Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Visual Adventures

Although I spend a significant part of every day with my eyes closed in sleep, I do have some choices to make about what my eyes do the remaining sixteen hours. I say I have "some" choices because I am not totally free on my commute to and from work. I am required then to “keep my eyes on the road” – usually the same road I travel four other days of the week. Likewise, the earliest minutes of my day work best if I watch my step even on routine travels from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen and the other rooms in the apartment.

There are things I have to do in a day, places I normally need to go, and I am limited in the scope I can give myself for visual adventures.

The way my home looks – isn’t that an interesting way to talk about what I get to look at in my home? The furnishings of my home, the hangings on my walls do not “look” at me or at anything else, do they? I can muse, however, over what other people might think or what comments they might make if they were the ones looking at a framed photograph I have hung over a work area I arranged in a backroom.

That photograph and its framing resulted from a gamble I made six years ago. I was making choices then about another set of rooms where I would begin single life again after more than two decades with a partner. The particular wall hanging about which I am speaking – a “found object,” a vintage snapshot of a family posing for a casual picture in their side yard – did not have to pass muster, so to speak, with anyone else living daily in its presence.

That photograph is one of the visual adventures I safeguard for my occasional pleasure these days. I do not have to look at it, but something I can only call love makes me attend to the adventure that someone else had with a camera one day decades and decades ago. I love the ease of the people gathered before that camera, their ease with one another and their ease with themselves. Nothing about the wooden fence along which they stand suggests a home that others would automatically envy.

My attraction to that picture is one of the loves with which I happily choose to surround myself these days.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

White Roses

It is a preference of mine at this time of the year to bring roses into the apartment. They are so clearly alive.

There is a softness to the curves by which they loosen, moving from tightly enclosed bud into blossom.

The white makes the green look greener. When I have branches of pine or fir to tuck around the white roses, something complicated occurs. Some collaboration between the ways nature grows and matures -- green needle, white petal -- seems a human thing to contemplate.

A shrine emerges to the heart. Something very personal, very individual -- a question feels posed for which the heart tries to be ready, winter or no.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Full Story of Our Hearts

Last night I took from the shelves a book that I had been given in 1978. The man I am living with these days searched out his copy of the same book.

At the midpoint of Advent, I had the occasion for the first time to pray with him in our living room the Evening Prayer for Gaudete Sunday.

Richard and I had spent our Sunday afternoon in a movie theatre. Arriving early for a screening of The Imitation Game, we had found seats in a still empty theatre and eaten an easy lunch that we picked up on our way there. Each of us had brought an expectation of finding entertainment in the film about Alan Turing, British World War II code breaker. I am sure we did not expect to emerge from the theatre as moved as we finally were by the story of a brilliant man whose same-sex attractions had forced on him great loneliness and – eventually – criminal charges.

Both Richard and I at one time in our twenties had studied for the priesthood. Exiting formation programs well shy of ordination, we had each of us devoted ourselves in later years to teaching religion. We each of us were cautious about who in our separate schools would know the full story of our hearts.

Briefly last night I stepped back into the words of an old school of prayer. It was not reverie I encountered but words that I had read before. It was not happenstance that I had read them before. When a tradition has trained you in a rotation of scripture, you are not surprised to meet yourself again in this way. December – Advent – a familiar set of psalms and canticles and antiphons awaits you each year if you are prone to pick up a breviary.

For some, Christmas remains stubbornly and irrepressibly theological.

I do not mean to suggest the kind of debate that occasionally erupts when denominations or traditions meet. Or do not meet.

I do not mean angels in disguise descending into the midst of troubled families in Christmas movies and television specials.

Christmas is theological because it expects no surprise at the prospect of a God who takes serious who we all might possibly be.

Something like Christmas gets Richard and me thinking afresh about our true selves.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

If I Had the Time

If I had the time, I would sift through all the boxes and shelves at home where it is likely that I have stored Christmas stuff in years past. I would sit on the floor and create piles – gift bags and rolls of wrapping paper, ribbon and ornaments, snowflake-shaped punchers and gift tags. I know where to find envelopes with the remainders of card designs that I once selected – sometimes created – to convey various years’ greetings.

If I had the time, I would scroll through the camera roll on my iPhone for images of Christmas trees and crèche sets. Advent wreaths and Christmas cacti and the occasional roses from men I would have been dating in December are recorded there as well. Then I would go through the desktop at work and the laptop at home and hunt for jpeg’s of various holiday foods – fruit cake and clementines and peanut butter cookies and the one-time Christmas dinner at the dining-room table in a house where I used to live.

If I had the time, I would re-read all the posts on Writing Cabin that touch on the weeks leading up to December 25 each year. I would page through journals and notebooks in which I have attempted to capture the mood of certain Christmases. I would comb the pages of prayer books for cards that I had used as bookmarkers and on which I may have written an intention or recorded an inspiration from Advent meditations.

If I had the time, I would let my mind travel casually through the memories – car rides past the stone houses of a Pennsylvania countryside on Christmas Eve, meat dressing mixing with sweet-potato casserole on the edge of a dinner plate, the scratches on an LP of carols sung by "60 French Girls."

So what makes a claim on me this final month of the year?

A part of me just needs to write and find out.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Rocking Chair

It started with the arrival last week of a rocking chair, the kind that marks a milestone in the commitment of an employee to an educational institution. We had talked for a couple of months about the chair; Richard had secured its safety in the home of friends with whom he had been living before he and I met this past winter. The addition of the rocker to the furnishings in my television room would create still one more space in the apartment where Richard and I could be comfortable in the other’s company.

For someone who did not count himself familiar with most current programming, the so-called television room had also become something of a catch-all for books and media and framed photos and a vase from Venice and gift bookends in the shape of monks reading. Recently my parents’ cedar chest had appeared, relocated from the home of a niece nervous for the safety of her toddlers; its surface made an impromptu home for an old-style boom box and stacks of CDs that would not yet have been returned to their shelf in the room’s bookcase. A towel covered the seat of my overstuffed recliner and allowed the cat another place to sleep when Richard hovered too near her usual haunts in the apartment.

Until the television room became a space that we could share, the gentle clutter of the room made no pressing claim on my attention. That situation changed as soon as I sat in Richard’s rocker last week and saw the room from a perspective that had not previously been accessible. The balance of the room changed. What I could see changed. What I wanted to see changed.

And then something significant happened: what I did not want to see became apparent.

So Saturday came with its fall sunshine and I began the cleaning. I could not explain to Richard what I expected the room to look like by day’s end, and so I gently declined his offers of help. The excitement of the task before me was a subtle one that I did not know how to share without losing its guidance.

For example, I had not foreseen the bucket of hot water and Lysol that I would need. With an old tshirt submerged in the soapy water and then wrung out, I wiped down the floor – under the bookcase, under the cedar chest, under the recliner. The sunlit air in the room smelled different when long months of dust disappeared.

I shifted stacks of CDs – both mine and Richard’s – and moved piles of books from one room to another.

I sprayed Endust on a paper towel and wiped picture frames clean. The faces of friends and family were clearer looking out at me from photographs behind the glass.

Even that distant time in Venice felt closer once the vase got some attention.

By day’s end, I was sitting in the rocker and looking over at Richard in the recliner as he read aloud to me from a library book. The lamp by the recliner was bright. The cat must have found the whole situation too inviting and jumped onto the recliner and settled into a warm space next to Richard.

I liked what I saw of the day’s efforts.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Back Bay Ministry

He was a handsome man.

Boston Back Bay. A December evening in the late 1970s.

Barely four months transplanted to New England, I had not yet been inside any of the brownstones that make up that first neighborhood across the Charles River from Cambridge. There was a somber, old-fashioned elegance about the entrance hall into which I was buzzed.

Truth be told, I do not retain the clearest memories of the evening. I know some of what happened. I know there was an apartment-sized Christmas tree in the process of being decorated. I know there was a dinner that he had prepared for the two of us. There was wine.

He was a handsome man. Walking around his rooms in stocking feet, he seemed at ease with a guest visiting for the first time. I will admit to having been taken aback by his invitation at first. We had been part of a conversation at a divinity school residence in Cambridge. Recently ordained, he was living alone now and pursuing the life of a Harvard graduate student.

It makes sense that I would have ended up talking to him over dinner about my being gay. How being gay affected the landscape of my spiritual life was a topic I longed to open up before people. New England had felt an ideal place to do that in the late 1970s, and this man had seemed potentially an ideal listener to secure.

Earlier this week I saw a name like his online. Having hardly thought about him since that winter meal we shared in his Back Bay apartment, I got to wondering what his life had become. I wondered whether I could find out. I had heard long ago that he was no longer in orders.

And it happened. His name came back to me. The search engines worked. I scrolled the images of a man in his sixties busy about his professional life in another part of the country. His life in ministry at one time had helped me feel his presence as a brotherly and welcoming one.

Here is that brief episode of memory by which I greet a younger me on the receiving end of the kind of care that bears remembering.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Reasons for Things

Autumn need not be anything special.

I find that hard to believe, however, each September when I take out my volume of Edwin Way Teale’s Autumn Across America. I am perennially willing to trust a book published in 1956 to guide me across still another season of flyways and harvests and dry leaves scudding across sidewalks.

I might suspect that I know more about autumn with each year, but I am not sure that is true. I am more sure each year that I do not know exactly what to say about all that stretches out beyond September 21.

I note chrysanthemums and corduroy. I bring up recipes for soups and breads. I search out sweatshirts and caps. I expect the surprise heartache one day of finding that I am walking with the wind in my face.

Winding my way between rows of old tombstones this coming autumn, I may get to feel at once easy and solemn. With the Roman poet of fields and harvests, I might well muse:

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas (Georgics 2.490)

Happy the individual who has been able to learn the reasons for things.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Create a Moment

From time to time I face my shelves at work and pull off Drawing from Life: The Journal as Art. It was a gift from a work friend who knows she can put this kind of book in my life – a book with no information I need, a book spotlighting accidental creativity. When she gave it to me almost ten years ago, she knew that it could stay untouched in my bookcase for months at a time without my ever entertaining thoughts of taking it home or giving it away.

A project at work got finished yesterday.

There was a deadline that I had kept in mind for weeks, and the hour after lunch today found me facing the shelves in my office with a concentration freed from deadlines.

I am not the kind of artist who can sketch at such random moments but suddenly I was leafing through pages and pages of just such sketching.

Since a journal makes room for more than lines and letters, why not play, invent, create a moment?

Why not write about it as well?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Boston Common at Twilight

It was a sunny weekday morning in August. The doors of the Museum of Fine Arts had just opened at 10 o’clock, and I was one of the first visitors in the Art of the Americas wing. I proceeded with quiet, steady pace through room after room until I was surrounded by Mary Cassatts and Childe Hassams.

