lachaise, and I had thought I knew where to pick up the map to guide us to Maria Callas and Simone Signoret and Jim Morrison. Neither of us had brought a guidebook along or printed out an online map. We walked at times a little lost, a little disappointed that we were getting to Edith Piaf and Marcel Proust and, yes, even Jim Morrison but only because we watched where other visitors to the cemetery were collecting.

It was our last full day in Paris, and I would have liked fireworks.

Back in New England this Saturday morning, I decided I would visit an old favorite among cemeteries and see what felt different about Mount Auburn Cemetery after my recent visit to Père Lachaise. It was a relatively empty place through which I walked today, and the bench on which I eventually settled was in a quiet area with no statesmen or philanthropists or writers buried ostentatiously nearby.

It was warm. It was still. My shirt was moist in spots by the time I sat down, but I was fine. It was easy to remember the woman a few days earlier in Père Lachaise. I had sat down in Père Lachaise as well a little while after passing the woman and spoken to my friend about her.

I tried to explain to him how moving it had been to see this woman with every reason in the world to be out of sorts with the heat and the climb and the company and to find her smiling. It was as though she had been ready for all that a cemetery – and a cemetery like Père Lachaise – could bring to mind and was just happy that she could notice it. She was equal to this day. She was equal to the life that had brought her here and to the life that had ended here for so many people.

I tried to explain all this to my friend but halfway into the explanation I started crying. As he listened and rubbed my shoulder, I struggled for composure. I did not want him to think that I was crying about my own life and the way it might end one day. I did not want him to think I was offering anything but a reflection on the woman I had seen.

I wanted to look all right and sound all right. The more he listened, though, the more I knew I had never gotten to sound this way before. I was getting out into the afternoon air something in my heart, and a friend was ready to notice me as much as he noticed the great urban cemetery around us.

It was warm that afternoon in Père Lachaise. It eventually was still around our bench. My shirt was moist in spots by the time I got up, but I was fine.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Life Away from Home

You walk in your front door again.

It is a week since you last locked it, a taxi in front of the house idling, ready to take you to the airport. For the first ten minutes of that drive – while there was still time to turn around if you had to – you had mentally reviewed the rooms you just left. You had rested your hand on different places on your body where a wallet or a passport or an e-ticket was stored. Reassured, you had finally smiled and settled yourself into the upcoming stretch of life away from home.

This stretch of life away from home was what I had earned by working thirty years for the same non-profit institution. In recognition of the years I had aligned myself with the goals and mission of an organization, I was invited to stand at an annual gathering of hundreds of people a few months back. An announcement was made that I would be travelling to Paris this summer – a gesture of distinct but accustomed generosity on the part of supervisors and trustees.

For a week, then, I got a life away from home.

For months ahead of that week I had gotten to plan with others accommodations and meals and itineraries. I had even gotten to plan which parts of the week I might leave unplanned, which afternoons I could suddenly, almost capriciously take a place at a table on a sidewalk in Paris and order my refreshment of choice. And just sit.

Familiar with Paris, I had the opportunity to leave it one day during that week, take a train north and participate in a day-long tour of World War I battlefields in the Somme valley. From very urban Paris I switched to a very rural France. I took on a history that is now almost exactly a hundred years old. I listened to the silences that have settled over those locales.

Life away from home is – by definition – a kind of public life. You sleep in a place available at other times to other people. You eat in places available to the next guest who darkens the doorway after you leave. You travel with a subway ticket that could just as easily have ended up in someone else’s hand for the length of a trip beneath Paris neighborhoods.

In time you get through all these novelties and familiarities, though.

In time you pay another taxi driver and roll your luggage down the walk leading to your front door.

In time you face the home spaces you thought you knew.

You just need time to live there again.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Reading About War

On a Saturday morning in summer, my daily walk can take me into a nearby historical neighborhood.

Oval markers on the outside wall near the front door record the year that certain houses were built. Many of the houses are large and rambling and have wide porches that provide space for a collection of rockers and wicker chairs.

No one is on those porches at seven o'clock on a Saturday morning. I can walk down the center of the street with little concern about approaching cars. It is so still that it is hard to think that it could have been any quieter even a hundred years ago.

I am reading a book these days about events that took place a hundred years ago. At the recommendation of a friend, I recently got hold of a copy of The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front by Peter Hart.

Last night I finished reading the first two-hundred pages, arriving at the close of the tragic events of July 1, 1916, the first day of what has come to be known as the Battle of the Somme. Not accustomed to books about battles and wars, I carried with me this morning on my walk through that quiet neighborhood the diary entries and letters and interviews by which Peter Hart brings to life that long ago July day.

I am not accustomed to hearing what it takes to climb a ladder leaning against the side of a trench, to go over the top when the last person who had done just that took a bullet and fell to the side. I am more prone to immerse myself in narratives of interior battle, the decision to take a step that not everyone will understand, the resolve to live a life that sustains -- the way German contemplative Edith Stein wrote her books and kept her quiet call in the years leading to another world war.

One of the books I found in a favorite used bookstore on the Cape this week was a 1957 hardcover edition of Paris by Andre George. A book that had first appeared in 1937, it contains more than two-hundred black-and-white images taken by a range of photographers. To his original text, Andre George later added a reflection on living in Paris in the early 1940's: "We loved increasingly what we feared we should never see again." The families who lived one hundred years ago in the neighborhood through which I walked this morning may occasionally have gotten to sleep through quiet Saturday mornings mercifully unaware of battles that they, their sons, their daughters, would have to wage one day. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Taking Walks

Last week I was standing in church and remembered something from my early twenties. It was something I would do when I was a student in seminary: I would walk. I would walk by myself – for a half-hour, sometimes longer – along familiar paths on the seminary grounds. I would walk without the intention of getting to a precise somewhere else. I would walk not because I had been instructed to but because I had regularly seen others, even men older than I in religious life, walk that slow, solitary way.

I felt Catholic when I walked those hours or half-hours. There were times during the seminary day when I was free to write letters in my room or study in the library or reflect in the chapel. It was made clear to us that the grounds were always available for our exploration and enjoyment.

There was no easy solace in these walks, however, as relaxing as the pace might seem. With each venture out I would be left more and more with myself as I went first this path and then that. Sometimes I took a route between rows of tall pines at the edge of the seminary property; my shoes would kick through the brown needles. My mood at the beginning of a walk had the chance of getting clearer and clearer as I moved on, and that clarity might not automatically be something restful or easy.

Rock bottom, though, I was wagering that somehow with each venture out I might get closer to who I was. It might not be so hard to be with my precise questions and needs and issues and history. In a religious setting, I was testing out the proposition that a someone out there might already understand those questions and needs and history.

It was an odd wisdom that I might get closer to that someone out there as I got closer to the someone inside.

It was an odd experience to find at walk’s end that I wanted someone to ask me about that someone inside.

Sometimes in my walks I would pass one of the places on the seminary grounds where a statue had been raised decades earlier. It might be a statue of Jesus or a statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus. Sometimes from atop a pedestal the statue of a missionary saint would cast its eyes down at whoever had slowed his pace there and looked up.

It would make sense to think of a walk among such statues as a Catholic thing. However, that was not the kind of Catholic walk I was remembering last weekend.

I was remembering my explorer’s heart that had wanted to go places as daunting as they were familiar. And I was remembering wanting another explorer to go with me.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Who Owns a Photograph?

When I take home a vintage photograph from an antiques fair, I am filled with questions. They are not unlike the questions I asked myself the summer's day that I drove home with a recently stray cat from an SPCA shelter in Concord, New Hampshire:

What life did I interrupt by stepping forward and saying "I will take it"...

Whose earlier claims of ownership did I presume I could actually cancel...

What could I do to make a home for something that until recently had had another home, another routine of days, another geography...

In exchange for so little -- a verbal pledge, a modest sum of dollars -- I emerged in each case with sole responsibility for something in whose creation I had played no part.

Ownership is nothing simple.

For example, I am at the mercy of the man pictured in this photograph. I do not know whether or not he had known ahead of time that the picture was being taken. I do not know whether he was happy for someone later to have a reminder of that day he had sat on the hillside, weapon at rest on his knees. That man has a claim to this photograph that I could never presume to contest.

Likewise I am at the mercy of the person who took the photograph. That individual is the creator. Artistry of some kind accounts for the slant of the landscape, the stand of the trees against the sky, the way the tints and colors of the man who is sitting with his weapon almost blend into the rocks.

I am even indebted to the woman who sold me the photograph. There had to have been from the first a willingness on her part to give up all claims to the image. Why else display it? Then there had been a moment of sizing me up, taking my measure as it were. I would have had no recourse if she had wanted to wait for another offer.

Lastly I owe something to the person years from now whose job it will be to sort among the possessions of my life and determine what to make of this image. No testimony of provenance will make it appear valuable in any public way. There is a chance that underneath the sorting and weighing there will come to someone an interior question: "What could I do to make a home for something that until now has had this other home, this other routine of days, this geography..."

