Sunday, November 22, 2015


No, it wasn't the building.

It wasn't the flowers arranged and opening before the altar table. It wasn't the blue wall behind the Virgin's statue in a niche high up above the sanctuary. It wasn't the gesture, one hand raised with fingers gently curled, by which Christ, his mother and the saints communicate some message, some authority out of mosaic and stained glass and marble statue.

It wasn't the sound swelling out of organ pipes. It wasn't the procession, cross first, candles flanking, book of readings held aloft. It wasn't the words of the hymn, my voice joined by other voices from fellow singers I could not see, all of us bent over songbooks, eyes moving over the musical notations, dipping down into words separated into syllables, all of us guided by some familiarity gained by months and years of Sundays.

It probably wasn't even the celebrant, homilist, pastor, presider.

The injury, though, needed a building as tall as this, a ritual as old as this, a city congregation just this various and motley, or the injury threatened to pull me down, back into a pattern too old to recognize before it had started its weighing in, weighing down, almost blinding, nearly depleting.

I am at an age, though, and a stage of inner work to be able to rouse myself at the signs, the insinuating words of judgment, the ache of a deprivation so close to the bone that it sometimes passes for me.

Without all this building and ritual and congregation, where would I be? Without the host pressed into my hands each week by communion ministers whose faces I recognize, whose names I know, whose presence before me depends on nothing I ever do, where would I be?

I emerge, though, each Sunday face wet with tears. I am able to claim all this, own all this, move toward another week, await another Sunday.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Walking Authors Ridge

When I travel to Concord, Massachusetts, I end up wondering why I visit so infrequently.

Much that is familiar inevitably rises up around me. Much that is familiar rises up within me.

It is a storied landscape into which I drive, even if the goal is a restaurant bar where a friend from high school will stand me a beer in early celebration of my birthday. He and I determined long ago that Concord was close to the midpoint for us journeying from our homes. The ease of finding Concord and finding parking and finding places to walk and talk and eat can partially account for its appeal.

As well, it suits our age. We are among those growing up in the Sixties for whom there was no holier name than Thoreau and no prober of the troubled psyche better than the grim Hawthorne.

Rob and I retreat to Concord as to a place where ideas and the lives lived in accordance with them have enjoyed a venerable arena.

We listen to one another describe what our own lives have become – things that neither of us would once have predicted. We look at our divorces but from different angles. Our certainties have been tempered; our verities are tentative and hard-won.

We are men in our middle sixties, over-educated and literary and religious in a Walker Percy kind of way.

Putting down my brown ale last Sunday afternoon, I looked up from a bar plate of monkfish and asparagus as Rob finished a surprising admission. Against the increasingly solitary thing that his own life has become as children move away, he commented with admiration on how I have repeatedly put myself out there.

However I remember recent birthdays – flowers that one suitor sent me, the driftwood fire that a South Shore gentleman had built on the beach, a gray plaid flannel shirt from a Mainer loyal to LL Bean – Rob was serious in his respect. He did not suspect that I could look over his shoulder and see where I had sat with still another friend just a day or two earlier, immersed in nuanced confidences and a familiar wonder.

When Rob had driven away, I did not yet get into my car. I walked to nearby Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. It was four o’clock on a November afternoon, cold enough for a jacket and hands in the pockets. I knew where I was heading under gray skies, along empty paths, sometimes just below crests topped with weathered gravestones. No one else needed to be there.

I made my way, recognizing as I did a long-ago longing. I think I had always hoped to be just such a solitary man at this time of day. I think I had always dreamed of walking Authors Ridge at this time in my life.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Pierre Charles and Belgium in the 1920s

A writer like May Sarton can propose to take us back to Belgium in the 1920s and we are ready to think it a place and a time we could well visit. The opening lines of A Single Hound, Sarton’s first novel from 1938, create a scene like something from an old black-and-white post card.

Early in the morning between winter and spring, when the grass is frosty, when there is no scent and no sound but a heavy white stillness, and yet you know the blackbird may speak at any moment, a sharp sweet waterfall of sound fall down, and the earth wake – on such a morning the milkman whistles “Auprès ma blonde” as he drives down the little alley behind the houses on Boulevard Léopold.

The poet at the narrative heart of the novel is based on a mentor of Sarton’s, someone who taught her in the mid 1920’s when Sarton was twelve years old and a student at the Institut Belge de Culture Française in a suburb outside Brussels.

When a writer knows where she is going, when she uses sentence structures that show an awareness of the complexity of situations, when she employs words that are not the simple or obvious ones – doing so in the service of something that is not simple or obvious – I am snared. I follow her.

Many readers of May Sarton do. We become a following. We are linked by a feeling of shared allegiance to that solitary life and the words that got written when no one else was around. In a way, we own ourselves heirs of her quiet hours.

Recently in my own quiet hours I have turned to a Belgian author whose books would have been available in specialized bookstores in Brussels in the mid-1920s. Pierre Charles, S.J., and his writings are familiar from my seminary days. I do not imagine either the twelve-year-old Sarton or her poet/teacher Marie Closset being drawn to a book of meditations by a young professor of theology who then lived an hour away in the university town of Louvain.

In time La Prière de toutes les heures (1923) would be translated into nine languages. The custom of collecting a series of short meditations – each three or four pages long – and publishing them was not new when Pierre Charles was ordained a priest in 1910. A number of such collections would have been available in the seminary library in Tronchiennes where Pierre Charles had completed his two-year novitiate in 1901 and where he had spent a final year of spiritual formation after ordination.

Perhaps the skill of creatively inviting a listener into a Gospel text was one that Pierre Charles early recognized as his own. An individual making a retreat led by the young priest or attending a Sunday Mass where he had preached may have asked for copies of his words. What evidently had the power of helping people think about their lives might have seemed worth sharing with a larger audience.

When a writer knows where he is going, when he uses sentence structures that show an awareness of the complexity of situations, when he employs words that are not the simple or obvious ones – doing so in the service of something that is not simple or obvious – I am snared. I follow him.

I do not know that many other readers do. A hundred years after their publication, I do not realistically expect that there is a following for his writings. I look at old black-and-white postcards of the seminary at Tronchiennes and imagine a young Pierre Charles along its paths and in its chapels, wondering to himself what his life will be like, wondering what the rest of the twentieth century will be like. My allegiance to that solitary life and the words that got written when no one else was around may have to remain itself a fairly solitary thing.

I do not regret owning myself the heir of another man’s quiet hours.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Georgics: The Landscape of Intellectual Adventure

It is good to record how an intellectual adventure began, how the seeds were sown.

It was in someone else’s blog in early August 2005 that I came across lines from Boston poet David Ferry’s newly published translation of Virgil’s Georgics.

O greatly fortunate farmers, if only they knew
How lucky they are! Far from the battlefield,
Earth brings forth from herself in ample justice
The simple means of life, simply enjoyed…

“The simple means of life, simply enjoyed” – an apt phrase by Ferry, poetry in English no matter how the original Latin might read. My impression of what had previously seemed a minor work by the author of the Aeneid was on the verge of deepening. I felt lured by the peaceful mood created around Virgil’s ideal of the farmer:

His sleep at night is easy, his life knows nothing
About deceit or trickery, and his life
Is rich in many things: tranquillity
Of the broad fields, of grottoes, and of lakes,
Of cattle lowing while in the shade of a tree
The herdsman peacefully dozes…

Reading further in the passage from Book II of the Georgics, I got a glimpse into a kind of writing that I had not associated before with the Rome of the Caesars. No matter the pantheon in which Virgil situated himself as a poet, I felt invited into the landscape of his family, into its weathers and shadows, into stars and waves.

Why is it that the sun in winter hurries
To plunge itself into the sea and why
Is the winter night so slow to come to an end?
But if the blood around my heart's too cold
To gain me access to such mighty knowledge,
Then may I find delight in the rural fields
And the little brooks that make their way through valleys,
And in obscurity love the woods and rivers.
I long for such places…

I felt the urge to read more – and maybe not only this most recent translation. I wondered what it would be like to spend time with the Latin of Virgil again. I had last studied Latin in an organized way in high school, eventually translating substantial sections of the Aeneid as a student in Latin IV. Taking advantage forty years later of online Latin texts of the Georgics, I began to explore anew the language of this strangely paced poetry.

My curiosity led me to other websites where I began to explore what other people were thinking of the Georgics. I located recommendations for commentaries and surveys that throw light on the mythological and agricultural references teeming in Virgil’s lines. With the help of Google, I tasted the flavor of the international community of scholars dealing with the Georgiques, the Georgiche, or the Georgica.

In discovering something of the range and history of English translations of the poem, I became fascinated by the variety of situations in which people over the years have decided to sit down with the ancient text and attempt a new rendering. Assigned by my high school Latin teacher to read an English translation of the Aeneid, I had responded to the pull of this epic narrative as rendered by then British poet laureate C. Day Lewis. Decades later I was to learn that Lewis had also translated the Georgics.

An impulse purchase of a used copy of the Lewis translation from a book dealer in Tennessee brought the 1947 hardcover into my hands, still bookmarked with a yellowed Christmas gift-tag labeled “Rindges from Chapins.”

Something happened then. I began to sense myself sitting in the company of other readers of the Georgics. None of them were people I would ever likely meet, but all of us had been summoned on an intellectual adventure, invited into a landscape, its weathers and shadows, its stars and waves.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Past Ten Years

New Orleans was noticeably absent from the textbooks I used in my classes at St. Agnes Parochial School in the late 1950’s.

Illustrations did not show red beans and rice on the kitchen table on Monday evenings. Nothing like the drive along the River Road on Christmas night found its way into our readers. Parents crossing themselves as my parents did when we drove past a Catholic church did not head the families about whom we read our first simple paragraphs. In word problems the pies that had to be divided into quarters or eighths were never pecan pies.

I was not surprised that New Orleans did not matter in the books we read.

I simply concluded that New Orleans did not matter.

I was not surprised at the readiness with which I believed that I did not matter either.

Or if I did, it was because I had raised my hand in class and had given the right answer. It was because I had appeared on summer mornings at St. Agnes and served as acolyte at an early Mass. It was because my academic prowess had given my parents a way to cut a figure at parent-teacher meetings at school.

My salvation was that I did not know on an easy, conscious level that I did not matter. A painful clarity flickered, however, when I looked for a place at a large family Christmas or searched out a bus seat on a school activity. No one at home seemed to know how or when to say, “John, let me tell you what I think is happening in your life.” No one confided, “You know, it’s scary sometimes how much you are like your dad or your mom.” But then whose job was that? I may not have felt worth the effort it would take someone to understand me, and I may have communicated as much.

I was frankly not surprised that I did not matter. I understood, though, that writers did.

Early on I practiced replicating the kinds of sentences and paragraphs that I found on page after page in library books. I managed to get read and I got to matter when articles I had written appeared in student publications. Friends from my high school years still remember particular editorials that I submitted. I had gotten to try out writing about life, even my life, and sounding like I understood it.

Writing became something about which I was confident. My professional life for a number of years involved the teaching of writing. In my late 40’s I began to work on a memoir of sorts. No one to whom I showed it suggested, “John, let me tell you what I think was actually happening in your life at that point.” No one confided, “You know, it’s scary sometimes how much you sound like your brother or your teacher in the ways you express yourself.” But then whose job was that? I may well have communicated that it did not matter.

By 2005 I was writing my first blog. I had found inspiration in a French newspaper article about the phenomenon of elder bloggers. Within an online world dominated by much younger commentators and critics, older people intent on finding an audience for what they understood of their lives and their world were creating blogs that actually got read. Those mature writers and photographers were telling stories that most people had not thought would be told. And all for free!

Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans after Katrina appeared in August 2015, the tenth anniversary of the hurricane. The title takes me back to that scary month and the relentless flooding of the landscape of my family, the homes and streetcars and oak trees and above-ground tombs where my memories had once seemed to find safe lodging. Wherever I had chosen to live my adult, professional life, I always thought it possible to travel back home and in time bring a wisdom to bear. With the perspective of age, I could finally counter the stubborn judgments I had leveled against myself as a child and as a young man.

I recall the online reading I did through that fall of 2005 as the damage sustained by my home town kept unrolling. Bloggers told an unsteady story of ways to live that might not return. New Orleans was gone, I began to conclude in the shock of the images.

A fearful suspicion kept trying to surface the truth that I was gone too.

With the kind of sorrow that emerged and the signs of sadness that stayed, I suspected what I needed to do. I might just have to pay someone to be the audience for what I understood of my life and my world. Facing the facts, I located a professional whose job it would be – one day a week – to listen and then maybe to say, “John, let me tell you what I think was actually happening in your life at that point.” I engaged someone to whom I could confide, “You know, it’s scary sometimes how much I sound like my father or my mother.”

I began to glimpse the ways I had learned over the years to communicate that it did not matter. I got help seeing that it might be time for that me to be gone.

I do not live now as I did ten years ago. After steps I was helpless not to take, along paths I was determined I would go, with the conviction that I would hear what I sounded like, I say with some incredulity that things are different.

And I keep learning.

I had not thought I could matter just this way.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Morning Walks

Since the start of this past summer I have opened my apartment door before 6 o’clock most mornings. The walk I undertake through my neighborhood rarely lasts longer than forty minutes, and I am generally alone as I move down block after quiet block. The sky lightens.

I am walking with a goal – avoiding a medication with which my doctor threatened me back in March if I did not bring my blood sugar levels down. The past half year has had a focus that affects what I eat and how much and how regularly and what I do in the way of exercise.

By this past May I had lost enough weight to convince my doctor, my work colleagues and myself that something had changed in my life.

As I began my regimen of walking this summer, I recovered energy. I began to find living easier when there was less me to carry around.

Easier to put one foot in front of another down neighborhood streets. Harder to escape a sense of the many directions my life has become accustomed to moving at other times.

How do I make sense out of a basket of old dairies and journals beside an overstuffed chair in my apartment? In the same room a laptop sits open on a collapsible table, and the kind of writing that populates this blog has often gotten done there but never on the iPad that lies on the leather couch in another room. There is a style of online exploration that has become associated with the iPad and even the iPhone, but I have not yet managed to read a book straight through by means of either device. Real books form stacks on what would once have been called a coffee table in front of my leather couch. When I am seated there and drink my morning coffee, though, I rest my mug on a side table on which stand photographs in frames. Other photographs line the mantelpiece. Guests regularly sit in another armchair near the couch, and we share the coasters where I rested my coffee earlier in the day. At times a cat perches and watches nearby or circles and sleeps on any number of available surfaces.

Can any of this become simpler, I ask myself? Forget about the television and the CD player and the portable record player that I recently recovered from storage to play the vinyl albums I found.

Sunday morning Mass? A symphony subscription for the coming year?

And then suppose I were to fall in love?

In how many directions could my mind move then during a forty-minute walk at 6 in the morning!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Another Man's Library

I am primed to explore another man’s library. On four separate occasions this summer I have been in his house, sometimes left by myself in one of the rooms where his books stock multiple shelves, sometimes seated across from him, able to glimpse over his shoulder the titles in a bookcase.

I can joke, one man in his sixties talking to another man in his sixties, and threaten to abscond with a volume he will never miss once I am gone. He laughs, waves his hand at the shelves around him and across the room, and lets me know I am welcome to take anything.

I laugh with one part of my brain and surprise another part already planning my moves.

All scholarly insight and humor, we might be Alec Guinness in conversation with Ian McKellan, each eyeing the other behind a gentlemanly white beard.

As I write, I look over the books on some of my own shelves. I know why the books are where they are, why some stand and others lie stacked. To which of these many might he be drawn when he has visited me?

Will their interest for him be anything like the lure of his books for me? Will he reach for a familiar cover and enjoy watching pages open where last I read from them – a month ago, a year ago, two decades?

Will we both get to wonder what the other had been like then, at a time closer to the original publication of a particular book? When one of us read just that page, might he have been picking up a wedge of orange, sipping a cold beer, biting into a slice of dry toast?

Will we both get to wonder what the other had been like at an age when being older than fifty would have seemed to either of us an unlikely event in an unimaginable future?

But here we are.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Simple Door

Before I got into bed last night, I glimpsed my email – one new message.

It must have come while I leaned against the bathroom sink opening four small plastic bottles, shaking out one pill from each into the palm of my hand. Once a day for the past twenty years, I have done the same thing to help keep blood pressure and cholesterol under control. Some of the prescriptions are the same medications that my parents took until they were ninety.

Maybe the ding of the email had gotten lost under the drone of the electric toothbrush. Passing the whirring bristles over my top teeth, front and back, and then my bottom teeth, front and back, I had long ago stopped resisting the repetitions of that procedure that are recommended. I rinsed then and spent a final minute or two with the floss and interdental brushes.

I knew what faced me when I got back to the bedroom, three open windows where there are usually at most two on a summer night. Earlier in the afternoon I had removed my one air conditioner from the third window. It had stopped cooling – no cleaning of filters succeeded in getting cold air. I opted for the chance of breezes crossing the room from one window to the other two. I aimed a floor fan at the bed.

I pulled down the bedspread and cover sheet, picked up a pillow and tossed it to the foot of the bed – closer to the open windows. I would sleep with my feet toward the wall. I knew from past experience that there was some comfort in feeling night air against my face. It was almost an outing, choosing to sleep another way on the bed. Something from childhood summers.

I sat on the edge of the bed to read the email from Alex. Alex was a friend from my earliest years in New England, and he and I had re-connected only a week earlier – a kind of stab-in-the-dark Google success story. His customary good manners notwithstanding, there was no misreading the satisfaction that Alex had felt in our resumed contact.

This email a week later was an announcement that he would be going into the hospital. By 7:30 the following morning, when I would be heading into work, he would be undergoing cancer surgery, a procedure scheduled to last no fewer than seven hours.

It was news that put into perspective the discomfort of a summer night without air conditioning.

But there was a kind of echo in the room. Only a few hours earlier I had exchanged text messages with someone finishing his first week home after a stay in the very same hospital. The visiting nurses who arrived daily at the house were monitoring John’s recovery from another kind of cancer surgery.

Two men I knew were not looking at anything like a normal work week for some time to come.

In the dark, my head on the pillow, facing the air of the open windows, I answered Alex’s email, typing into the light of my phone’s screen a promise of prayers and support.

When I woke, it was perhaps four hours later. The dark room from my angle at the foot of the bed was different from what I was used to, but I was awake enough to know that nothing was really different. Everything that was there had always been there. Even the door whose white frame stood out in the shadows.

Briefly but strongly, though, it was the door that is always open. Each of us will walk through that door one day.

Such a simple door, inevitable, always there.

And I fell back to sleep.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Many people, I presume, could name the model of the wide white car following my black Honda Fit on Vermont Route 105 a week ago. In my rear view mirror, I could make out behind their sunglasses a young man at the wheel and a woman in the passenger seat. The driver seemed desperate to pass me. He twice accelerated when the broken line appeared on our side of the two-lane road and both times had to slow down when oncoming traffic suddenly appeared.

What I could not explain to this man was the car marked “Border Patrol” that I had spotted behind roadside shrubbery ten minutes after being stopped at customs. My three-night stay at the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac had been my first entry into Canada in close to twenty years. I had admitted as much to the customs officer, but I wondered whether there was a pattern to how people drive in their first miles into Vermont that alerts officials to suspicious activity.

I was innocent, I was at pains to explain.

I could not help, though, looking like a man in his early sixties. I could not help driving a modest car. I could not help having barely more than a Google Maps acquaintance with the landscape around me.

I felt compelled to drive within the posted limits.

And I resented that scarcely an hour after a final silent breakfast in the guesthouse dining room I was losing the mood of my days away. More precisely, I felt the ebbing of the long-familiar wonder with which I customarily greet my life and the sky over it when a retreat is over. I had wanted that time with my history of days away and weekends of recollection to last a little longer.

Sometimes rural Louisiana. Often the coastline of New England. Even once the Loire Valley.

And then the white car passed me.

In a little while the road was mine again.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hauntings and Rosaries

One of my aunts claimed that she knew exactly when someone must have entered her Louisiana home through its sliding glass doors and then gone through her pocketbook. She had made her customary grocery run one afternoon and had left her handbag on the kitchen counter as she put away her purchases. Then, she recounted, it was her usual time to say the rosary and so she had repaired to her bedroom in another part of the house. When she emerged from her bedroom, she found her handbag lying opened on the counter.

My aunt was proud of her deductive reasoning as she narrated the events to me. There was no doubt in her mind where she had been and what she had been doing at that time on a weekday afternoon. It was her rosary time, and a long-established habit had taken her to one of the sure places in her everyday life.

A retired classroom teacher from the same small town along the Mississippi River where both my parents had been born and raised, my aunt was not one to take fright easily. She had taught generations of the residents. They held no surprises for her, it seemed, and she would not let herself be undone by the evidence of misbehavior.

With someone made of feebler stuff, I might have been on the watch for the lingering signs of trauma. I knew better, however, than to voice commonplace cautions to this woman with her Cajun ancestry.

I do remember listening to my aunt that day and registering astonishment at something I was not in the habit of hearing. I was hearing someone talk about a sure time in her day for prayer.

My aunt had not set out to talk about her prayer. Accustomed to hands raised and questions posed, she would have handled that topic thoughtfully and confidently if I had asked her that day to say more.

By saying no more about her daily rosary time, she seemed to suggest that there was nothing more to say. No justification for prayer as part of the day of a Catholic woman in her seventies. No defense of this or other repetitive methods of traditional prayer. No explanation of the benefits, spiritual or psychological, that accrued to her by sliding a set of wooden rosary beads through her fingers once a day.

A year ago I had the good fortune of sharing my living space for a time with a man close to my age whose religious background paralleled much in my own. We got into the habit of taking out our rosaries at a point in the evening. We each slid the wooden beads through our fingers, took turns leading the Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s, invoked at the start of each ten beads an event from the life of Jesus or his mother Mary. There would inevitably come a point when I would stretch out the rosary between my hands and admire the simple craftsmanship involved in creating this article of prayer.

Graduate studies in theology and religion – including courses on the Jewish feasts and life cycle – equip me with a vocabulary to talk about the devotional life by which a range of people allow themselves to be haunted as they grow older.

I own myself haunted.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Planning Retirement

Summer evening in early June. No need yet for the lamps in my friend’s condo. Through the sliding glass door that leads onto his balcony, light comes in across the stretch of a green suburban field.

We are some distance from the city into which my friend travels five days a week. The starched shirt and tie he wears on his twice-daily journeys on the commuter rail have been dropped this evening in favor of polo shirt and walking shorts.

Because of an unseasonable coolness earlier this week, he pads around his unit in white socks. I am not the kind of company he needs to tailor his look for. He expects to be able to spend an hour or two with me this evening and put on no airs.

He rests a foot on the edge of the coffee table. With an easy sigh he puts aside the man who tackles projects head on during the day, sticking his head into colleagues’ offices, delivering the occasional bad news, relying on the weight of decades of employment within the same institution.

It is an employment that he does not yet consider leaving. He is entering his sixties, though, and we talk retirement. Do we either of us know what we expect that to mean? Any idea what we want it to mean? And how soon?

Will it end up a bit like a weekend we leave unplanned? We can wonder sometimes what stories we will get to tell on Sunday night or Monday morning when we have taken no particular pains to create the stuff of stories over the previous forty-eight hours.

Would it be all right to spend the next fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years in a similar mode? Let’s call it “more of the same.”

And then my friend surprises me. There is something in his voice. He does not want to imagine having waited until retirement to do certain things and then find himself facing an illness that extinguishes plans and projects.

He is thinking of his parents and their final years over which he personally watched. In both cases, final years lived too early, concluded too soon.

He wants to learn how to play the organ, he confesses. The right way, not the way he taught himself years ago.

I want to spend more time each day praying. And writing. And reading.

We vow to look for ways in the near future to take long walks together on a regular basis. We want to stay healthy.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Now, Voyager

I like the idea that someone took with him on a weekend away a book that I had lent him. I do not yet know whether he enjoyed it; I barely know if he opened it once the agenda of the group he was joining on the Maine coast took shape. Things he may have pictured having time for might have given way to the long friendly preparations of meals or a side trip to the area’s antique stores.

I suspect that if the soft-cover copy of Now, Voyager made it out of his luggage and landed on a kitchen counter, one of the other men sharing the condo would have picked it up – if only to peruse the Hollywood still of Bette Davis and Paul Henreid on the cover of the novel.

The 1942 black-and-white film based on this work of fiction is something of a classic. One of my earliest gay friends used to be able to recite two hours of key lines before Bette Davis ever opened her mouth. One night in the late 1980s when the movie was scheduled to air, I set up my cassette recorder next to the television. After repeated playings, I became familiar with the pace and tone of the dialogue. I came to know when a pause meant that Paul Henreid was lighting a cigarette – or, rather, two cigarettes.

The name Olive Higgins Prouty appears on the screen whenever Now, Voyager is shown. It is her 1941 novel that brought to life the character of Charlotte Vale and the setting of her elegant Back Bay home where Doctor Jaquith, the compassionate director of a local sanatorium, first meets her at the family’s request. He becomes her lifeline.

It never occurred to me that I might enjoy reading the novel until I saw the 2004 paperback edition in a local bookstore. I have owned my copy for close to ten years without ever probing too deeply into the story of its author. This weekend, though, I gleaned enough online information to realize that Olive Higgins Prouty is buried only fifteen minutes from where I live. I might be able to make the kind of literary pilgrimage that delights bookish types.

While my copy of the novel was up on the Maine coast with my friend, I set about a little sleuthing here at home. It helped that Memorial Day weekend had most cemetery offices open. I got to engage someone official who eventually paused over an index card, typed back in 1974 when the novelist had been buried. He pointed out the general area on a cemetery map where I should begin my search for the Prouty graves.

Before he put away the index card, I glimpsed a nearby address that had been typed under the author’s name. “Is that where she lived?” I asked. Without any hesitation, the cemetery official made a photocopy of the index card for me. I was on my way.

Ten minutes later I was standing over the grave of someone I had never met. It was a far-distant Boston that I got to sense briefly there, quiet and still on a Sunday afternoon. I took pictures with my phone.

I was ready to leave when I saw a locked gate at the end of the roadway along which I had walked in my search for the grave. I recognized something that I did not expect. As a car passed on the other side of the locked gate, I suddenly knew where I was. It dawned on me that here was a stretch of road along which I drive once a week. Seldom able to glimpse over the stone wall surrounding the cemetery, I nevertheless weekly drive within a short walk of Olive Higgins Prouty.

When I pass there, I am on my way to an appointment with my own Dr. Jaquith.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Do I Keep the Book?

What am I saying when I keep a particular book? What am I safeguarding when it is one among hundreds at home and in my office?

Again and again I propose to myself a simplifying of my office book shelves, a thinning, a discarding. This can be preparation, I tell myself, for the day when I will leave what has been my place of employment for over thirty years.

Do I intend taking home all of the books now on my office shelves? By that day – maybe five years away, maybe fewer – when I vacate this beautiful office (and, yes, it is a beautiful office), I will have made some decisions. I will have answered some questions about my life.

And I will possibly have postponed answering others. I will have packed away a book without facing squarely the question it and it alone poses me.

For that is the issue. How definitively am I willing to forgo the pull of the question that a particular book poses? How soon am I willing to forget that that question was once an important one?

What testimony to learning does a 1945 translation of the Georgics bear? How sad if I let myself be no longer reminded of the internment camps in Singapore where former schoolmaster L.A.S. Jermyn translated Vergil a few lines a night! The thin green volume of The Singing Farmer: A Translation of Vergil’s Georgics stays with me.

Hardly irreplaceable, the 1966 paperback The Documents of Vatican II is one of all the books on my shelves that has been longest in my possession. Its red cover identifies it as the early Walter Abbott edition of the documents, more forward-looking and ecumenical in spirit than the 1975 edition by Austin Flannery. What happened to me, to my teachers, to my fellow seminarians in those first years after the Council? That red cover can remind me.

On October 21, 2005, colleagues and I attended a poetry reading at Harvard’s Sackler Museum. The draw was Mary Oliver. The surprise of the evening, though, was a young poet named Kevin Goodan whom Mary Oliver had chosen to read with her. What are the ways that a voice not yet confident breaks your heart when you hear it the first time? I still page through In the Ghost-House Acquainted, listening for Goodan’s voice.

Will a day really come when I no longer want to page through these three books?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Letters I Wrote as a Young Man

The novel I just finished reading last night is what we used to call an epistolary novel. The People in the Photo is a story told not only through letters but through emails and text messages exchanged primarily between two people whose parents appeared in a photograph in a newspaper clipping from 1971.

Last week I received in the mail a different kind of fiction. It was epistolary in the old-fashioned meaning of the term, and the amazing thing is that I had written all of the letters. The earliest dated 1973, the letters were some of them enclosed in the same envelopes in which they had originally been mailed. Most, though, were the simple pages of stationery still folded the way I had readied them for mailing, a triple thickness derived from the paper folded in thirds.

The two main characters in Hélène Gestern’s novel approach with care and curiosity and even reverence the photographs they begin to collect of their parents from various sources. The two of them become archaeologists of sorts, questioning what they find, recognizing that the meaning of the photographs will often rely on ways of thinking that have since grown outmoded. Warnings come from a number of people with whom they speak in 2007 that the truth of the summer of 1971 may not be something they really want to know.

The original recipient of all of the letters in the small Priority Mail box that arrived at my door last Wednesday had been a seminary classmate of mine in the 1970s. Our last visit took place over dinner in Boston in 2009, a cordial and easygoing exchange of information about the partners we had each of us left behind in previous years.

The visit had at first felt like it might prove the motivation for Karl and me to stay more regularly in contact. Our routines, though, mine in New England and his in Florida, would delay the kind of telephone conversation we finally had a little over a week ago. The occasion was his clearing out personal files in preparation for an upcoming move out of the country. He wanted to return to a number of people – seminary classmates and others – the correspondence from them that he had kept safe and secure over the years.

My letters and cards to him were on their way back to me.

So one evening last week I sat with a younger me. I met again the particular tone with which I had been accustomed to write a letter to Karl over those early years of our friendship. It was not a tone I used with anyone else. It was a tone that one man in his twenties used with another man in his twenties as they each camouflaged the kind of affections they wanted kept confidential.

Airy and breezy at times, ironic and sarcastic at others, glib and cerebral at their worst, the letters had been fiction. The moment of relief last Wednesday evening came near the end of the letters when Karl and I had each left seminary. I began to sound like myself finally in what I wrote and how I wrote.

Like the characters in the novel that I finished last night, I approached the reading of my letters last week with care and curiosity and even reverence. I too became an archaeologist of sorts, questioning what I read, recognizing that the meaning of the paragraphs often relied on ways of thinking that have since grown outmoded.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Encounters with Silence

My landlords are downstairs on this second night of Passover. Their grown children’s vehicles are parked in front of the house, one van, one compact.

I can hear a steady reading through the floorboards rather than the telltale exchange of dinner guests. After an afternoon of young footsteps running down a hallway, there are no eruptions of children around a table.

I am ready for gears to shift, I am prepared for familiar voices all raised around the serving of a meal. I do not play any music in my upstairs apartment just yet. I am poised to be respectful.

My landlord has completed a wild winter of snow removal, his snow-blower blessedly noisy on those mornings that I needed my parking space cleared. I was lucky to have someone watching out for me week in and week out as the storms visited New England.

I am sitting with a small book of meditations first published by a German Catholic priest in 1938. Encounters with Silence has long been understood as one of those remarkable compositions by a theologian who knew how to turn his reflection into prayer.

I have owned my paperback copy of the book from my seminary days back in the 1970s. It is one of those books that never disappoint, that never fail to carry me deeper into myself. I always have a sense of the author as an intelligent man, a learned man whose intellectual acuity could have been a protection from facing his need for God – but it never succeeded in doing him that disservice.

On the other hand, his critics have asked how he could never have addressed what was happening in the Germany of his day. I met a man who was his driver in the later years of his life, escorting him to the universities in postwar Europe where he was repeatedly invited to lecture. His reputation worldwide never flagged.

I attended a talk he gave on one visit he made to the United States in the 1970s. His topic was the dialogue possible and even inevitable among world religions.

In one of the meditations in Encounters with Silence, Karl Rahner as a young priest being groomed for university teaching recalled his baptism: “Then my reason with its extravagant cleverness was still silent. Then, without asking me, You made Yourself my poor heart’s destiny.”

I read those words last night in church as I waited for the start of the Good Friday liturgy.

Somehow I find myself a Christian. Somehow I find myself a Catholic. Somehow in 2015 I find myself a churchgoer still. I am grateful for Father Rahner and the way his words address the healing silence before which I get to live.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

East Village in Manhattan

I was not born in New York. I am not a New Yorker.

When I read about the East Village, I am responding to an author. I am responding to a narrative by means of which that particular author recreates a section of Manhattan.

I have personal memories of the East Village, but they are few. Those few take on importance, however, and even vividness. No long-term familiarity with the rest of the city has dulled them.

At one point in my late twenties I considered moving to New York and making my living there. I interviewed for jobs and got an offer. By the time the offer came, however, the man whose apartment in the East Village I had visited one eventful evening no longer lured me. What had begun as a chance meeting between strangers in a gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art continued long-distance until a weekend in off-season Provincetown and then it gently faded.

I had my image of that part of Manhattan, however. I had never imagined an apartment so small, its walls and ceiling a patchwork of half-done repairs. An evening from La Bohème touched by an intensity I had not considered possible in my life.

In time I would be visiting New York regularly with a partner whose best friend from high school lived in another apartment in the East Village. A man who would have given anything to be a writer, Michael lived in literary elegance and occasional penury. He owned a second-hand tuxedo for those New York occasions that demanded it. At one such event he had his picture taken with Ian McKellen.

With denim and leather that grew softer over the years, Michael walked New York tirelessly and at all hours. New York was home but a home with which he wrestled, argued, made vehement pleas for a recognition that eluded him. When the epidemic hit, Michael fought but eventually succumbed.

I did not live in New York during those years, and so my impressions remain those of a visitor. When I sit in a restaurant in the city, alone or with friends, I can find myself staring out over the heads of other guests. Through the windows I may glimpse a row of brownstones across the street, and I wonder who would ever exit those doors with the least thought of those of us looking out at them.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Boots and Gloves and Winter Things

I sit on the top step each morning and pull on boots.

Each morning for the past five weeks, I sit looking into the chilly stairwell that leads down to my front door. I tug the laces of the first boot. When I have tied the laces, I place along the baseboard of the landing the slipper I just removed. Taking off the other slipper, I store it next to its partner. I pull up my sock to make it easier to work my foot into the second boot. I tug at those laces and tie them securely.

I am ready to grip a nearby door jamb and stand on the top step where I have just been sitting.

I am not yet ready to gather up the satchel where I keep a pair of dress shoes for my work day. First I need to open the coat closet in the hallway and find my blazer among the other jackets. Then I curve my fingers to hold the sleeve ends of the sport coat as I slide my arms into the thickness of a down parka.

Are my gloves in that satchel with the dress shoes? Most likely. No need to put them on yet because I will need to dig out my apartment keys from the pockets of my topcoat when I get downstairs and out the front door.

On the bottom landing I step around the rubber pails positioned to catch drips from an ice dam above that stairwell. Some mornings I know to pick up a long-handled snow brush to clean the roof of my car. Some mornings I scoop a mug of ice melt to help make the walk to my car a safer one. A scraper is waiting for me on the backseat of my car in case a dusting of snow is hiding a coating of ice on the windshield.

When I get home from work ten hours later, I will need to reverse a lot of the steps I just outlined. I will likely have inched my car between two others in the parking lot, listening to the crunch of ice beneath my tires. I will have looked up at the windows of my second-floor apartment, some of them curtained with icicles.

When the evening begins and the kitchen is steamy with prep for dinner, I will not be wondering what I wonder at other times these past five weeks: Why have I written so little? Why have I read less than usual, making paltry progress in library books that have already been renewed once? Why am I getting to bed well before ten o’clock some weekday evenings?

Mornings come early in an historic winter in historic New England.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Mardi Gras

My brother in New Orleans is moving through the rituals that will carry him to Mardi Gras in four days.

A man in his late sixties, he does not choose to leave such rituals to the younger residents and visitors who each night watch parades roll through the Crescent City. Experience is something that gently guides my brother and his friends through this marathon. On tables in their homes, they have framed photographs of sunny smiles that they wore when they used to mask in troops twenty, thirty, forty years ago.

There is no outrage or scandal that they would hesitate to hint at if someone asked about the people in those photographs.

It is like yesterday to some of them who recall the balls and parties into which they ventured themselves as younger residents and tourists. Long before Stonewall, a hierarchy of New Orleans personalities prescribed the rules by which anyone younger or prettier laid claim to a thrilling sense of belonging and acceptance.

Neither my mother nor my father was a natural at this time of year in New Orleans. My mother sewed costumes for my brothers and me. My father found one of the safer parking spaces blocks from the parade route. Neither my mother nor my father, though, knew about the kind of world into which Mardi Gras could seem an entrance.

Neither would be the mentor that my brother and the other people in those framed photographs sought. Sought and, in circumstances worth a round of drinks to hear, found.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sharing the January Landscape

There are men whose sadness has lain open before me.

Inexplicably, over the years I have been lured less frequently by hearty, easy laughter and more often by the silent wonder with which some men have watched their own disappointment and loss. I pride myself that I can name it when I see it in others – the landscape their eyes follow, the story they start to tell and then stop.

I become bored by the party atmosphere when it covers over the paths by which individuals got there. I would prefer the spot before the fireplace, the sidewalk leading out into the night. Few imaginings hold me like the snow that might fall upon me and another man cleaning our cars together, our eyes catching the gestures by which we each sweep off the evidence of the hours we spent away from them.

I have driven away into the moods of a January day so many times. I have wanted the strange pleasure of the phone call, the message that comes from another corner where a man finds he regrets his winter a little less for sharing it.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

When Christmas Hits

It is not easy to predict when Christmas will hit each year.

Those of us intent on decorating a living space may expect something to strike home when we sit with our tree for the first time. Or for the last time.

Those of us who buy gifts may await some decisive shiver of satisfaction at our final taut tug on a bow or at the look on the face of the person who gets to loosen it.

Those of us who like to sing with others may know the favorite carols without guessing which verse will catch in our throat at that telling point in the season.

But we expect Christmas to hit.

That is why many of us spend time, spend money, spend creative energy in the weeks of December. We do not want to miss it – whatever precisely that something might be this year.

Some promise to ourselves will get kept.

Some vision of our lives will move into greater focus.

Some part of our heart will feel alive in a way that we had not known we needed.

What comes down faster – snowflakes in the light of the street lamp in front of my apartment this evening? Or the words with which I can begin to say thank you?

Oh, the snowflakes, the snowflakes.