The stillness of walls hung with American Impressionist paintings suited the morning I had taken for a final summer visit to the museum. Settling with Moleskine journal and a book of poetry from home, I was intent on enjoying a view of two favorite paintings. The gallery would soon lure other visitors, but for the moment I was alone with my appreciation.

I had arrived before two paintings with which I had a history. From my earliest years living in New England, I had encountered prints and posters of Boston Common at Twilight. One year I had sent Christmas cards with that golden winter scene by nineteenth-century artist Childe Hassam. Mary Cassatt’s In the Loge, meanwhile, was familiar as the cover artwork of a paperback edition of some classic text that I used to own.

Seated on a gallery bench covered in leather, I could look from one painting to the other. No one blocked my view. No distractions. No interruptions. Neighboring rooms of paintings opened off the gallery, each one deep with sunlit distances.

The trouble was that I did not exactly know what I hoped to achieve in the ideal circumstances I had secured by an early arrival.

The journal I had brought with me ended up not for writing but for re-reading something I had recently written. My book of poetry by Wislawa Szymborska was bookmarked at a favorite poem called “Hard Life with Memory.”

It took a while for me not to need all this expression and depiction – painting, paragraph, poem. It took a while for me simply to raise my camera before I moved on.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Strange, Sweet Peace of Zane Grey

When I pay three dollars for a book at the Brimfield Antique Fair, I do not have a collector’s mindset. I am a reader who has stumbled upon an opening paragraph he likes:

When Madeline Hammond stepped from the train at El Cajon, New Mexico, it was nearly midnight, and her first impression was of a huge dark space of cool, windy emptiness, strange and silent, stretching away under great blinking white stars.

The vendor sitting by herself in the rear of her tent is almost invisible between two display tables. Visor over her eyes, she bends over a book of her own. Her tennis shoes rest squarely on the ground in front of her webbed lawn chair.

She remembered one evening at the opera when the curtain had risen upon a particularly well-done piece of stage scenery—a broad space of deep desolateness, reaching away under an infinitude of night sky, illumined by stars. The suggestion it brought of vast wastes of lonely, rugged earth, of a great, blue-arched vault of starry sky, pervaded her soul with a strange, sweet peace.

The only books on display in this vendor’s tent on the Brimfield grounds are vintage hardcover editions of westerns by Zane Grey. Otherwise her wares are sets of tumblers and ceramic pottery and leather shoulder bags, ashtrays and figurines.

There is no apology for her wares in the tilt of her neck as she reads. Neither gregarious nor sullen, she looks up as I count out three dollar bills. I have placed a copy of The Light of Western Stars on the table next to her.

She was sated with respect, sick of admiration, tired of adulation; and it was good to see that these Western women treated her as very likely they would have treated any other visitor. They were sweet, kind; and what Madeline had at first thought was a lack of expression or vitality she soon discovered to be the natural reserve of women who did not live superficial lives.

Back home, I sit with my purchase and settle into a read of the first four chapters. The pages of the 1914 novel are soft with age. The box fan on the floor across from me makes a comfortable sound at its lowest setting. I feel like the Easterner getting off the train in El Cajon, New Mexico.

She became conscious of the faint, unmistakable awakening of long-dead feelings—enthusiasm and delight. When she realized that, she breathed deep of the cold, sharp air and experienced an inward joy. And she divined then, though she did not know why, that henceforth there was to be something new in her life, something she had never felt before, something good for her soul in the homely, the commonplace, the natural, and the wild.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Man on Steps, Smoking

I love sitting on steps.

I enjoy the ease of reflection when there is nothing pressing enough to keep me away or inside.

No one has to take me too seriously when I am perched on the porch steps of my apartment.

I do not complain of being alone with my thoughts at such times.

If I smoked like the man in this vintage snapshot, I would have something to hold off to the side, something to claim my occasional attention amid the rambles of thought.

It would be a vacation of sorts, a distraction from anything too practical, a gentle exhalation of questions and concerns.

I love the moment of turning away.

Why tell a man like this that a camera is settled on him and his moment aside? Why ruin it?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Under a Tuscan Sun

I was twenty-nine years old when the Arno flooded its banks on Friday 4 November 1966. According to the Sunday New York Times the damage wasn't extensive, but by Monday it was clear that Florence was a disaster. Twenty feet of water in the cloisters of Santa Croce, the Cimabue crucifix ruined beyond hope of restoration, panels ripped from the Baptistry doors, the basement of the Biblioteca Nazionale completely underwater, hundreds of thousands of volumes waterlogged, the Archivio di Stato in total disarray. On Tuesday I decided to go to Italy, to offer my services as a humble book conservator, to help in any way I could, to save whatever could be saved, including myself.
  From The Sixteen Pleasures (1995) by Robert Hellenga

I do not remember whether I had read that opening paragraph of the Robert Hellenga novel by the time of my 1996 visit to Florence. I had certainly seen Merchant and Ivory's A Room with a View (1985) and recognized the church of Santa Croce from the film's scene of a deadly fracas during which Lucy Honeychurch falls fainting into the arms of George Emerson.

My niece and her husband and their two little boys are now in Florence, “ensconced” (their word) in an apartment less than a block from Santa Croce. Thanks to Google, I am allowed a glimpse of the front door that they use whenever they return from a family walk under the Tuscan sun.

Meanwhile I get to be of some help to them here under a New England sun. Armed with keys and alarm code, I entered their townhouse last Tuesday evening for the first of several visits. I watered the plants that they had told me would all be collected on the kitchen table. A last-minute email from Italy had included a further request to check the floor around the dehumidifier in the basement. When I left, I was able to reassure them that water was where it should be.

And I am where I should be. A welcome challenge each of the past three summers has been to get enough water into a hanging basket of flowers outside the porch door of my apartment. I have learned what a New England sun can do if I neglect the watering can even one day.

Settling into June evenings inside my apartment, I frequently use martini glasses purchased in Florence back in 1996 when I am ready to pour from the cocktail shaker. Sometimes I sit with a friend across from bookshelves where a book showing Fra Angelico frescoes from the cloister of San Marco stands. I fall asleep each night within sight of a majolica tile that came home with me from Italy.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Communion Line

It will be time to stand up soon.

Sometimes close to an hour has passed before I get to move from my place in the pew on a Sunday morning. I have sat there and for stretches of time knelt and occasionally stood; I have sung hymns and listened to readings and recited the Nicene Creed; I have exchanged greetings with the other people in my pew and in the pews in front of me and behind.

I have gone through something similar most Sundays of my life. There was a time when my parents and my brothers were the people to the left or right of me in the pew. There were years when classmates from seminary flanked me. For most of my adult life, however, I have entered a church alone on Sunday morning.

On some occasions I have gotten to look out on the pews and the people in them from the vantage point of the sanctuary. When I perform the duties of a Eucharistic minister, I raise a host as each fellow parishioner steps forward in the communion line. It is something to see one face and then the next and then still another as the line moves toward me.

It is another experience to be in the line. Being in the line is my experience most Sundays these days.

To be in the line, I have to know when to stand up. I stay aware of the people who have been sitting to my left and to my right. Sometimes I have to step over their feet if they are not heading where I am going.

Stepping into the aisle, I may know the person ahead of me in line or I may not. I may know the person behind me or not. I do not need to know either. My glance can sweep over the people already returning to their pews after receiving communion. From the time I was a small child, however, I knew it was better not to let myself be distracted from what I was doing.

What am I doing? That was the stuff of many a grammar school religion class. The early instruction focused on how to hold my hands, at what pace to walk, where to look. Fifty years later I retain a sense that when I enter that aisle, I am joining a walk that is more than getting myself from one location in the church to another.

In recent months, I do not usually enter the aisle alone.

In recent months, I have learned what it feels like when I know a person wants to walk before me or behind me in just this line. In a few minutes, when we return to our places in the pew, we will each of us be aware that the walk was about more than our getting ourselves somewhere in the church and back.

The walk was about getting back to ourselves. Together.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Being Read To

I know I must have been read to on some occasion since I was a child.

I do not mean the kind of reading to which I listen most Sunday mornings when someone looks out over a lectern and shares the scripture passage assigned for that day’s service. Nor do I mean the reading by which a scholar in a lecture hall models for me and others the intonations best suited to unlock the message of a famous orator or poet.

No, for the old-fashioned kind of reading I mean, it will help to picture a Victorian parlor or rustic New England hearthside. Watch the scene unfold as one person, holding open a book or balancing it on her lap, reads while a companion rests his chin on his hand or perhaps closes his eyes, leans his head to the side and listens.

Being read to: it was one of the activities by which an individual during convalescence might pass the time with a minimum of fatigue. My own mind left to wander, however, and my strength of concentration nothing close to what it usually is, I would tire quickly of such bedside readers. I suspect I would even grow depressed imagining how fast I could have gotten through the same page or chapter on my own if I were only once again in the pink of health.

If I go to these examples, I am attempting to explain a kind of reading I am enjoying these days with a particular friend. Sharing a background in teaching and theology, we have taken to choosing books of reflection, spending some time during our visits reading a text aloud to one another. We alternate paragraphs, moving between reading and listening, keeping a steady rhythm, neither rushing nor indulging any excess of expressiveness.

We started with Father James Martin’s My Life with the Saints. We have just finished the opening chapter of Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor.

Neither of us proceeds under the misapprehension that the other could not understand the text perfectly well on his own. The experiment involves observing how making our way through a text with a companion in tow takes on for each of us a bit of the flavor of the companion’s emotional and spiritual journey. We listen and manage to hear more than the author’s words. We hear a friend when he does not get to choose the words by which he will communicate.

It is a subtle flavoring that I am talking about, to be sure. There are times, however, when I look up and wonder why I would not have asked for this pleasure before from other friends in my life.

I am enjoying being read to again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

House Envy

I just listened to a new colleague tell a story about a conversation she had had last night with someone who lives, I was told, right next to the house I own on Cape Cod. In the course of their conversation my colleague had heard all about being invited over for drinks at my house. “And what a wonderful house it was!” She seemed happy to pass that compliment on to me.

I have no problem accepting compliments except that I do not own a house on the Cape.

I knew almost immediately the person I had been mistaken for – another colleague, complete with grey beard.

It had been hard to find a moment early in the narration of the conversation at which I could have interrupted. Instead I got to enjoy the look of slight envy that my new colleague leveled at me at the close of her story. I briefly imagined what it would feel like to be complimented on a beautiful house on the Cape. I remembered what it had felt like to accept compliments on a 1920 Arts and Crafts home I had co-owned until six years ago.

House envy.

Since I am no longer a homeowner of any stripe and since the prospect of ever being one again appears distant and unrealistic, I felt funny just now being mistaken for one. I have moved somewhere in my life, I understood afresh.

I mix with people on a daily basis who cannot imagine that move or the circumstances that would bring it about.

The truth is that I meet more and more people who can and do. Like mine, their status can remain long undetected. A door has, nonetheless, opened for them and for me. Just beyond it is a walkway into a future around which there are fewer guarantees but a certain kind of ease.

You do not know you want it until it appears.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Lo, the winter is past...

“Bare trees imprinted the black lace of their twigs on a gray and somber sky. Dingy with soot, snowdrifts had melted into slush and were freezing again… February, at once the shortest and longest month of the twelve, had outstayed its welcome. The year seemed stuck on the ridge of winter.”

Chapter One of Edwin Way Teale’s North with the Spring begins with that paragraph. It is odd in the middle of May to read that description of winter and remember back just twelve weeks to a February much like the one Teale evokes.

This was a winter that left me feeling stuck.

I should have been moving forward. For several months I had thought I was. The holidays and birthdays had brought out lots of creativity, and I was writing with a renewed sense of touching readers – maybe one reader in particular.

And then the reading stopped. It stopped in mid-February. After shoveling out another man’s car, clearing the snow off his windshield and roof time and again, the parking spot was mine again.

I had left a hardcover copy of The Lost Woods, one of my favorites of Teale’s works, on a bookcase in a Connecticut home. It may stay there a long time for all I know. Or it may show up in a post-office mailer another three months down the line.

I do know it is May and the landscape outside my front door has changed. The windows stay open for hours at a time on some evenings. On other days, the morning air keeps a chill from the night before.

Favorite meals have showed up on my dining room table two and three times over the past twelve weeks. When a friend sits across from me and shares them, I find myself at ease looking ahead to summer.

I recently picked up a novel entitled Night Train to Lisbon. I love Pascal Mercier’s portrait of a teacher in his late 50s at a moment of unexpected transition. I find myself searching airline fares to Lisbon. I find myself expecting again a future as exciting as any I could ever want.

“The seasons, like greater tides, ebb and flow across the continent. Spring advances up the United States at the average rate of about fifteen miles a day. It ascends mountainsides at the rate of about a hundred feet a day. It sweeps ahead like a flood of water, racing down the long valleys, creeping up hillsides in a rising tide.”

Lo, the winter is past.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Holy Week 2014

Imagine knowing you are going to do something clumsily if you try it and yet doing it anyway. What could this mean? Either the outcome does not particularly matter to you or the issue at the heart of any outcome is so important that you cannot not try.

I remember reading this passage by a spiritual writer who died in 1914: “Meditate on the Passion, no matter how unskilfully, how clumsily, virtue will come out from it to us, to heal and to strengthen.”

For a religious superior who returned so often to “right thinking about God” as key to an individual’s progress in prayer and the spiritual life, Mother Janet Erskine Stuart seemed to have taken an intellectual humility pill before writing what she did.

Was she up against fellow sisters who continually lamented their failure of imagination in meditating on the final days of Jesus? Were these women who despaired of matching in their personal prayer the stirring detail by which retreat directors had moved them to tears in their preaching about the sufferings of Jesus?

Mother Stuart would have understood what Pope Francis sent out on Twitter last week: “How beautiful it is to stand before the Crucifix, simply to be under the Lord's gaze, so full of love.”

For that matter, I understand it.

Raised – like the Pope – at a time when the Way of the Cross was a devotion that filled parish churches during Lent, I recall the language of the prayers attached to the fourteen scenes arranged along the walls of the church. Through that language I learned that my response to the sufferings of Jesus was something by which Jesus would be comforted. I learned, in other words, that a relationship already existed between this man of sufferings and myself and that the relationship mattered to him.

How does that relationship matter to me as a man in his early sixties?

I am looking for analogies, but I am not sure I will be entirely successful. I would have to understand things in my history better than I do to propose an analogy that will help my life with Jesus make sense in print.

It is Holy Week, however. I look forward to the services. I look forward to sitting with people who can meditate as clumsily as I.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Look at them.

I do every time I visit my brother’s house in New Orleans. They are familiar from visits over the years, but last week I determined to make a record of some of the lampshades with which my brother in his decorating avoids the obvious and predictable – again and again


He knows how to invite attention. Because he has paid attention to detail, others pay attention. Because he has varied shape and size and color and edging and pattern and fabric, the lampshades in his home invite visitors to join in a certain playfulness. Watch where I go, they seem to say. Did you expect this, they almost ask.

Avoiding the obvious and predictable is something I strive to do when I write. In my experience, good writing is not the result of merely decorative words, however. It is not the unusual word for the sake of variety. More often than not, power of expression emerges when a writer with simplicity names what might not even have occurred to a reader as worthy of expression. Yes, the reader confesses, that is in fact how something in my world feels, how it looks, how it claims attention or sometimes even deflects it.

I suddenly notice. I almost involuntarily respond.

Tricked by the simplest of words, I recognize my world. I enter my own life.

My heart can feel called to attention.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Stunned by a Paragraph III

From Sussex by Esther Meynell

Each Sussex man or woman has one particular place or aspect in the county that above all others means Sussex. For me, in spite of a personal preference for the Eastern Downs, it is Chanctonbury, but Chanctonbury from far away. It was that blue view of Chanctonbury which gave me in childhood my first conscious feeling of the beauty of the visible world and the mystery of the invisible. Standing in the rough matted grass of a neglected field, looking westward, with the great line of the Downs sweeping towards a sunset sky where the headland of Chanctonbury floated like something of another world, beauty took hold of me, consciously and inescapably – the curious ache of it, and the troubling for the first time laid on the young resilient heart.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

New York Weekend

I am this side of a weekend in New York City.

The last time I visited the city was over three years ago. I was taking part in a conference in October 2010 on the Columbia campus. Travelling with colleagues, I managed some time on my own. One evening I attended a play written in rhyming couplets about a seventeenth-century French dramatist modeled on Moliere. I took the bus down from Columbia another day and strolled through the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side.

A year earlier I had made a summer visit to a friend in the City. She and I sat gaping during one matinee performance of Mary Stuart while the heroine opened her arms to a rainstorm onstage. A poet and writer and librarian, my friend agreed to join me in journaling in the Reading Room of the New York Public Library; we took seats outside the library later and read to one another what we had written.

In the city on various occasions over the past three decades, I have strolled through Greenwich Village on numerous evenings with friends from New Jersey, attended Madama Butterfly at the Met for my fortieth birthday, went to Mass again and again at St Francis Xavier near Washington Square, and haunted the aisles of the Strand Book Store.

If I review New York memories at this point, it is to be able to step off the bus this Saturday morning and greet the friend meeting me and match his pace across town to lunch. No standing with a map, no squinting up at street signs. Just a weekend in the City. Just good conversation and unhurried eating. How did I get this lucky again?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Eating Out

It happened again this week. Without seeking them out, I got to hear two people I know talking about a restaurant to which they had gone, each on a different day. It was restaurant review time. They had stopped near where I happened to be, and I do not know if they realized that I could hear them. I would not have given attention to what they were saying except I heard one of them saying something I had heard her say before in just this context: “I have to admit I was disappointed.”

Without seeing her, I could picture her at that moment. She would be leaning her head in and turning it slightly as though she were sharing something confidential.

What I knew was happening was that these two people had each ventured out to a restaurant and paid sixty or seventy dollars for a meal. Maybe more. As part of what they had paid for, a certain future frisson was their right. They could, if they wished, shudder with disappointment at their costly evening.

The bald truth is, they had been willing to incur significant expense for the chance to test the publicity, the advertising, the online reviews, the word of mouth among their acquaintances. There used to be times when I did the same thing, when I enjoyed the advantages of a two-income household. Was there resentment on my part this week hearing people with the freedom to be disappointed after a significant expense on what was actually a non-necessity? Was it that they had what I did not have, that they got to do what I could not?

No, that was not where my thinking was going. Not where my feeling was going as I overheard these two people. I frankly was thinking of all the perfectly satisfying meals I have had the good fortune to enjoy, meals that did not claim anything near sixty or seventy dollars. Some of them were meals ordered out in restaurants, but a whole lot more were prepared in my own kitchen and served at my dining room table.

Another little chink has been introduced into my ideas about how to spend money. What do I benefit from spending sums that I do not have to pay? Why do I and others venture so often to want more? What curiosity motivates us to look elsewhere when the satisfactory is so near and sometimes so easy?

How many priceless memories surround meals where the person across from us was the food we most needed?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Expectant Hearts

“Do you really believe that?”

If I mention at the lunch table something that I have seen on a television series the night before, no one asks me the question “Do you really believe that?” My colleagues do not suspect any extremes of technological naiveté on my part. I can profess admiration for Dr. John Watson’s loyalty in the newest PBS version of the Sherlock Holmes story, and lunch companions simply learn a little more about how I spend my evenings. They may glimpse something of my sympathies and values. They do not appear inclined to test my hold on reality.

“Do you really believe that?”

An inveterate reader of poetry is trained to imagine things. It is a tribute to the poet Mary Szybist that she can get me to picture the pigeons and doves she saw gathering one day in an ash tree in Bellagio, Italy. That is, if there really had been an ash tree. If there really had been birds that hopped from branch to branch one day while the poet watched them. Accepting the conventions of imaginative literature, I am eventually moved by a life truth that the writer, bereaved and far from home, manages to convey through just those images.

 “Do you really believe that?”

I grew up within a religious tradition with holy cards and a calendar of holy days. I grew up familiar with what a grotto might look like although I had never seen one. (Louisiana does not boast natural caves.) Very young, I learned the narrative about a grotto in southern France and a presence there to which an impoverished young girl had responded in the nineteenth century. I heard of subsequent pilgrim journeys and healings and hearts that were expectant as passengers looked out the windows of trains travelling into the French Pyrenees. When February 11 comes and goes each year, I get a reminder that it is human to be full of need and full of expectation.

I really believe that.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Learning about a Family

In October 2004 a dealer from Burlington, Vermont, placed a vintage photograph album for auction on Ebay with this description of the collection:

100 photographs in black and white showing a priest from his boyhood, through seminary and on to the work of the Catholic Church. The people are not identified, nor are the places. But there are two clues as to where this priest was from and where he may have served. On one page are two photo postcards (the only ones in the album). One is the interior of a church with this written at the bottom “Int de L’Eglise Napierville” and the other “Le Richelieu River” — both of these locales are in Quebec, Canada. The other is an envelope with pictures of the priest that is labeled “Lyndonville.” So it could be that this priest may have lived and/or served in both Quebec and Vermont. Perhaps someone remembers him?

