Friday, December 27, 2013

Routine Lab Work

With only routine lab work to complete, I was a lucky one in the clinic at eight o’clock on December 23. I had been fasting since before midnight. The hallways down which I walked to the lab were nearly empty with only a security employee at the front desk. I had no wait after submitting my lab request form – went right in, hung up my coat, and settled in the first cubicle to get my blood drawn. With the easiest of topics my conversation with the lab technician provided just the distraction I usually need to avoid a glimpse of the needle or of the tube filling up with blood.

Sitting in the lab, I was far from the serious holiday business of the week. There could hardly have been a setting less infected by Christmas themes and colors. I took some reassurance from that life-as-usual atmosphere. Any presents I had left to wrap or rooms I had still to vacuum for a holiday guest would have to wait.

Until a decade ago I could not have envisioned a routine visit to any clinic the week of Christmas. I would have been planning to travel either to New Orleans to see my parents or to Pennsylvania to visit the family of my partner at the time. I would have been about the business of being a son or a brother-in-law. I would have been walking into homes where a television was almost always on; I would have eaten off plates and drunk from glassware that dated from the years of high school and college. Cotton snow on a mantelpiece, hard candy in a glass bowl – I knew that my Christmas would have to fit into the Christmas of people older than I, people with more of a right to the rooms in which I dropped my suitcases and hid my gifts.

In the clinic this past December 23, I was the man around whom younger professionals worked, entered data into online records, swabbed an arm and drew blood. Even if our age difference was only a decade with some of them, I was part of the population they were not surprised to see in a clinic the week of Christmas.

To get coffee and a little breakfast sooner rather than later, I took a chance that there was a café or a clinic dining room down one of the first-floor hallways. I was right and hovered inside the door to check where to order food and where to pay for coffee. In the half hour that I sat at one of the tables, I watched out of the corner of my eye as one customer with his arm in a sling ordered breakfast and another in a wheelchair waited for her husband to bring her food to the table.

What was the chance that either of them had expected to be in this clinic the week of Christmas? What would be different about this year’s celebration from those they remembered from just a few years back? Which patient did the man in a suit sitting near the counter expect to see first when he had made it up to his clinic office? What lab results would he have to report, what news deliver?

With only routine lab work behind me, I wanted to believe that I was a lucky one in the clinic at nine o’clock on December 23. I wanted the Christmas I had waiting before me. I wanted to believe that I had made the Christmases of parents and family happy in years past. I hoped I would have the courage to face a Christmas one day if it should ever be different from the one I had planned.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Thursday, December 19, 2013

In Love at Christmas

If something takes time, we think twice before committing to do it in the week before Christmas. Just below the everyday tasks from December 17 onward, a seasonal pot pourri bubbles up within all of us – part planning, part spending, part music, part mail, part home, part family, part memory, part stubborn reality.

We may be careful in what we start to read, careful in what we venture to write, careful in what we agree to attend and who we agree to host.

Something like a metaphysical landscape rises up within us, the awareness that what does not make us proud in how we order our priorities during these end-of-year days may reveal values awry. We will get shown up, we fear. Who have we become if this is what we can leave undone? Who have we become if this is all we can afford?

Are there things we are too old to still be doing? Are there things we can never be too old to say?

Can we pass the vacuum cleaner one more time for a holiday guest?

Is there a friend who agrees that chocolate brown ornaments look great in a bowl?

Monday, December 9, 2013


It was a rainy Friday afternoon in early December. I was riding in the front passenger seat, having taken on the role of navigator with the help of the GPS in my phone. The three of us were headed to a cabin in Pennsylvania, a destination that only one of us had ever visited before.

The rain was steady. Moving through Connecticut, then New York State, then New Jersey, we approached the Pennsylvania state line in the midst of rush hour traffic. We had inched through the merge of 287 and 78 and called our hosts when we thought we might be only an hour away.

The rural location of the cabin created the usual problems with the phone connection; text messages remained undelivered or unacknowledged for minutes at a time. The friend in the back seat directed the flashlight app on his iPhone and read a print-out of directions that one of our hosts had emailed him to help with the final hour of driving.

We were three men, each around sixty years old, taking an exit off the interstate onto state roads with the expectation of a welcome and a well-cooked meal. The driver in these last hours of the trip was a gentleman I had just met that day, a longtime friend of the man in the back seat who had invited me. When I turned around at different times, I caught the familiar outline of his face by the light of his iPhone flashlight.

I was trusting myself with this man.

I was trusting that the New York friends who had extended this invitation to their Pennsylvania cabin were people I could like and grow to know.

I was trusting that the dog who lay so quiet at the feet of his owner was going to like me as well.

The rain grew heavier, the deeper into the back roads we drove and the closer to the cabin we came. Eventually a pair of headlights moved slowly in our direction, minutes from where the cabin should be. One of our hosts had come to greet us on the unpaved winding road on which his and other cabins faced.

The next morning we all sat with our coffee and looked out on a creek swollen by the previous night’s rains.

I had made my way into warmth.

Friday, November 22, 2013

New England Birthday

Midafternoon in late autumn can grow dark enough to warrant lamplight. If it is not yet time to leave the office and go home, a gentle, wistful mood is possible.

It is not unlike the feeling when you were much younger and your parents were not yet home from work and there was nothing to be done to hurry supper along. The hour felt determined to last as long as it could.

Or you were walking home from school, classes and club meetings behind you, and you looked up into the random trees lining the sidewalk. You walked past one house and then another, each front door closed, each window shade drawn. If there were no cars heading down the street, the quiet and the space around you reinforced a reflective turn of mind.

It is what happened later in your life when you went on retreat and you had gotten to the second or third day. The novelty of a space away from your everyday routines had begun gently to wane. You were back to being yourself, just without the regular things to do.

Who had any thought for that person who was just yourself? If you were not doing something for someone, what could you count on in the way of attention?

I approach a birthday in two days. It is easier to stay with questions like that at this time in my life. Nowadays I suspect that the answers are not anywhere as dire as I once feared they might be.

I have a great weekend before me.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Stacks of Books

Stacks of books. Shelves of books. Whether they appear in a Paris bookstore or in an upstairs apartment in New England, they tell a story for the person who notices them.

The bookstores of Paris are a treat. Online purchaser of books though I am, I still stop on the sidewalk before a display of books in the window of a Paris bookstore. Abundance characterizes these displays, book above book, books leaning on other books, books gathered around flowers and framed pictures of authors. Lamps glow in the older bookstores on a late October afternoon and reveal readers inside perusing titles on a table or upon a shelf.

