Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cape Cod and its Angels

My niece collects shells and stones and sea glass. On the mantle of her Cape house, in a pile on an iron table on the back deck, along the windowsill in her kitchen, she has left mementos of beach walks and wilderness hikes. By this point her son, close to three years old, has made his contributions as well. It does not take a lot of imagination for me to hear her words of encouragement to him as he looks for shells, her words of astonishment when he shows her what he has found, her words of thanks after he hands her one.

Her vacation home has become a safe haven at times for members of the family. It was an obvious location when I thought of taking a couple of days in this unseasonably warm March to breath different air. A friend got it right when he suggested that I was looking for contemplative time. Well before the regular season, Cape Cod roads and streets were quiet and at times empty. It was easy for me to get the feel of a mini-retreat.

I resisted packing the laptop and limited my books to one volume of Mary Oliver and the French translation of a spiritual journal by Pierre Favre. The writings of this sixteenth-century priest used to be favorite reading in my seminary days in my twenties. The soft-cover edition of Favre's Memoriale had been a purchase from a Paris bookstore during a summer stay in 1974. Packed amid boxes of books from recent moves, the volume was one of the mementos I uncovered in a basement clean-up a week ago. The paper cover showed rusty smudges from foxing that I had not seen before.

At a point during my Cape stay, I decided to do something that occurs regularly in Favre's journal. He used to pray to the angels guarding the different towns and cities through which he traveled. Addressing these angels, Favre would pray for guidance during his stay in each location.

Before the monotone winter landscape surrounding my niece's house, I prayed to the angels of that town. I prayed for the journey that had taken me from Paris in 1974 to this strange early spring of 2012. I prayed for the young man who had parted with twenty-nine francs to own a record of how memories in another man's heart had once been made and kept.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Trip to the Library

I had read that it was a beautiful library. My project today was to drive to the neighboring town and see for myself.

I loved that there was an old New England cemetery right next to it. Someone must have known that a stroll through one was a fitting path to the other.

Care had been taken to protect the architectural elements of an older style while providing the security of a sturdy renovation.

I took a chance and searched the Fiction Room for a copy of the book that I had purchased a few weeks ago in a used book store in downtown Boston.

I took down from the shelves the library's copy of Simone de Beauvoir's The Mandarins. Long since separated from its dust jacket, the book was the same 1956 edition that I am reading now. What this copy has that mine does not is that unmistakable library smell wafting from the pages as soon as I opened the cover.

On the covers on my bed, I had left the copy from which I read last night before falling to sleep -- page 393!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On the Road to See an Old Friend

The bus ride from Boston to Portland is two hours on a Sunday morning.

Two hours is not an inordinately long trip to see an old friend. I last saw him a year ago in my hometown of New Orleans, where he and his wife live ten minutes from my brother’s. At a table in an uptown coffee house, I had handed George a brochure about a March 2012 conference at Bowdoin College. Dressed in his lawyer’s long-sleeve white shirt and tie, George had taken the brochure and thanked me.

I was fresh from last year’s Winter Weekend centered on Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which had brought a number of scholars to the Bowdoin campus to address a gathering of readers. Treating the participants to a banquet that took its inspiration from the literary work under discussion had been part of the winning recipe on the part of the college. I was able to assure George that the upcoming year’s conference on the Iliad would prove a satisfying experience – especially for someone whose diversions include translating the Iliad from the original Greek.

My preference for the bus this past Sunday came from the leisure it would afford for the two hours up to Portland and the two hours back. I would get to read further in The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir. A happy chance of a purchase in a used bookstore a few weeks earlier, the 1956 novel promised six-hundred pages of political and literary discussions among characters based on Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and their friends. The French major in me welcomed the diversion.

Would George and I have a similar conversation over our own lunch?

There was some talk about recent publications by the presenters at the weekend conference. There was talk about preferences for translations of the Bible. There was on George’s part the frank admission that few reading prospects of his had yet supplanted the Iliad for the capacity to engage him intellectually and maybe even emotionally. One of the great sagas of war opening on a scene of dissension in the ranks – George smiled in savoring the possibilities for insight the old epic could offer.

Over lunch and later on a walk through the Old Port, our conversation touched on teachers we had shared in high school and classmates and other authors like Mary Oliver and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, before whose family’s home and parish church we paused. The ease of the talk and the welcome and trust we each could sense from the other made this walk a strange one – that it had taken us so many years to find our steps matching this way and our moods agreeing.

Within four hours of arriving in Portland, George was heading to the airport. Talk of his wife and daughters had made it easy to imagine his life in New Orleans, and I knew he was returning to questions and satisfactions that someone of his intelligence and thoughtfulness expected at our age.

After my two hours’ read on the bus back to Boston, I picked up my car from the garage and drove home. The light was late afternoon light, Sunday afternoon light. Briefly it would touch my pictures and chairs and plants in a certain way. If I decided to capture it, it was because of who I had been almost fifty years ago as well as who I have since happily become.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Grits and Bacon

The simple rhythms are the best ones for Lent.

Simple meals can be the most satisfying.

Saturday morning gave me the chance to bring three slices of bacon to old-fashioned crispness. The balance of grits and bacon and coffee did its customary job.

The lessons from years of preparing meals provide some of the surest ways we return to ourselves.