There is a chance that a relative or friend will say to the others, "I will take it."

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Fifteen years ago I was in Rome on this twenty-first day of June. The trip had been my first chance to know the city, to walk its streets, to take in its antiquity in great gulps.

I stayed in a guesthouse run by an American order of nuns, and my room was very small. Each night I lay without airconditioning atop the sheets. It would take hours before the one open window provided a change of air. Nightly I got to fall asleep to the sounds of a neighborhood of families ending their day.

I did not need it any other way. I barely knew it could be.

Rome was old and I was new.

If there was heat, there was a shower attached to my room and I could wash and cool off. My wet hair lying on a white pillowcase, I let the strange Roman hours move over my room. Church bells rang.

New England heat has me these days remembering how to slow down, how to stop thinking, how to let the oldest rhythms of a New Orleans childhood take over.

I remember to water my flowers.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


I understood that the long, low piece of Roseville pottery was part of what was called a mantle set. I own the other two pieces that belong to the set, flanking vases in the same distinctive blue. The family assumption was that they had been a wedding gift to my parents in 1935.

Among the oldest items in our home when I was growing up, the odd pottery used to strike me as undeniably adult. Only adults would create, sell, purchase and display items that were clearly devoid of day-to-day utility.

We never touched them.

There were no stories told of them either. They remained in the succession of my parents' homes without a history that any of us knew. They were like the young adulthood of my parents before any of us children were born to make them -- finally -- Ma and Pop.

Saturday morning I accepted the invitation of a work friend to go with her to an antiques fair.  She remembered to bring a checkbook and emerged from the two hours with twin panels of stained glass. The colors in the simple design are predominantly amber and blue and green and are destined, she told me with obvious excitement, to hang in her bedroom windows.

I was able to venture safely from vendor to vendor and know that there was little I would purchase with the thirty dollars in my wallet.

What I had come for, it became apparent, was not a purchase, though. Even more valuable, I got a glimpse of that Roseville blue again. This time it was a jardiniere and matching pedestal.

I stared.

So there really could have been a world in which my parents had been young adults. And it had been a beautiful world.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Gentle Moods of Pentecost

Nothing takes only ten minutes, cookbook be damned.

Nothing good, at least.

But there they were at the end of only eight minutes, shells open, wine simmering, garlic rising with the steam. I was opening the lid on the first dinner of mussels that I had prepared on my own.

I had shaken the stock pot back and forth from time to time just as the directions said to do. Fresh parsley, chopped and then scraped off the cutting board onto the closed shells eight minutes earlier, clung now to the yellow meat of the mussels.

I scooped the opened shells out of the pot with a slotted spoon. I strained the broth through a mesh colander and poured it over the bowl of mussels. I pulled off three pieces of sperlonga bread. I treated myself to a glass of the simple wine in which the mussels had been steamed.

Why had I not done this sooner?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ready to Remember

It was a degree in historical performance that my niece received this weekend. Her doctoral robes fit comfortably, as comfortably as her two-year-old son in her arms at the close of the ceremony. Her parents and her aunts and uncles had grown acquainted in recent years with the care required around the harpsichord that she had had built for her practice at home. Those of us who sat with her husband through the two-hour convocation on Saturday searched for her on the screen above the dais and aimed our cameras with pride when the graduates processed in and when they processed out.

We were ready to remember for the long term.

I had spent three evenings this past week getting my apartment clean for the weekend. One of the guests at the convocation would be staying with me. I had the satisfaction of watching the apartment grow quieter and quieter as each room was cleared of clutter, each sink scoured clean, each table-top polished. I carried up from the basement freshly laundered towels and washcloths and bathroom rugs. I pulled the bed sheets tight and plumped the pillows and stood them in their clean cases. The vacuum cleaner had frightened the cat from room to room until she settled under the bed in my room, reluctant to be coaxed out.

And now we are all remembering, each in our own way.

I get to remember in an apartment that is still clean. More towels than usual have hung drying in the bathroom all day. The dishwasher is purring this Sunday evening with double the usual load of cups and mugs and juice glasses.

There were emails through the day. One long-distance call with my brother from New Orleans. New photographs on my niece’s Facebook page.

Late this afternoon I returned to the semblance of a normal weekend and visited a nearby arts center. A former church had been transformed into one of the venues for this open studios weekend. Local artists were showing what their years of training had enabled them to express. I loved one of the old church windows above the displays. The sunlight through the glass reminded me of all the weekends that individuals had sat there ready to respond to well-crafted words and choice music.