For an American visitor the bookstores of Paris intrigue by the lasting trust in paper to which they testify. In the large Gilbert Jeune on the Boulevard Saint-Michel or in one of the compact librairies on the nearby rue Racine, individuals approach each new text, open it, test its potential for engaging them.

Where do they go then, those readers who carry a volume to la caisse? They pay for the adventure of taking the book home. They foresee wanting its pages to make a claim on the finite number of hours left free from work commitments and family duties and online diversions. They may know in advance the room in which the book will likely stay, the table on which it will await its reading, the shelf on which it may eventually win a spot.

But, no, where do those readers go? Where do they go if they opt for a text that is more than light diversion? Suppose the new translation of a play by Sophocles is the text they purchase. Or something by George Eliot. Or Flaubert or Gide. Where do they go if they choose to suffer the honesty of one of those classic tales of an individual hitting a wall in his life? What illness, what heartbreak, what termination of employment provides the subtext for that purchase made by someone calmly dressed but sober before her evening journey home?

Those of us who keep bringing books into our own homes, lining them on our shelves, stacking them beside bedside tables, where do we reveal ourselves willing to go?

And the people who visit us and who see the rows and piles of books, what might they suspect about the hopes amid which we live and the questions we seek to absorb into our lives?

If we saw those people in a Paris bookstore on a late October afternoon, would we suspect what illness, what heartbreak, what interruption of life might recently have become their own new story?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Walking Out of a Play

Did I really do that?

It is ancient history now, but I had never walked out of a theatre performance before.

Yesterday I was in search of online reviews of the 2007 production of the musical Parade by SpeakEasy Stage here in Boston. It had been a popular show with which the local company was closing its 2006-2007 season. Broadway success and Tony nominations a few years earlier had probably made it easy for most local reviewers to see this production as good news for the company and good news for the Boston theatre scene. But I had walked out.

When intermission came that May evening in 2007, I turned to my partner and told him I would meet him and our friends at the end of the evening’s performance. I may have said something like “I just can’t take any more of this.” I had sat long enough looking down our row of seats with everyone laughing and applauding at the end of each musical number. No one seemed the least disturbed by the Southern stereotypes being perpetuated on stage, actors and actresses whose exaggerated drawls seemed enlisted to communicate their characters’ ignorance and at times their ethical slyness.

Parade is an unusual musical about a lynching in 1913 Georgia. Leo Frank, a Jewish man from the North who married a Southern Jewish woman and settled in Atlanta, has been falsely accused of the strangling of one of his former employees. With a basis in history, the story ends with a Southern mob descending on the jail where Frank is serving out a life sentence: they take him out and hang him.

Yesterday I discovered that not everything written about the performance in 2007 communicated unqualified delight. What I read reminded me of factors with which I was struggling in silence while I sat through the first half of the play. In her review in, Jan Nargi described the play as “inflammatory and unapologetically stereotypical.” According to former Boston Globe-reviewer Thomas Garvey, “Parade wants to think of itself as daring, but no Broadway show would venture into the moral territory that a truly probing examination of the Frank case would require. Thus there's a void at the heart of the musical…”

I continue to reflect on what motivated the action I took that night. It was the first walking out I had ever done. It was the first time I had claimed the right with this group of friends to do something else that I alone preferred to do – or not to do something I clearly had no taste for.

Who was I that night? I think over events in my life the three years before that evening in 2007. I was a man who three times in a single year had traveled home to a Southern city to bury people who used to sit around the holiday table with him. I was a man who a year later watched hours of television coverage as his Southern hometown underwent the unprecedented destruction of Katrina.

And on the stage that evening in 2007 were Southern parents and children, Southern friends, Southern family. On the stage was a Southern city. On the stage was Southern death. But none of the usual sympathy in the face of death was what the play intended to evoke or make room for.

Later that night I stood before a group of friends who had followed my partner and me to our home. At one point I attempted to explain to everyone why I had done what I did earlier. No one in the room that night seemed to know what to say to me.

I expect that these people who knew me found it hard to understand my doing anything like what I had done. Not only had I walked out but I had not asked anyone’s permission before I walked out of the theatre for the length of the second half of the show.

I broke some rules that night, I guess?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Playing Virgil in Paris

More than once during our weeklong stay in Paris, my friend Kathleen called me her Virgil. The allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy was both generous and characteristic of my learned friend. I was not leading her through anything close to the epic circles of hell and purgatory, although a major world capital can be a daunting landscape to negotiate.

Having written about a tour through the underworld for the Roman hero Aeneas, the classical poet Virgil was an understandable guide for Dante to summon into his own epic. A visitor to Paris on multiple occasions, I may have seemed to Kathleen the same kind of reliable and well-informed travelling companion.

Kathleen and I have been not only friends but colleagues for a quarter of a century. The conference we were attending would claim only part of the week, though, and our evenings were always free. Where ought we to eat? What interesting sites were close to our hotel? When destinations warranted other modes of transportations, how would we negotiate taxis or the Metro? This visit was not Kathleen’s first to the French capital, but she admitted she was not a planner.

And I am a planner.

The week before our arrival at CDG, I had used Mapquest to print out maps showing walking routes from our hotel to restaurants and museums and churches we might want to visit in the neighborhood. From my office at work I ordered tickets for a concert performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the Salle Pleyel on a Friday evening. An hour before meeting up with Kathleen one morning, I went to a nearby Metro stop and purchased a carnet of ten tickets from the kiosk for our rush-hour trips to the conference center in the 19th. I either called restaurants myself to make our dinner reservations or engaged the concierge to help me with that task.

If Kathleen thought of me as her Virgil, she did things for me that Dante did not do for his Virgil. She let me take her to places that had a sentimental value for me. She helped me buy a simple begonia from one Monceau florist at the end of the rue Mouffetard and sat in Saint-Medard while I brought the flowers to a side altar in that favorite church of mine. At every lunch and dinner she moved effortlessly into the kind of significant conversation that I love, each of us probing both our own history and our friend’s. She offered me a day on my own if I wanted it and so made possible a solitary venture into the Marais and lunch at a restaurant another Boston friend of mine had recommended.

I am home now for two weeks. Last night I turned the heat on in my New England apartment for the first time this season. I walked from room to room and lowered the storm windows. I made the bed with flannel sheets.

Friends call and write. We tell stories and make plans.

Thank you, Kathleen.

Thank you, Paris.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Landscape Now Wholly Autumnal

It is a year since I last visited the writing cabin of Edwin Way Teale on a Saturday morning in late October. The companion with whom I had traveled to the writer’s two-hundred-year-old farm in northwest Connecticut took this picture of me without my knowing.

“A landscape now wholly autumnal,” to use words from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal. The words are quoted by Lawrence Raab in his own poem “Hawthorne on His Way Home.” I have written about Raab’s poem more than once in this blog over the years.

It is a landscape in keeping with the man walking down the road. It is a landscape in keeping with a man walking away from a part of his history. The winter that would follow this solemn autumn afternoon might benefit from a steady companion, but it might just as well be faced alone, standing outside the familiar comforts, snow falling.

I know now that I was frightened this time last year. I was a man sixty years old and in a month I would turn sixty-one. It may not seem a big difference in age, but for someone who had just spent months getting used to his fifties’ being over, the approach of sixty-one was a definitive move into the new decade.

I am much less frightened after the year that has passed.

Monday, October 7, 2013

In Paris by Week's End

I am going to Paris. Again.

There are work commitments claiming certain days there, but other days are unscheduled and uncommitted. They are available for caprice.

One of the first days of every visit to Paris I inevitably stop before some corner flower store. Nowhere on my list of things to do or places to go have I included this or any florist’s shop windows. In tracking in advance the time and location of organ concerts and gallery exhibits, I tend to forget the beauty of fragile petals opening on a stem in a Paris flower shop window.

I have purchased flowers once from such a store and walked outside with them in my arms.

I have ordered flowers once and had them waiting in a Paris hotel room.

I have been given flowers once on a Paris sidewalk, bought minutes before from a flower store about to close for the night in the eighth arrondissement.

Flowers are a language I understand. I usually forget until I get to Paris that I can speak it and understand it even there.

I am not a tourist when I look at flowers in Paris. They are not a souvenir. They are not a memento. They are what they would be if I saw them in a florist’s window in Boston or New York or New Orleans. They are a tribute to the person who gets stopped in his tracks by them. They are a tribute to the person who has to catch her breath when they first lie in her arms.

They are extravagance.

They are an extravagance that so suits Paris.

On the other hand, no one sees a photograph I take of them and exclaims, “Ah, Paris!” Only I know the story they tell of the Seine and the streets that lead down to it and the dream I get to live when the flowers and I walk together down those streets.

Image from Artisan Fleuriste 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


I must have missed the Richard Russo memoir when it first came out, but there it was this past Sunday afternoon on the table of new paperbacks. A favorite novelist of mine – and I had missed the announcement of this publication?

I understand how that could have happened. Amazon records that the hardcover edition of Elsewhere appeared last fall – on October 30, 2012, to be precise. Two weeks earlier I had appeared in a courtroom to lay a major chapter of my life to rest.

I am approaching the anniversary of those weeks. I expect to find out lots of things that escaped my notice during the fall months of 2012.

Richard Russo is a source of happy memories, though, starting with my reading of Empire Falls ten years ago. Set in a small town in Maine, the novel has a central character whose life I wanted to keep following no matter how dangerously close to permanent discouragement it came. The novel that had earned its author a Pulitzer Prize was a profoundly satisfying read.

In August 2009 I attended a reading that Russo gave after the publication of another of his novels, That Old Cape Magic. The reading, a fundraiser for the Portland Library, was held in what used to be called the First Parish Meeting House. I sat in one of the box pews in the crowded church where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his family had attended services during his youth in Portland.

That evening I joined in the eruptions of appreciative laughter that greeted Russo’s reading of the opening chapter of his novel. I looked around at times and found it tempting to envision a bookish Maine life for myself one day. I sensed the chance of meeting local people who would understand my reading a Mary Oliver poem at the start of every day, my visiting museums and bookstores and old graveyards, my sitting in churches, my spending two to three hours a weekend writing for the pleasure of it.

I took a picture this past Sunday of the Russo memoir on its table in the bookstore, aware of another book waiting for me back home. I would not go to sleep that night until I had finished The Burgess Boys, a novel by another Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, Elizabeth Strout. In this book characters shift back and forth between a town in coastal Maine and New York City with its adult sophistication and social expectations. Strout’s tale keeps a reader attuned to the transformations that loom in any life, no matter how hard each character works to keep that life predictable and manageable.

The final chapter of The Burgess Boys opens in the Portland bus station. I could barely believe Sunday night that I had ended up there, reading about a building familiar to me from repeated visits to the city over the past five years. I recognized the plastic seating, the vending machines, the taxis lined up just beyond the large glass windows, each bus pulling into the lot “like a friendly oversize caterpillar.”

My own life had felt capable of eventual transformation as I used to sit in that station, my future detaching itself more and more mysteriously from patterns of the past. Maine had stood for a great wilderness into which I might get to wander.

Over the past several years I have become better acquainted with Maine. It hasn’t heard the last of me.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An Adult Room

Sitting last night with a late dinner in front of me, I felt I was back in New Orleans.

I felt a Southerner again.

It was not the food before me – a plate of black beans and rice flavored with slices of kielbasa. No, I would not have seen that dinner served at my parents’ table in New Orleans. The foods that I prepare these days only occasionally speak of my home state of Louisiana.

I was thinking of the guest that I had invited to the apartment for a simple meal this coming Saturday. Born in Maine, this guest has lived some of his adult life in Louisiana. Sitting at the dining room table last night, I was attempting to see these rooms through that other pair of eyes. I kept feeling that New Orleans was written all over the place.

Of course, there is a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster hanging on one wall of the dining room. It is a purchase that I had made at the festival in 1978, the year I moved to Boston. I had brought the poster up North in a sturdy mailing tube and taken it to a do-it-yourself frame shop in Cambridge. Familiar with the framing process, my sister-in-law had accompanied me that August day; she helped me choose the blue matting.

But, no, not just a Jazz Festival poster – there is more that spoke to me last night of the city where my parents had spent their adult lives. Displayed in different places in the room are photographs of my mother and my father as well as photographs of aunts and uncles. Behind glass doors of two built-in china cabinets are vases from my mother’s bedroom, serving pieces, gifts of stemware from my brother.

In the end, though, I think it was the quiet of a room in the evening, large potted plants, the mirror over a side table, lamps with their colored shades. Last night this room had felt an adult room. Not cluttered, it had space for a guest to sit and relax and talk over a meal. There will be enough room this Saturday for me to lean over and pick up a finished dinner plate and take it into the kitchen.

Last night I realized this was an appropriate room for such adult rituals.

I have lived in New England for thirty-five years now. I have lived in New England ten years longer than I lived in the South of my growing up. I think of myself as a Southerner, though. Any home that I create would have to recall some of my earlier history – to me at least.

I wonder what it will say to others.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Harboring the Unexpected

Believe it or not, I like how quiet it is.

I am fine that most people who “know me well” do not regularly come to Writing Cabin. I presume they have their own ways of knowing me, some of them ways that may not yet have occurred to me but that have proven perfectly reliable and effective over the years.

Would anything I write here prove unexpected to those people who know me well?

On my part, I like when I meet someone who can recite a new poem to me or the text of an unfamiliar hymn. Words that I have not learned, words that have not yet found a customary place in my heart, can summon a silence within and I come to attention. I become aware of the unexpected.

I suspect I need the unexpected. I suspect I count on the possibility of there being something I have not even imagined.

Two weeks ago a friend was driving me through the mountains of North Carolina. We began talking on a topic that would have been unexpected in most car rides on a Saturday morning. We were talking about experiencing the peace of God when my friend recited a line from a hymn in the Episcopal hymnal: “The peace of God, it is no peace…”

At signs of my interest he recited all four stanzas, his hands on the steering wheel, eyes on the road:

They cast their nets in Galilee
just off the hills of brown;
such happy, simple fisherfolk,
before the Lord came down.

Contented, peaceful fishermen,
before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts
brimful, and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
homeless in Patmos died,
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
head-down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for but one thing --
the marvelous peace of God.

On the passenger’s side of the front seat, I felt silence within when the end of the second stanza mentions the peace of God and how it breaks the hearts of the first disciples. I felt the silence deepen at the close of the hymn when the summons comes to pray “for but one thing --/the marvelous peace of God.”

The car kept up its speed over the interstate highway through the mountains.

Home in New England, I kept thinking of the hymn without being able to recite its four stanzas the way my friend had. An online search brought me face to face with the words composed by William Alexander Percy. It brought me face to face with another name, a familiar one – that of novelist Walker Percy, whose uncle and guardian this Will Percy had been.

On a visit to a favorite used-book store on Cape Cod two summers back, I had purchased a one-volume history of the Percy family of Greenville, Mississippi. At the time my interest had been in the forebears of Walker Percy. This past week I went looking through the apartment for the soft-cover edition by historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown. I was curious whether something as unexpected as a mention of “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee” might occur there.

Of course it did.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Book Sculptures

I sensed the passenger next to me taking out her Kindle before I actually saw her. Yes, wise move, I understood – this woman knew how to travel, knew how to pack a carry-on, knew where to situate her Kindle so that it was easy to reach. Settling in to her read took no time at all; figuring how to hold her “book” on her lap was no trouble; finding her place in the text would call no attention to itself.

I looked at the library book I had brought with me for the flight to North Carolina. Softbound, call number visible under tape, unidentifiable smudge on the back cover, Lost Classics opened onto pages of a familiar toughness, some dog-eared, some stained, all perfectly readable and all previously read. In my hunt for a more recent publication entitled On Rereading, I had discovered on the library shelf this 2001 volume with its playful subtitle: Writers on Books Loved and Lost, Overlooked, Under-read, Unavailable, Stolen, Extinct, or Otherwise Out of Commission.

As the passenger at my side read cleanly and quietly through screen after disappearing screen, I paged through the seventy-four short essays. Compiled by the editors of a Canadian literary magazine called Brick, these essays were the work of authors invited fifteen years ago to recount each of them a book memory. I got to hear again and again how someone who was used to reading wrote about that experience.

What characterized most of the essays was the sense of a physical text lost – or almost lost – uncelebrated oftentimes, sometimes – it would appear – unknown by anyone beyond these seventy-four authors.

If two different reading worlds were travelling side by side – Seat 25D and Seat 25E – over the Appalachian Mountains last week, still one other book world awaited me in Asheville.

I had an appointment at the studio of a book sculptor in Grovewood Gallery.

The creativity and imagination of Daniel Essig had been familiar to me from the time I first discovered altered books and artists’ books six or seven years ago. I had purchased books with photographs of Daniel Essig’s sculptures. His were not books to be read in any conventional way, but Daniel Essig was indeed again and again creating books that call to those of us who are readers. We recognize pages, spines, covers, bindings when we see these book sculptures – we just need to stop and mull and examine what Daniel Essig is saying with them.

So there I was with the Asheville friend I was visiting and we were entering this man’s workplace, this artist’s studio. And you know what? Daniel Essig’s books did what books do – they stand, they lean, they lie on their side, they take on the shadows of a rainy afternoon, they allow themselves to be overlooked or ignored or neglected unless someone takes them off a shelf and handles them and maybe talks about them.

So we talked about books.

Yes, far from any Kindle, we talked about books in Asheville.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Just Go

Sometimes you just go.

It was Friday evening in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, and I was following the lead of the friend with whom I was staying. He had been right to recommend the weekly Drum Circle in Pritchard Park. After driving in from barbeque at Luella’s, we had joined the crowd in the dark surrounding the drummers, my friend instinctively swaying with the rhythms and occasionally rubbing against me.

Walking afterwards, we passed other musicians, small tour groups standing on street corners, children running around a city fountain. When my friend asked whether I wanted to go past the Thomas Wolfe House, I figured proximity was in our favor. It was a favorite site that I had toured on two other visits to Asheville decades earlier. The old boarding house was down a quiet street, the only rambling Victorian structure left in a neighborhood of office buildings and restaurants.

The porch that wrapped around the front and side of the house reminded me of chapters in Look Homeward, Angel. The boarders visiting the mountain health resort used to spend evenings rocking on that porch, sometimes engaging the Wolfe brothers and sister in conversation late into the night.

When the house was open to tourist visits during the day, I used to cross the porch without thinking and head straight for the front door. Friday night I could see that the house was closed, but it seemed someone might actually just walk up the front yard path, climb the steps and enjoy the view from the porch the way the boarders used to. There were rockers and even a porch swing in view, but I could barely believe they would not be chained in place for security.

I checked every sign on the lawn. Nothing warned of alarms. Could I really do this? Could I really just go up the steps? Could I have this pleasure to myself? Could I really enjoy something just by going up to it and being there? Could I really have what I wanted?

A wary adult self was not sure, but I looked at my friend. “Let’s go,” I said.

In no time I was on the porch swing, still startled by the sheer luck of it – a place on the porch for me and for the friend with me.

I told him, “This is where Tom and his brother Ben used to sit in the evenings.”

My friend had already driven me a few days earlier to sprawling Riverside Cemetery. We had stood in a light intermittent rain next to the Wolfe family plot. We easily located Tom’s marker. It took a while to find the low stone where Ben is buried next to his twin brother Grover.

A little while later the rain had let up. My friend filled his pipe and lit it. I recalled having wanted to get here from the first days of planning the Asheville visit.

Three days later I was on the porch swing. I had not planned on anything just like this.

Sometimes you just go, though.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Heading to Asheville

I was making vacation plans for next week with someone on the phone this morning.

Suddenly he remarked, “A clock is chiming.”

I was taken aback by his comment until it registered that a clock was indeed chiming, that I could hear it still chiming, and that the clock was on the mantelpiece in the next room in my apartment. It was that perfectly normal phenomenon of no longer being conscious of hearing something that I have grown accustomed to hearing every fifteen minutes for years.

Once I began to describe the mantle clock, I realized that FaceTime would make it very easy to show what I was attempting to make familiar to someone who had never seen the clock. I would not have to worry about what my words, what I chose to mention and what I presumed must be obvious by my calling this a mantle clock, might fail to make clear.

Sometimes you just have to see something if you’re going to make headway in knowing it.

Next week I get to meet someone with whose writings I have been familiar since 2005. One blogger to another, he and I have read what words we have each chosen to describe the tenor of everyday life and eventually a significant transition in each of our lives. Over time our communication moved into other media, phone calls and text messages and Facebook.

It seemed time for us to sit across a table from one another, order barbecue and beer, and watch how the other fits in a chair and surveys a room and makes his points and names his dreams.

Sometimes you just have to see someone if you’re going to make headway in knowing him.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Outermost Community Radio

It was a Saturday evening in the winter of 2006, and I was taking my niece Marie to dinner for a belated celebration of her January birthday. It had been lightly snowing through most of the day, and the outline of street lamps against a white Boston Common made a lyrical view from the upstairs windows of the French restaurant.

At times during the evening with Marie, it was too easy for me to recall the spirited high school student or the pre-med junior I had visited in her college dorm room. I would briefly forget that I was facing a professional woman in her mid-thirties, a successful OB/GYN with a practice in central Massachusetts.

Though unmarried, Marie had determined a number of years earlier not to delay the purchase of property. She had built a two-storey house in a neighborhood ten minutes from the clinic where she had her practice. She was eager for her home to become one of the venues the rest of us considered for holiday meals.

Then Marie got to buy a small summer house on Cape Cod. After that purchase she made sure that her parents began to count on this home away from home for their use. Eager to acknowledge the role Marie was beginning to play in the family, I told her pointedly during our birthday evening that it was lovely to imagine Augusts in the future when yet unborn generations of the family would think of Marie as the magnet for fun gatherings.

Since then the first of those unborn generations has been born. There are toys collected in bright plastic tubs in the main living room of the Cape house. Stacks of children’s books show up in different rooms. There is a swing set in the back yard.

Next week I go to that house for a few days. It is a time of year I have gotten to count on having that home away from home to myself. I will set the kitchen radio to play the eclectic music of a Provincetown radio station – WOMR – OuterMost Community Radio. The call letters recall the title of Henry Beston’s 1928 masterpiece of naturalist writing, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod.

At one point during our dinner in 2006, Marie recounted her recent unearthing of a composition she had penned at the end of second grade. In it she had written of her excitement long ago at the prospect of her Uncle John’s moving in with her and her family. My older brother had generously arranged for me to live with his family for the year after I left the seminary.

When I go to Marie's house on the Cape next week, I live my own life but I live with my family again.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Kind Reader

There is no practical reason for me to own a copy of the Bible in Latin. When I discovered mine in a box in the basement this weekend, I was actually hunting for my copy of the novel Look Homeward, Angel. Biblia Sacra Vulgata was a purchase I had made almost two decades ago out of curiosity and what I will call a sort of devotional playfulness. What would the psalms have sounded like to Francis of Assisi in the 12th century? How would religious communities have heard the gospel stories read at Mass in the 18th century?

The book I purchased has remained packed and largely unmissed over the past five years. If I took it out of its moving box and carried it up the backstairs this weekend, I was falling victim once again to a pleasure in the feel and heft of the volume and its tight compactness.

Ready for a little sleuthing?

This page of Latin text from the beginning of the book shows three indentations. Can you find the beginnings of three paragraphs? The first paragraph begins “Verba Vulgatae…” The second paragraph begins “Habes ergo…” The third begins “Ordinem librorum…”

My interest is in the second paragraph. This is not a page of ancient Latin, by the way. You are looking at the first page of the Praefatio composed by Dom Robert Weber OSB as chief editor. First published in 1969 by the German Bible Society in Stuttgart, the volume also contains Dom Robert’s preface translated into German, French, and English.

Why would I be interested in the preface in Latin if it is available in three other languages? Precisely because it had not needed to be written in Latin at all. But Dom Robert Weber was addressing a community of scholars who would probably all know some Latin if they were going to use the biblical texts he had edited.

And now the line that stopped me. The start of that second paragraph: “Habes ergo…” Here is the simplest of Latin verbs in the present tense, second person singular. “Therefore you have…” Dom Robert is addressing some ONE person at this point. But who? For the answer, look at the phrase that follows, set off by commas: “benevole lector.” Kind reader.

Something prompted me to look at each of the three translations that followed. Not one begins that same paragraph in just that way. Not one addresses a “kind reader.” The English version reads: “The present edition contains all the Biblical books that are found in the Roman edition.” The German and French translations follow suit.

Only in the Latin version, when Dom Robert is clear he has the attention of some rank of fellow Latinist, does he invoke a relationship between himself and his reader. It is a relationship that will otherwise go unnoticed and unacknowledged.

Until this weekend I did not know Dom Robert Weber OSB. I certainly did not know that I owned a volume that he had edited. The pleasure of handling the book now feels like a gift. I like to think I am that booklover, that kind reader about whom Dom Robert thought.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Connecticut River Valley

I drove west for ninety minutes last Saturday morning.

When you drive for ninety minutes west from Boston on the interstate highway, you come to the Connecticut River Valley. If you know your Emily Dickinson, you have come to her hills, her grasses, her skies, her summer.

My Mapquest directions had simplified my search to looking for a sign marked Exit 4. That’s one way of explaining how I began driving north along the Connecticut River. Less than two hours later the friend I had arranged to meet in Northampton was walking with me through the quiet of the Bridge Street Cemetery.

Might the poet of Amherst have attended funerals in this cemetery the next town over from her home? If so, her attention may have settled at one point on this hoary stone.

Something would have stirred in her at this sight, I have to think.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Maple Walnut Summer

I found it – my mother’s occasional personal splurge when it came to ice cream. Chocolate might do it for the rest of us, vanilla, strawberry, three flavors – but the ice cream treat my mother occasionally required was black walnut. Sometimes it gets called maple walnut, and I looked for some yesterday in my neighborhood frozen food cases. Eureka!

Nothing much changed for my mother at the June end of each school year. She still had to do the daily load of laundry, the house cleaning, the preparation of my father’s dinner and ours. Summer lunches for us just added to the work she was accustomed to the rest of the year. No ironing of school uniforms, though! The sacrifice she and my father made for private education certainly made for a busy life.

Without a driver’s license my mother was limited for much of her life to our family outings for her distraction. Every other Sunday was a day-long trip to our four grandparents. Secret: there was a young doctor in New Orleans who paid her some attentions when she had just graduated from high school. Her choice of my father, though, the brother of a classmate, was one she made and, but for her children and sisters, no one would have heard her say a word against life with him.

Might her life have been different with that doctor or a lawyer or a college professor? She might have thought so. What about a summer house? A dream come true. The chance at a job that would take her regularly out of her house? Not in the stars for her.

For the first time in fifty years I had maple walnut ice cream last night. I like to think that pleased her.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Father's Day Weekend

At pater infelix, non iam pater, “Icare,” dixit,
“Icare,” dixit, “ubi es? qua te regione requiram?”
“Icare,” dicebat...

For someone translating a poem from a language other than his own, there is a joy in repetition.

“Icare,” dixit...
“Icare,” dixit...
“Icare,” dicebat...

“Icarus!” he called...
“Icarus!” he called...
“Icarus!” he kept calling...

Destined to sit in a Dartmouth College classroom for a Classical Association of New England summer institute, I had work to do one June weekend six years ago. Kindly invited to visit friends at their home on Martha’s Vineyard, I needed to spend some time preparing for an upcoming mini-course on the Latin poetry of Ovid scheduled to be taught by a Dartmouth professor.

The Friday afternoon ferry ride to Oak Bluffs, then, found me – incongruously – with a Latin text in hand.

It was an odd moment, feeling the ferry move out of Falmouth harbor and opening the book on my lap to the ancient story of Daedalus and Icarus.

For someone who had last pored over these Latin lines as a high school senior, there was a joy in being able to recall easily how some of the words fell in place, how my Latin teacher had read through them for us in a pre-lection, even how my classmates and I had pieced together the words and phrases in awkward English renderings for homework.

I could have worked on other passages from Ovid’s collection of mythological tales called the Metamorphoses. I had actually made a start on the story of Apollo and Daphne, but the waves, the wind, the spray around me as I sat on the upper deck of the ferry suggested I search out some sea-borne plot.

What better than those scenes of a father fitting handcrafted wings onto the shoulders of his son Icarus? What more apt passage than the ultimately vain warnings by Daedalus that his son not fly too low over the waves of the sea or too high near the sun?

The Sunday two days later would be Father’s Day. What is a father’s job more truly than to fit his son with the hope of finding a life away from the labyrinthine confinements of a childhood home?

My reading of the Metamorphoses progressed over Father’s Day weekend that June six years ago, and I too was changing. Returning to a text that I had met long ago, I was beginning to recognize a truth about fathers and sons, about home and risk that I may have been too young to claim before then.

Monday, June 10, 2013

I Bought the Smallest Slice I Could

I did it. As small a slice as I could ask the gentleman behind the cheese case to cut.

I watched him use the cheese wire and halve the smallest wedge of Cob Hill Ascutney Mountain on display.

My anniversary gesture.

Eight dollars.

For the past four years I have hardly made a trip to Whole Foods without spotting the Cob Hill cheese in the glass case. Ever waiting for the sale sign that would bring it within my price range, I have only purchased this cheese two or three times before. It is never a sale item.

Whole Foods cheeses are a two-income treat to which I rarely treat myself.

It is early June, however. Few vacation moments match the Saturday morning four years ago when I raised my eyes from the tombstones of a roadside churchyard in Cornish, New Hampshire. In clear view across the Connecticut River was Mount Ascutney in neighboring Vermont.

There are times when you ask the universe for something with all your heart. That morning in June, I could not stop myself from asking for what I wanted – a life in which the beauty I saw in that vista could fill my heart. The future of your heart matters when you have undone the way your life looks the year before.

All this in a raw cow’s milk cheese from Vermont? Yep.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Summer Air, Open Windows

At age 19 I left a home in New Orleans in which I had lived only one year. It was my family’s first year in a house with central air conditioning, a first year of hearing a fan begin whirring at unpredictable hours of the day and night, signaling the arrival of magically cool air. My mother in particular was happy to have cotton blankets to draw up to her chin on nights in July when the fan and cold air seemed never to stop.

My father, practical as ever, installed two large window units in strategic places in the new house. A housing inspector for the federal government, he knew that central air conditioning could suddenly give out. If my mother had to, she could turn on the window unit in her bedroom and live in there for a day or two until the central air was repaired.

Come what may, she would not become like her mother, living with a handkerchief always in her hand to mop the perspiration around her forehead and neck as she sat quietly in a rocker next to open windows in rural Louisiana.

And that was precisely the life that I was choosing when I chose seminary. It was an older Louisiana toward which I was heading. It was not so much that air conditioners were unreasonably expensive at the time. The bedrooms for guests to the seminary each had a window unit that rumbled out cold air for a visitor’s comfort. All of the seminary staff had the same window units in their own living quarters.

Tradition simply suggested that the large exhaust fans that for years had moved air through the high-ceilinged hallways off which the seminarians’ rooms opened might suit us as we started this new life. Why say we could not live in the 1970s as generations of priests entering before us had lived?

Public areas like the chapel and the library and the community room and the dining room did benefit from central air conditioning. The main adapting before us seminarians came at night when we retired to our rooms. Adapting to those nights and waking in the morning to savor any coolness that lingered around open windows is a vivid memory.

Sitting in a rocker next to the window and cradling a morning prayer book in our laps, we unwittingly recalled our grandmothers.

That memory makes the start of New England summer this particular weekend not just something to endure. It makes my open windows an opening onto a history I get to keep remembering.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Picture That

As I wandered the aisles of vendors at the Brimfield Antique Fair last Saturday, I was spending hours among items that predate electronic communications. The world in which a lady’s straw hat and a tilting easel table mirror and wooden printer’s type trays were first created was a world in which it had taken time and stationery and postage to send a message. There had had to be a physical place for a communication, a place as real as the physical space in which the item that was the subject of the communication took up room.

One vendor’s stall at the fair was devoted exclusively to vintage postcards. Each card had originally taken up space somewhere in a recipient’s home or among her effects and perhaps later at an estate sale. The gentleman who was displaying the cards at the Brimfield Antique Fair had arranged them in alphabetical order by continent and country and state and town. Used or unused, each of the cards had been slipped into a cellophane sleeve to preserve it from further wear and tear.

The inspiration was a sudden one. I would attempt to find a postcard of Portsmouth, Virginia, and send it to a friend who lived in that city. The friendship had arisen somewhat around his reading of Writing Cabin. I determined that I would send a piece of old-fashioned mail to someone whose familiarity with the things I regularly write about was the electronic experience that any blog offers.

I was crossing lines, I realized. I would need permission to do this. In our next exchange of emails, I attached a digital image of the postcard of High Street in Portsmouth, Virginia. I typed out a message on the screen of my laptop, explaining to him that I wanted him to have the postcard. I hit “Send.” From what he typed in his reply, my reader seemed delighted at the prospect of receiving the vintage image.

And then the days passed.

Early Monday morning on my way to work I had driven to the nearest post office and slipped an envelope into a mailbox. It was Thursday afternoon when my friend in Portsmouth, Virginia, got home from work and went to check the mailbox by his front door. The Boston postmark told him who had sent one piece of that day’s mail.

Brimfield Antique Fair had arrived at his door. Something had traveled from those aisles of vendors to a home with an address in the Virginia Tidewater. I received an image on my iPhone that evening, attached to an email sent to my Yahoo account. There it was – the postcard I had sent taking up space in another man’s home.

Picture that!

And on a rainy Massachusetts Saturday I got to write about it all.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Strawberries to Share

He stuck the spoon in the bowl. It remained standing as he carried in the dessert on the butler’s tray. Fresh from the backyard, the strawberries were the treat he gave himself for saying what he had wanted to say and hearing no demur. He could share those strawberries now.

Thanks to projectbuddy at 1 Graphic 50 Words for the inspiration to experiment with this genre.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

German Theology and May-blue Sky

If you are an art history enthusiast, you know this stained glass window from the cathedral in Chartres. You recognize Notre-Dame de la Belle Verriere. You recognize the Blue Virgin Window.

You may know that that this is one of the oldest windows in the cathedral, having survived a devastating fire in the twelfth century. You do not need to be Catholic or Christian to acknowledge that you are dealing here with what has become a cultural commonplace. There is no end of scholarly writing about this window, and even an untrained viewer will find things to say about it.

Note now the use made of Notre-Dame de la Belle Verriere in a dust jacket. Its distinctive colors reduced to monochrome, the image was chosen for a book of scholarly reflections on Mary by German theologian Karl Rahner. From the time this English translation appeared in 1963, it became a staple in seminary and divinity school and convent and retreat house libraries.

This is the third time I am reading through what started as conferences delivered in the University Church in Innsbruck. Drawn originally by the compactness of the volume, I have only twice before taken on the task of making my way through all eight theological meditations from beginning to end. I am not always sure I can explain the insights to which Rahner's text leads me. I will only say that while I am reading, I sometimes glimpse the reality of a God whose sovereign determination to love this world reveals the stinginess of my thoughts about Him.

German theology and a May-blue sky. Some writers can make those two sound companionable. Whether or not I have, they are linked for me this year.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

New Venues

Just as spring weather was deepening these past three weeks, I came across a restaurant business card that I had picked up last summer. A travelling friend and I had gotten up from a meal in a restaurant close to our hotel in Paris; satisfied and full, I had picked up the card on our way out. The card must have stayed on the desk in the hotel room amid accumulating receipts and Metro tickets and made it into my carry-on bag.

The business card might as well have had “Mission Accomplished” printed on it. I think I picked it up because I wanted a reminder of a successful search months earlier for affordable Paris restaurants that served up creative and authentic cuisine. The weather may have been just like this during last spring when I called the restaurant to make the reservation.

A business card coupled with the spring sun triggers memories that I barely thought could be this vivid. The memories are of a meal that I had wanted to be special. The memories are of a trip that I had wanted characterized by new venues, exploration, risk taking.

If I am not planning another such trip right now, I feel the spring sun doing its customary work nonetheless. I am ready to go places I have never been before. I am eager to know more about the mission on which I am now launched.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Friday Tired

It had been a long work day, with the last three hours particularly dense. Leaving the building close to six o’clock, I walked to my car through a parking lot that had largely emptied out. It was quiet and still, no one apparently out there for me to greet or wish a good weekend. I had the rare experience of being able to flag visibly, slow my pace, stop smiling.

Disabling the alarm from a distance, I disabled more and more of the professional me the closer I came to the car door.

Nothing was wrong. I was just tired.

It was still a sunny spring afternoon, later, though, and a little cooler than I had expected.

By the time my short drive home was over, I had mentally cancelled a tentative plan to catch 7:30 theatre. I had not yet bought a ticket nor had I committed to meet anyone there. It had been an intriguing Friday evening prospect at one point but no longer.

Dinner proved an easy this and that, a relaxing routine in the kitchen, full of cold ingredients that required no patience or waiting. It was healthy fare, celery and carrot sliced and chopped to add to a larger salad. It took no energy to be grateful for the clean colors and smells.

Nothing else to say about the evening except that an online jazz station stayed on through it and living room lamps stayed off. My parents’ china cabinet, illuminated by low-watt bulbs, provided all the light I needed for the next few hours of sitting.

