Friday, October 30, 2015

Finding Francis

It's not as if I had lost him, or didn't know about him at all. But there was a bit of the miraculous in what happened yesterday.

I was facing a difficult situation at work, a delicate, pretending-like-everything-is-okay-but-it's-really-not situation. And that, on top of the grief and worry, was making for some desperate hours. I needed quick relief, an instant infusion of calmness and strength. So for some reason — I'm not sure why — I googled a 16th-century saint, Francis de Sales.

This is not St. Francis of the Franciscans, namesake of Pope Francis. This is the other Francis. I know about him because my parish priests are of his order, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, and his writings are sometimes reprinted in the bulletin.

Still, googling saints is not something I do in times of trouble. I'm more likely to pace or bite my nails. Nevertheless, the impulse was so strong that it was like reaching for Motrin when I feel a headache coming on. There was the near certain promise of relief. I knew this was what I was supposed to do.

So I found this: "Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset." And this: "Have patience with all things but chiefly have patience with yourself." And this: "The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering or give you unfailing peace to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings."

Yesterday I found Francis when I needed him the most.

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Eye of Storm?

Sometimes life decides to throw a lot of things at you at once. Work woes on top of grieving on top of other stuff.

I'm using the word "decides" lightly, of course, and with some irony. Life hasn't "decided" anything. Life is just happening. So how do  I handle the concerns, the worries, the to-dos? How do I  control the uncontrollable?

What I'm hoping for is the eye of the storm. I've been blown around and buffeted for weeks now, so it has to be here somewhere. I don't even expect the storm to be over. I just want a break from it.

Maybe if I think small like this, not ask for too much, the way will be clearer, the passing smooth. All I'm asking for is a patch of sunlight in the clouds, the calm air to catch my breath.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Muted Palette

At the end of the street, a maple is blazing. And on Monday's drive through the mountains, hillsides were studies in russet and gold.

On the whole, though, it's been a muted palette this autumn. Or maybe my vision is clouded this year.

It's difficult sometimes to know where the interior weather ends and the exterior weather begins.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Events on the Wing

If a journal is to have any value either for the writer or any potential reader, the writer must be able to be objective about what he experiences on the pulse. For the whole point of a journal is this seizing events on the wing. Yet the substance will come not from narration but from the examination of experience, an attempt, at least, to reduce it to essence.  -- May Sarton, The House by the Sea

I think about this as I remember the cemetery, the flag half mast, a large hawk circling in the leaden sky. There was a bank of autumn color from one stand of trees. Otherwise, the white stones and green grass made for a frightful symmetry.

Beyond the boundaries, cattle grazed, and  hills rolled on in the distance. As the priest said the ancient prayers, my eyes looked down at the flower petals under foot, one white, one yellow.

A peaceful place. A resting place. The sun broke through the clouds just as the burial was complete. 

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Monday, October 26, 2015

Turning East

Nighttime lingers here on the western edge of Eastern Daylight Time. It is dark until 8. Great light for a writer, at least this one, who finds the dim, still, early morning hours the best ones for creative pursuits. Add the mournful whistle of a freight train — which sounds here once an hour or more — and the picture is complete.

So I pause for a moment before turning east and moving on. I pause in this house I know and love so well. Pause with the boxes of Mom's clothes and papers that I'm taking back to Virginia. Pause with the solemnity of what I've been doing, what I must continue to do.

Morning email brings messages from friends, words of support and love. How lucky I am to have them. How could I do this without them?


Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Word

It's been more than a week now since my mother passed away. The wake and funeral are behind us. Closets have been cleaned, clothes sorted, papers boxed for another time. The Kleenex box is almost empty. This is not a good time to run out of tissues!

What I'm searching for, I realize, is not closure but continuance. How will Mom go on? I can save a few of her sweaters and dresses, plenty of photographs and other memorabilia — but what I want most are the words she's written.

Father Linh, who said Mom's funeral mass, wisely made the Word his theme. "In the beginning was the Word," he said. In the Word we find eternal life.

Mom started the Museum of the Written Word. She dealt with words all her life. She didn't write as many words as she had hoped. But she encouraged others to write them. One of them was me. I best get on with it.

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Friday, October 23, 2015


I don't even know if I'll be able to go through with it, but I hope I will. Today at Mom's funeral I hope I'm able to stand up and say a few words about her. It's a sad duty, but an important one. Because she can no longer speak for herself, we must speak for her.

But how to do that? How to sum up a life in a few paragraphs?

No choice but to plunge in, to type words on a page, print the page, edit the page, add some new words, remove some old ones. No choice but to try and do it. Because the eulogy is not just for the person who is gone, of course; it's for all of us still present, all of us who must keep on living.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

People and Place

The long drive west, this time with new eyes. Wondering how often I will make this trip with Mom and Dad both gone. Still, when the people are gone, the people become place. So visiting the place becomes a way to be with the people.

Here in the house every sight my eye lights on is filled with thoughts of Mom. Here is the dining room with its Chinese screen print, the vase I bought her in New York City's Chinatown, the bird prints that go back as far as memory.

In the family room, her books on writing are stacked on the organ bench. I can barely look at them. Those were the books whose ideas we'd talk about for the Museum of the Written Word, some of them I gave to her. Books on Cuneiform script or the Dead Sea Scrolls. The books stand for all of Mom's projects, all the big ideas she had and never quite completed.

At home in Virginia I'm well insulated. Here in Lexington, I'm raw. This is what we must do, I know; this is part of grieving. To look, to see and remember, is as painful as it is necessary.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015


In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the word "passion," how overused it is, how intimidating it can be. "Just follow your passion." "Discover your passion and then everything else will follow."

Of course, this is poppycock. It implies that the creative life is a matter of being swept away by something rather than working away at something. Gilbert suggests that instead of focusing on passion, we focus on curiosity.
I believe that curiosity is the  secret. Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living. Curiosity is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Furthermore, curiosity is accessible to everyone.
What a comfort it was to read these words. So obvious yet so overlooked. So simple but so true.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When Walking Won't Do

Walking is usually a tonic. It lifts me up and out of myself. But there are limits to its powers, which I discovered yesterday.

I had debated whether to come into the office at all, knowing it would be difficult whether I was home or downtown. Deciding it was better to be distracted, I made the trip in and was, as I had hoped, pulled into the demands of the day.

About 1 p.m. I received a nasty email. Nothing horrible, just an alumnus complaining that his book was omitted from our authors page, the kind of thing that happens occasionally when you deal with large volumes of information. The sort of thing that would usually roll off my back. But yesterday his unkind response put me over the edge.

I tried walking but my Kleenex got a bigger workout than I did. I cut the stroll short, made my way back to office and completed the work day as quickly as I could.

There are walks that inspire and walks that comfort and walks that sometimes must just be endured. There are days like that too. I think I'm in for a few of them.

(Photo: Claire Capehart)


Monday, October 19, 2015

Suzanne Concannon Cassidy, 1926-2015

My mother died on a crisp autumn Saturday afternoon a few minutes before 3 p.m. She had been ailing for some time, but the end came quickly.

When my father died, it was easier to put the words into some order, to describe the indescribable.  But for Mom — a writer, the founding editor of two magazines and creator of the Museum of the Written Word — I'm having trouble. She was my mom, after all, and I was so close to her.

Last Sunday I slept on a strange little pull-out couch next to her hospital bed. I woke up throughout the night and looked at the glowing orange numbers of her pulse-oxygen meter. Admittedly not the most restful sleep.

But at about 5:30 a.m. I dozed again and dreamed that Mom and I were taking a trip together. She was driving a car — barefoot and in her hospital gown. At some point I realized this was not the best way to be tootling around the countryside. "I should take the wheel," I said to myself. And I did.

It was not a subtle dream, but it was comforting.  It was helping me know that life will go on. I'm not sure exactly how, but it will.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

Continuous Loop

In the hours I've spent at Mom's bedside recently I've found myself staring at a TV screen playing a continuous loop of nature shots. There is some New Agey music that goes with it, what we used to call Muzak, only with an airier, lighter touch. But the sound is usually turned off, so I'm looking at photographs without the benefit of soundtrack.

One thing I've noticed is the similarity of the shots. Though the landscapes may be of mountains, seascapes or red-rock deserts, the foreground is usually green. There's a reason for that, I believe, something to do with our earliest origins, the safety of enclosure giving way to an open view. Splendor in doses. Domesticated wilderness. 

All I know is that it is mesmerizing. I look at Mom, I look at the screen, I think of all that can be held in a head and a heart.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Best Egg Roll in Wyoming

I'm taking a virtual vacation today, remembering the June trip out West, stopping for the evening in Gillette, Wyoming, after a late-afternoon stroll around Devil's Tower.

There had been that feeling at Devil's Tower, one I hadn't experienced in a while, of being truly free. Usually I book accommodations in advance, but this was the last full day of the trip and I wasn't sure of the itinerary. So there were 50, 70, maybe even 100 miles of open road ahead and no sure resting place. I knew there would be some place, of course, but wasn't sure what place.

The place became Gillette because the bones were weary and the motel was the right price range (cheap!). And the restaurant became Chinese because it was the one across the street. 

But the waiter — he was the magical player in all of this. "Have an egg roll," he urged, his smile lighting up the almost dining empty room. "We don't just have best egg roll in Gillette; we have best egg roll in Wyoming."

Well, that did it. The egg rolls came, and they were indeed delicious. And I thought about the randomness of travel, all the fun and funky experiences it opens you up to. All day there had been red rocks and curving roads and grand open spaces. And now, on top of all that, I was tasting the best egg roll in Wyoming.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Appearance of the Bull

"There's an old Mexican adage," the doctor said. "The appearance of the bull changes when you enter the arena." He admitted he could find no confirmation of this saying or its lineage, but it's something he thinks about when he talks to patients and families. "It's something I try to keep in mind," he said.

What he meant was that it's easy to say you want no extreme measures taken at the end of life when you're not at the end of life. But when death is pawing the ground in front of you, when it's charging right at you, when it's close enough that you can spy its wild-looking eyes, its flared nostrils — well, that's another matter.

"Yes," he said. "I try to keep that in mind."

And now I'm keeping it in mind, too.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

View from DAR

A wedding Saturday at the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters building in downtown D.C. Temperature in the 60s, crisp flag flying, the Washington Monument etched pure and clean against an October sky. This is what I saw from my seat on the portico.

You know, you live here for a while, you deal with the traffic and the cost of living and the general headaches of a major metropolitan area — and you forget, far too often you forget, the beauty.

But on Saturday I didn't forget. How could I? I took it in, deep breaths full of it. And I took a few photos to preserve it.


Monday, October 12, 2015

Big Magic

I picked up Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic at the library this weekend. It's new enough that I was surprised to see it — and I snapped it up, even though it's a 14-day-only, no-renewal book.

When it comes to books that suddenly appear on library shelves long before I would ever expect to see them (I just read a review a few weeks ago), I suspect providence at work. Why this book? Why now?

Big Magic is about the joys of living the creative life and the need to persist in it despite all obstacles. It's not a perfect book — it's more pep talk than anything else — but it's honest and encouraging and bighearted. And it makes some important points about finishing projects (better to be a "deeply disciplined half-ass" than a lazy perfectionist) and why it's unwise to give up the day job (it would put too great a burden on the writing, sculpting, cello-playing or other creative impulse that must be pursued with lightness).

As I struggle to balance family responsibilities with a new set of duties in my day job, as I think about what I can give up to make this all work, I realize one thing that can't go is this blog.

It's as close to "big magic" as I can get these days.

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Friday, October 9, 2015

Somewhere ...

I drove in from the east today, a feeling I always liken to being on the other side of the looking glass — or the rainbow.

And as if on cue, the few drops sprinkling us on the vast, parking lot of a D.C. highway did whatever it is they must do to form a rainbow. And we work-weary, week-weary commuters were treated to a celestial show.

In the Bible, God sends Noah a rainbow as a token of His promise never again to destroy the world by water. But I took today's rainbow as a reminder that there are forces beyond the ones we see and hear that will have their way with us.

Sometimes they batter us, sometimes they buoy us. But they are always there.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Garden in Autumn

Yesterday I took a midday walk in balmy D.C. The trees were turning enough to remind me it's fall and not late summer. The air was that way, too. Warmth without weight, which meant I kept taking off my sweater and putting it back on again.

In the botanical gardens a group of schoolchildren played on the lawn. They were clad in red t-shirts, and were running back and forth, panting and laughing, following the instructions of their teacher. "O.K. This time I want you to find a partner and run together."

A few steps away was the rose garden. I sniffed around for the most aromatic flowers and found a couple that made me inhale long and deep.

Apart from the roses' pinks and yellows, the rest of the autumn garden palette was a muted one: lavender asters, russet leaves and the fuzzy fronds of tall grasses.  It was a faded look, mellow and complete.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Leaning Tower of Books

Thinking about the books and magazines I grew up with — and the ones my children did, too. Bookcases stuffed full,  nightstands spilling over, newspapers strewn across the kitchen table. My grandfather had a reading stand so he could prop up the paper and scan it as he had breakfast.

Reading is a solitary act with social potential — especially, I think, when the written word is on paper and more easily shared. When kids see their parents reading they are more likely to read themselves. But what happens when the words are on a device, ephemeral and inconstant?

I guess it makes the kids want the device, and this is undeniably true. But how do we measure the effect of the device itself, and the fact that it can be everything — book, magazine, newspaper? How does this change the reading equation?

There are answers here — and one day we will know them.


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Retracing My Steps

My office key is lost. It must have slipped off the new lanyard I picked up yesterday. A lanyard that apparently didn't fasten properly.

Meanwhile, I have walked up and down hallways and sidewalks and garage corridors, retracing my steps. What a concept — retracing one's steps. Going back over what was done before. Ultimate inefficiency.

Or is it? Perhaps a mindfulness exercise could consist of just this practice, walking back over what I walked before, looking for what wasn't seen previously, realizing that instead of being present in the moment of walking, I was actually daydreaming, fretting, letting the scenery pass in a blur.

As it turns out, I did find something. Not my key but a colleague's identification card. If I found her card, maybe she — or someone else — found my key. And in this sideways, sliding, inefficient way, we will all be rescued somehow.

(This photo from outside Medora, North Dakota, has no relevance to retracing my steps. I've just been wanting to use it.)

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Monday, October 5, 2015

Drowned Roses

The living is easy for first-bloom roses. Born in late May, days past the last frost-possible day, they inherit late evenings, balmy air and no Japanese beetles. They can look forward to a long, splendid life. (That's in rose years of course.)

 But second-bloom roses emerge when the sun tilts lower in the sky, when the nights become nippy, and — this year, at least — when autumn rains mat the grass and rattle limbs loose from the tall oaks.

They may not always hold their heads up like their spring brethren. But they should. Theirs is the harder lot.  Second-bloom roses are the bravest.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sounds and Comforts

It's 48 degrees outside and 65 in the house. I have nothing I have to do today, no place I have to go. I'm hoping the rain slacks off enough to take a long, brisk walk. It's been a while since I've contemplated the passing landscape with hands tucked up into my sleeves.

Until then, I'm enjoying the quiet morning, the hum of the refrigerator and the ticking of the cuckoo clock the only sounds I hear. Piles of books and papers on the coffee table, a pot of tea brewing in the kitchen.

Perhaps the reason we appreciate the everyday more as we grow older is because we have learned how uncommon it can be. Days when nothing is expected of us. The comforts of home.


Friday, October 2, 2015

Battening Down

Actually, I have done little of this. The rocking chairs are inside and the rest of the deck furniture is too heavy to blow away.

I'll collect some extra tap water tonight, keep it around in pitchers and bowls. And I'll check the basement frequently to see if rain is seeping in.

Beyond that I'm planning to clean, organize and watch movies.

It's blizzard mode, only with rain instead of snow.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pushing "Publish"

You know you are busy when you haven't heard that a hurricane is heading your way. And more to the point, you know you are busy when you fail to write a blog post two weekdays in a row.

But when one of those days consists of driving from Lexington, Kentucky, to Washington, D.C., working for five hours and then driving home in torrential rain — well, that doesn't count. And when you start behind the next day because you had to get a little sleep — well, that doesn't count either.

Not that any of this "counts," of course. All of it is self-imposed. My own schedule, my own project. But it is a project of the heart, and as such must be given its due.

So today I'm taking no chances. It is barely 5:30 a.m. I'm pushing the "publish" key.


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