2020: Dream is Collapsing

Bayou St. John
Sunrise over Bayou St. John, December 27, 2020

Fear not! This post is not as dire as the title might have you believe. In truth, it’s the name of the song I listened to the most in 2020, if I am to believe Spotify. It’s an instrumental piece, full of drama and portent, by Hans Zimmer. Many memorable action sequences from the movie Inception are set to this piece of music.

And to prove that I was not all about ominous, reality-busting mythos this past year, my second-most-listened-to song of 2020 was “Wishing Well” by Terence Trent D’Arby.

But I have to admit, if I was to create a piece of fiction based on this past year, I’d be afraid to reference “Dream is Collapsing,” because it’s just a little too perfect.

When I think of my own particular ambitions for this past year, pre-pandemic, I can’t really say they collapsed — it’s more like they deflated. And I’m mindful of how fortunate I am in that scenario, so what follows aren’t complaints, just examples. Specifically about writing and running, two solitary activities that, in theory, could still go on with little interruption in our current environment.

Regarding writing, the best excuse I can give is that a combination of uncertainty, anxiety, and doubt kept me from settling into the necessary re-writes on my third novel. We’re talking another level of procrastination. And regarding running, I didn’t run the New York Marathon in November, because there wasn’t one to run.

I see a bright side to this deflation, though. I feel like I can see a little more clearly without all the puffiness of my aspirations getting in the way. No, I didn’t write as much as I “should” have, but I did read a bunch. Most notably: for sheer volume, War and Peace and David Copperfield; and, for giving me stuff to think about, Bhagavad Gita and Frederick Douglass’s Why is the Negro Lynched?

Running-wise, if I had run the marathon, I most likely would not have run the Trail-Zilla half-marathon trail run with nieces Nicole and Cece a few weeks ago. And I would have missed out on a really challenging, but fun, shared experience.

So I don’t regret my flat tires. Just hoping to get enough air in them to get me back out on the road before too long.

Norco
The view from Trail-Zilla

An American in Paris

An American in Paris

So, I was planning on posting something about David Copperfield (the novel by Charles Dickens) — I’m about two-thirds of the way through — but last night, I happened to watch the 1951 film An American in Paris. And I felt the need to pre-empt my previously scheduled programming.

I’d seen the film at least once before, a very long time ago. If my memory’s not faulty, I saw it on New Orleans’s local PBS station, WYES, tempted into the viewing by a life-long love of Gene Kelly and a burgeoning interest in Gershwin. Granted, life-long was not as significant a qualifier back then as it is now, but I’m happy to report that my appreciation of Gene Kelly has only matured and deepened. Like wine. Or perhaps cheese.

I guess that’s what I want to write about. The maturation process. What’s changed for me in the roughly 30 or more years between viewings. Of course, not about everything that’s changed, no one’s got time for that. I’ll limit it to a few observations about the film itself:

  • The music. Gershwin’s music was my biggest takeaway the first time I watched the movie. It’s what cemented it in my mind. Much like how Masaru Sato’s theme from Yojimbo stuck with me in the long years between my first viewing and my more recent renaissance with that film. Last night, I watched the before and after commentary from Brad Bird and Ben Mankiewicz, part of TCM’s The Essentials program. They talked about the iconic ending of the movie, how the ballet sequence was “one of the more perfect dance sequences set to film,” I think one of them said. But they didn’t say anything about Gershwin. I’d take it one step further to include George Gershwin’s music — it’s a pretty phenomenal visualization / realization of the composition itself.
  • The story. The first time I saw the movie, I’d never been to Paris. I was roughly the age Leslie Caron was when the film was made. I’d never seen Casablanca. So I didn’t catch the similarity between Lise being sheltered as a teenager by Henri during the war, and Ilsa’s connection with Victor Laszlo. As a matter of fact, I think the whole love triangle was lost on me first time around. Say what you want about love triangles, but Casablanca-variety ones are good for adding a touch of gravitas. And the movie has some great quotes: Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan — “Back home everyone said I didn’t have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here but it sounds better in French.” Also, Leslie Caron as Lise Bouvier — “Paris has ways of making people forget.” Jerry Mulligan in response — “Paris? No. Not this city. It’s too real and too beautiful to ever let you forget anything.”
  • The actors. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron are still as captivating as I remember them being. But I was so charmed this time around by Oscar Levant and Nina Foch. Oscar Levant plays the musician Adam Cook, and the scene where Jerry comes into his room singing “Tra La La La (This Time It’s Really Love)” is a new favorite. And I suppose, years and experience just give me an extra appreciation for everything Nina Foch brought to her role as Milo Roberts, Jerry’s art sponsor.