I did look around at one point and ask myself what else was needed. I could not think of anything.

Monday, April 22, 2013

After Lockdown

It was the view whenever I settled with my library copy of The Little Stranger during last Friday's lockdown. The mood that Sarah Waters creates around a decaying country house in 1940s England matched the uncertainty of the Boston day that had to be spent inside. I kept the volume of the television in the next room as low as I could and moved through long chapter after long chapter. The quiet was not unwelcome. The leisure, unexpected though it was and mandated by a host of authorities, was something I could handle. Living alone, I profited on Friday from being someone used to his own company. No one was going to be seated in that armchair across from my leather couch. At least not for another twenty-four hours. And then...welcome guest! Hospitality did its healing work. Air moved again in helpful ways.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Early Spring Green

Last night I went to the windows in one of the front rooms facing the street. It is a nightly routine of mine before heading to bed to go from room to room of my second-floor apartment and draw the shades. It is less a concern for privacy and more a way to stave off the inevitable cooling of the rooms once the heat is off.

I always have a chance to look outside just before I pull each shade. On rare occasions someone is walking down the street or standing patiently while the dog on a leash sniffs the bottom of a neighbor’s tree. No one ever looks up at me while I am drawing the shades, so I tend to take my time.

From my second-storey vantage point I sometimes look directly into the branches of the trees in front of my neighbors’ house. A street lamp on that side of the street makes it easy to figure out whether on a particular night it is windy or rainy or, a few weeks ago, snowing.

Last night, however, all was still. The bare branches created their usual pattern, crisscrossing one another. It was a quiet neighborhood night in the middle of April, not particularly cold and not particularly warm to judge by the inside air right next to the window panes.

For whatever reason, my vision fast forwarded to the end of May. I had a sudden recall of the view from these windows my first month in the apartment. I knew for certain that the four or five weeks ahead would cover these bare branches with early spring green. Leaves would emerge with each morning and each evening. Branches that now allowed a clear view of a neighbor’s house would increasingly veil it.

In four or five weeks there will again be great, abundant life high above these sidewalks. The street lamp will nightly spotlight one area of lush green. Something vast will have rolled back over this patch of earth. Stubborn, familiar hopes will feel justified.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday 2013

Easter is a hard one to explain. It is a hard one to talk about especially if you are trying to sound like you understand it.

Sometimes, though, I think it is like a jazz piece that you listened to a year ago and suddenly you hear it again and both the person you were a year ago and the person you are this morning are there at the same time. But you know that that cannot be, that one of those two people is the ghost, the not-quite-there one.

You think you know that it cannot be, that there have been eruptions of vigorous life as well as unmistakable dyings that separate the person you are this morning from the person you were a year ago. There are things that you thought you knew about yourself and the world a year ago, about the people you loved, about the people who loved you when you were listening to a piece of jazz and not thinking you would ever hear it differently. But now you are hearing it differently.

You cannot set about hearing something differently. You cannot plan it. You risk otherwise not really hearing it anymore and that is not just a dying, it is an erasing and a destroying something that still has some of your life in it. Easter wisdom is that you want both ways of hearing that piece of jazz.

Easter joy comes from discovering you might just be someone who can.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

New Orleans House Pride

Whenever I spend a few days at my brother’s house in New Orleans, there come times when I ask him about one or more of his furnishings. Sometimes it occurs to me that a painting over one table may have been over another table at some earlier visit. Occasionally I seem to notice for the first time that two side chairs in the living room are not matching – something my brother plans deliberately in order to inject energy into that room. From time to time I feel safe noting that something in the house is new, undeniably new since my last visit. That kind of comment takes courage to make because I squirm just a little if the answer suggests that I have indeed seen the object before.

My comments, though, succeed for the most part. They succeed because my brother enjoys talking about his house. What may seem a random arrangement on a particular surface likely was meant to seem random. My comments confirm the instincts that my brother has that rooms either work or they don’t. I have watched him accept compliments from guests to the house, and the tone he uses may sound detached or merely informational when I suspect he is secretly and justifiably brimming with house pride.

When I sit in my brother’s living room as I did last week, I often arrange to sit by myself. I bring a book with me, and I get to be the reader that an armchair next to a window was positioned to invite and welcome. I play the part that not everyone who comes to my brother’s house has the time or inclination to play. My reading – something I love to do in chairs and couches that I have positioned in my own New England living room – frees me to look up from time to time. I get to observe a home duly ordered, playfully arranged, carefully maintained.

I sit where my mother once sat. I sit where my father sat. I sit where aunts and uncles and cousins and in-laws sat through the twenty-five years that this has been my brother’s home.

I sometimes even get to sit where I sat.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Being André Gide and Being Free

What did André Gide work for? A figure of some stature and at times notoriety in the French intellectual world of his day, what did he hope for from a literary career?

Almost a hundred years after its initial publication a soft-cover edition of Gide’s novel Isabelle is lying face down near a window in my New England office.

When I was in high school, friends at a nearby girls’ school were assigned La symphonie pastorale to read in French class. I remember the impression that the title of Gide’s short novel made on me. Not a student of French until college, I had to content myself with the dactylic hexameter lines of Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I secretly coveted the experience that friends were having reading about the blind orphan girl Gertrude adopted by a country curate and his wife.

Among my colleagues are two women born in Paris who remember reading La symphonie pastorale in their own high school years. Neither of them has read Isabelle, another of Gide’s short novels that he called récits. Nor have they read L’immoraliste, his most controversial récit, which appeared on the syllabus of a course I took as a French major in college.

That novel was my introduction to the landscapes in which Gide specialized. A young Parisian academic comes alive in North Africa, responding to the call of a sexual attraction to other men. Early in L’immoraliste is a sentence that I have not forgotten: “Savoir se libérer n'est rien; l'ardu, c'est savoir être libre.” It is the kind of terse French wisdom that is sometimes hard to get into easy English: “Knowing how to get free is nothing; the hard thing is knowing how to live free.”

The length of Isabelle and of Gide’s other récits makes them companionable volumes. The cover art work tends to be soft and atmospheric.

These days I engage again the wisdom of L’immoraliste. Winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947, Gide could not know how his stature would be measured in years to come. He could only resolve to live free.

On an afternoon when snow chases snow outside my windows, what can it be like, I ask myself, to keep living free?