Before I bid on the photo album, I tried to discover something about the seller. I wanted to know that she was reputable and that the album for sale was legitimately for sale. The description on Ebay made it seem an incredible find – something that no one would have parted with lightly or easily. I was reassured to find online a heartfelt tribute to the integrity of the seller; her name was on the business card attached to the wrapping in which she secured the album before sliding it into a mailing container to me.

Affecting my interactions with the album after the purchase was the commitment I had to removing none of the photographs from it. I had learned that there are sellers who remove individual photographs from a vintage album and offer them piece-meal for auction. On the other hand, there are sellers – and collectors – who insist on maintaining the integrity of the found object; the perspective here is that the photographs have a pleasure and a meaning when they are inspected individually and a still further message when they are seen in the context of the original collection.

As far as I could tell, the album that I had purchased was the creation of the original collector – either the priest himself or, I presumed, some member of his family. To scan certain photos without removing them from the album or damaging the pages to which they were attached, I untied the binding at one point (a kind of binding that was created to allow the addition or removal of album pages) and handled some of the first pages separately. I took care to return the pages in the order in which they had first appeared – not a strictly chronological one anywhere in the album, by the way.

In my time as the caretaker of the album, I followed clues in the names attached to certain items in the album. I began to entertain some possibilities about the identity and history of the priest at the center of this collection of pictures. For example, the village name of “Swanton” written in the margin of one picture of a religious procession exiting a church led me to an online picture of the same church on the website of the Catholic parish in Swanton, Vermont. On the margin of another photo someone had written “Romeo,” and the website of the Swanton Historical Society mentioned a Father Romeo Trahan as a speaker at an upcoming function. Typed on an envelope containing four or five small photos of a priest was the name “Père Trahan.” I was getting close, I thought.

I tried to figure out the best way to contact someone who might know the people in this album. Unfortunately, those ways always seemed a little too time-consuming to warrant interrupting the flow of work or the projects of a busy home life.

Meanwhile, the photos of the album began to have on me the same effect as the other vintage photos of nuns and priests and seminarians that I had been collecting at the time. My first goal with these old photographs had not been to sleuth around until I could identify the people and verify the circumstances of the event or the visit recorded in the picture. I kept being intrigued by these individuals who had lived in two worlds – the world of their birth family with all those powerful relationships of parents and siblings and cousins and the very distinctive world of their religious commitment. As a former student for the priesthood, I remember the opposing pull of those two worlds. I came in time to recognize in the pull of these photographs an invitation for me to explore and to respond to my own history and the history of my church.

Acting as the caretaker of the album with its photographs of this priest’s family was a role that I was ready to give up in 2006 when someone left this comment on Flickr next to one of the photographs I had posted there:

These photos are of my family members!! I recognize my grandfather, his father, and several aunts and uncles. How may I purchase these?

In a very short time this commenter convinced me that there was a real invitation for him and his family to renew their care of this album. Our exchange of emails gave me a reassuring sense of this man in his early forties:

My children and I are learning more about our family. Since both my parents are dead, I have spent many hours building the family history for my children. My father, Philip, has two brothers still living so I would very much like to show them these pictures too and ask them to help me identify further the people I do not recognize at first glance.

Within a few weeks I was placing the album in his hands. I wished him joy and pleasure in the care of these pictures of his family.

Four years later, I discovered this week, he himself would be dead of leukemia. I like to think the album is still there for his two daughters to grow in their sense of family.

When I was preparing the vintage album in 2006 to return it to the Trahan family, one photo had fallen out. Unattached to any of the pages of the album, it seemed a farewell gift from the priest, his sister and their father, who are pictured in the old photo. I have kept this photo for myself and have reproduced it at the head of this posting.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Perfect Spot, Rare Chance


My first venture as a homeowner twenty-five years ago took me into the ground level of what had been a private men’s club a century ago. The upstairs units had been developed as luxury condominiums. Period detail stopped, however, at the last step of the staircase leading to two basement units with open layouts and compact windows in deep wells high in the walls.

Access to the lawns surrounding the white two-storey Victorian building was easiest from those garden-level spaces. It took me no time to begin to carry a folding chair out onto the lawn on a Saturday morning, settle with a book and poise a tumbler of water in the thick grass alongside the chair. Nothing in the condo docs prohibited my use of the common area in this way, but the owners of the six other units never followed suit. Occasionally one of them would halt in her approach to the parking area and greet me: “You have found the perfect spot!”


From my office at work I can look out on landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted. In saying that, I have given the reason most people would be interested in hearing about that edge of the property. From my office I nonetheless see and know how few people actually venture down the old walk. Our facilities staff keeps the area mowed and raked and trimmed and occasionally re-seeded. No one could fault us for not keeping the legacy up, but after a while enthusiastic appreciation fades amid the to and fro of everyday life.

One weekend last summer I suggested to a friend that we have a picnic in a quiet corner of the Olmsted-landscaped grounds. No one I know has taken advantage of the beautiful spot in just that way. We got to wend our way with the picnic hamper between century-old trees. Then we seated ourselves on a low ledge of masonry forming part of a trefoil design that gives definition to the sloping lawn. I remember looking up occasionally from bites into the sprouts and hummus wrap that I had made at home. What I got to survey about me that afternoon seemed a rare and lucky chance.


The hike was a cold one. There was no sign of the owners of the other car in the parking area of the Fenton-Ruby Park and Wildlife Preserve in Willington CT. As a friend named the hidden wonders along Taylor Pond Trail two weekends back, greens and browns and grays would suddenly separate and become distinct. He pointed and explained and bent down and touched.

And then something even I could not miss. It stood covered with moss, a great stony entrance into Hobbit-like fantasy. No sound around. Just cold and air and a world that keeps insisting on being seen.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Richard R.I.P.

Thanks to Richard, I was easing my first 35mm camera out of its box. It was a recent purchase that Richard had approved as superior of the religious community to which we both belonged in 1977. The new apparatus, fascinating as it was, felt like a cold weight in my hands. I entrusted it to Richard for my opening lesson.

A scientist and a physics teacher, Richard handled my new camera with the same care he showed delicate lab equipment. A precision instrument would produce reliable results if it was handled with respect. He turned the lens cautiously and focused on different objects in his office. Then he delivered the camera back into my hands and said, “Play with it.”

Richard was fifteen years my senior, beginning his forties when I was a twenty-five-year-old novice teacher. In so many ways during the two years we lived together in community, Richard communicated the awareness that I produced reliable results when I was handled with respect. I would produce remarkable results, however, when I took delight in something.

What was I ready to take delight in?

I was a cautious young man, thoughtful and dutiful and conscientious, who two years earlier had fallen in love with a man in another city. Richard became one of the individuals to whom I could confide what had happened. Convinced that the wisdom I most needed was available within, Richard invited me to consider the two of us participating in a journaling workshop held in the area.

In time I was writing about interior landscapes and photographing exterior ones.

Charged with a stage in my formation to religious life, Richard was confident that the best roads for me were ones along which I could discover things for myself. His wisdom there is something for which I am grateful to this day.

Richard discovered things for himself as well; he eventually became a therapist and married the woman he loved. In an email from her last week I learned that on Christmas Eve Richard had received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Opening my laptop at home this past Saturday, I got to watch his funeral Mass broadcast live from the Georgia parish where Richard and Maureen had worshiped together.

The following day I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen. I wanted to give him an idea of Richard so I had brought along the journal from that workshop that Richard and I had made almost forty years ago. As I read aloud to my friend in his kitchen, I realized that no one since Richard had heard me read those words. I realized as well that the writer’s voice I had assumed at twenty-five when I knew someone would hear it who respected me was the voice I have kept using in my best writing.

Who would not take delight writing and reading for such a person?

Thank you, Richard.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Aunt Alice's Oyster Dressing

A coffee table book entitled Christmas in New Orleans is able to take me back to the city of my childhood. I made the purchase in 2009, and each year the book does what I had hoped it would. Turning the pages, I enjoy photographs of the December shop windows on Canal Street and the lights outlining the front porches of homes on St Charles Avenue.

If my parents were still alive, they would enjoy the book just as much. They would see holiday images from the 1920s and 1930s. They would recognize the names of streetcars and bakeries. Reproductions of advertisements that New Orleans department stores ran in the morning and evening newspapers would remind them how much gifts used to cost.

I like to recall the look of Christmas in the 1950s and 1960s. My brother in New Orleans made sure I received some of the now yellowed Christmas cards that my grandparents used to send my mother and father over the years. Family photo albums show the aluminum tree that Aunt Thelma displayed in front of floor-to-ceiling drapes in her living room. In another photo I am sitting with my Aunt Alice on the sofa an hour before Christmas dinner; her oyster dressing, made with three meats, was a yearly favorite.

Today I tried to use Google Maps to get a peek at the neighborhood where my brother and his partner had lived when I was in my twenties and thirties. What two men did to their home to reflect a more urban Christmas had fascinated me. I was taking lessons in how much of family Christmas I might want to maintain (my brother had secured the recipe for the oyster dressing) and how free I could be to cultivate something distinctively my own.

What Google Maps showed me was a neighborhood with one old New Orleans house after another, each freshly painted, each tiny yard neatly landscaped. Back in the 1970s my urban pioneer brother and companion had had to create a spot of racy Christmas cheer alongside neighbors who could not all afford that look. What showed up today on Google Maps, though, was post-Katrina New Orleans.

It was not a New Orleans I would have immediately recognized from the 1970s and 1980s. What my brother and his partner were doing each Christmas that I visited during those years, however, was not anything that Katrina could destroy. What I was doing each of those Christmases was just as lasting, just as important. We all of us had taken the New Orleans of our younger years and braved a future for which there was no blueprint.

Each Christmas like that is breathtaking; each deep pot of oyster dressing, a treat.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


If you get to be in Rome to see a new year in, you sense how history beckons. Columns, arcades, piazze, bridges arching over the Tiber – history dares you to expect overmuch of the year you are poised to welcome. Likewise, history dares you to make too much of the year through which you have just lived. If you have brought a broken heart to Rome, you can walk and mull. The thing you cannot know is how disappointment and sorrow will soften, how a year later they no longer tell your story.

I began 2013 in Rome.

I began 2014 in Rhinebeck, New York, raising a glass in the company of three people who had not known me a year earlier.

On the drive to the Hudson Valley, I had to cross the Housatonic River in western Connecticut. Stopping by the covered bridge in the town of West Cornwall, I got to walk with someone and listen to the river under the wooden planks. How had I gotten here?

A couple of hours before our midnight toasts, a friend we were visiting had laid out cards and spoken of my life. How had that life gotten to sound like a tale of hope and support and connection?