Everything else about the film — the costumes, the staging, the choreography — were just as enchanting as I remember them being. It’s such a lovely thing to revisit an experience from way back when, and have it not disappoint.

Retreat

St. Joseph Abbey is a Benedictine monastery about 40 miles north of New Orleans, on the more sylvan side of Lake Pontchartrain. I’ve written about St. Joseph Abbey in this space before, it’s a place that’s loaded with meaning for my family. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a silent retreat there. The theme was: “Be Not Afraid — Finding God’s Peace Amidst Life’s Uncertainties.”

It sounded like just the thing for the very uncertain times we’re in.

And I definitely felt recharged, and more relaxed, at the end of the weekend. Here are a few observations about the experience, and why I think it worked for me:

  • Silence — I was not daunted by the prospect of remaining silent for two days. I was actually a bit relieved that I wouldn’t feel obliged to make small talk, something that tends to fill me with anxiety. Keeping silence gelled nicely, too, with the face masks we all wore. Also, it’s not like my vocal cords went unused. Community, out-loud, prayers from a booklet punctuated each day, and I read at one of the Masses held during the weekend.
  • Walking Meditation — the weekend’s agenda was very loose, and allowed ample free time for walking, thinking, and reading. Those days marked the first spell of cool weather we’ve had since the summer, so walking around the peaceful grounds was delightful. Also, I’m currently reading David Copperfield, and I did feel downright Dickensian as I visited my parents’ graveside, often throughout the weekend. They are buried at the Abbey cemetery, which is just behind the retreat house.
  • The Communion of Saints — bear with me on this one. I truly felt, at the close of my time there, that I had spent the weekend with my parents. I was particularly struck with this idea of “communing” when I first arrived, near sunset on Friday. Their headstones face west, and as the sun was sinking, I had a clear memory of sitting on the back stoop of our house with my father. The rear of the house where I grew up faced west, and once, many years ago, I had stopped to watch a particularly picturesque sunset. My father asked what I was up to, and when I told him, he replied something like “that sounds like a good idea,” and we both watched the sunset in silence together. It was not something we were in the habit of doing, nor did we make much of it moving forward. But it still remains an indelible moment for me, of just “being in wonder” with another human. Particularly a human like my father, who was many things, but Zen was not one of them.

There are a lot of other reasons why I felt closer to my parents — spending time in a place that meant a great deal to both of them, and feeling like they are well-situated in their eternal rest, to name a few. To tie this up, I’ll say that attending a retreat at the Abbey had been an idea in my mind for quite some time, and I’m glad making it reality was such a positive experience. One I’m definitely game for trying again.

The Abbey Church
A prominent tree in the cemetery that my father referred to as “Lady Oak”
The moon and Lady Oak

So Long, For Now

New Orleans City Park Summer 2020
The sun sets behind the New Orleans Museum of Art, September 3, 2020.

So, this is my last regularly-scheduled post. For those who have been paying attention, I’ve written and posted something in this space every Wednesday for the past 5 years. There have only been a handful of weeks that I’ve missed — I didn’t keep count, but I’m fairly certain the missed posts only amount to a true handful, five or less.

This decision to go on hiatus was not caused by our pandemic, or any other big world considerations. Nor did it come about abruptly: it was always part of the plan. After I published my first post on August 19, 2015 (here’s a link to that post), I had a nebulous idea that I’d give blogging a shot for about 5 years. The timing remained hazy until my 134th post. Then, it became crystal clear to me that I had reached the halfway point. From there, it was simply a matter of math.

And the math added up to today.

A lot has happened in 5 years (another MASSIVE understatement from me). But bringing that statement inward, to reflect on my growth as a writer, a lot has happened, too. I’m much more confident when I now state, “I’m a writer.” When I first began this journey, I was hesitant, phrasing the statement more as a question. With all these contingent questions: will readers think I’m a good writer? How will I find stuff to write about for the next 5 years? Will my family question why I’m doing this?

The short answer to all those questions is: it didn’t really matter. Over the course of these 5 years, I’ve become a better writer — or, at least, a more confident one. Somehow, I came up with something to write about, 267 times. And, regarding the “why” question, the only answer that mattered was my own. The lessons I learned regarding establishing a writing discipline, the importance of intent, how the right words can enhance your intended message, and the wrong words detract. . .these are probably the biggest benefits I’ve gained from this effort.

Here are some fun facts from this blog’s history:

  • I’ve published over 149,000 words here. That’s nearly the combined length of my published novels.
  • It’s had over 18,000 views, and over 11,000 visitors.
  • The only time I ever topped 100 views in a single day was with my 2nd post, way back on August 26, 2015. (here’s a link to that post)
  • My most-used tags: writing, #amwriting, New Orleans, and New Orleans City Park.

But just to be clear — the only thing that’s changing is the frequency. This website and blog will still be here, and I will still post to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I’ll also post here, but the frequency will probably come closer to monthly, rather than weekly. I still have plenty of books to read, and seasons in City Park to capture, and novels to finish, and I will return here to provide updates on all those efforts.

Just not every Wednesday.

It’s only slightly bittersweet, and mostly exciting, to close out this blogging chapter and start a new one. Finally, I want to express a huge THANK YOU to all 11,000+ of you who have visited over the years. I hope you’ve found at least a little entertainment, or lightness, (or light entertainment) as you’ve stopped in. I look forward to hosting you again in the new phase.

 

Isn’t this where. . .

C. S. Lewis

When I flipped the page on my calendar yesterday, I was greeted by this very hopeful quote:

“There are far better things ahead than the things we leave behind.” — C. S. Lewis

Given that we’ve already gone through eight months of a very challenging year (“challenging” feels like a MASSIVE understatement), this is a nice bit of light shining down on me from the left side of my work station.

And it’s got me thinking about C. S. Lewis, one of the first writers I ever read — I read The Chronicles of Narnia as soon as I could read stories of any length. My admiration of him as a writer has remained pretty constant. Here are a few of my random thoughts about C. S. Lewis:

  • According to Wikipedia, C. S. Lewis favored the writings of Scottish author George MacDonald. I am also partial to George MacDonald. While most of my reading of C. S. Lewis occurred in my childhood, I got on a George MacDonald kick sometime in my mid-twenties. I was an adult when I read The Princess and Curdie, and am still struck by some of the ideas and themes posited in that story.
  • Tim and I saw a staged version of The Screwtape Letters several years ago. To this day, Tim will still randomly call out “Toadpipe!” around the house.
  • I’ve only seen Shadowlands, the movie with Anthony Hopkins as C. S. “Jack” Lewis, once. I’m afraid to watch it again because the movie reduced me to a gloppy puddle of tears.

I’ll conclude with a little background information on that quote. I didn’t dig too deeply to verify this, but it feels credible. Apparently, it’s from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3. He wrote a letter to someone named Mary Willis Shelburne, who was in the hospital at the time. I think he was urging her, in his way, to not fear death.

C. S. