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?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Poet Comes to Dinner

I have a week to get the apartment ready for my dinner guest next Saturday night. He is a published poet with whom I last shared a meal two or three years back. We were at a restaurant not far from the college where he had read his work the evening before. Articulate, probing in his inquiry, steady in his gaze, he sat across the lunch table from me for two hours that day.

Fourteen years younger than I, he already had a first volume of poetry to his name as well as a handful of chapbooks. Our acquaintance had begun online, erupted in occasional phone calls, and found holiday expression in exchanges of greeting cards over the years. We both found in the other the kind of good company characterized by attention to language and alertness to religious and ethical questions.

His smile is an easy one in the numerous photographs that have been taken of him and posted on websites featuring Latino authors. He speaks softly in public; in private, he seems always to have ready two or more questions to follow the one he has just posed.

I will take care what books I have most easily visible in the living room next Saturday. I expect that he will squat next to the bookcases flanking the fireplace and eventually pull something off the shelf and turn to me and ask, “Did you like this?” I likely will not know until I answer whether he himself has read the work in question.

He will come and he will go. He will return home and take up any of a number of projects he has underway. He will craft his words for the next editor’s review.

I, on the other hand, will wait for the visit to settle. Maybe sit down again on a Saturday afternoon like this one. Ask myself what I have to say and how I want to say it. Ask myself and no one else.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Smiles of Rome

I have a friend who recently lived part of a year on this slant of the Janiculum overlooking Rome.

Rome in late December can have a temperate feel. During the last days of this past year, I was able to walk on the Janiculum in a cashmere sportcoat.

At another friend's prodding, I let myself be photographed and I am a little embarrassed. It was a light-hearted moment, and I forgot that light-hearted moments make it feel all right to be silly. And look silly. Which I do here. And so what. Right? And so what.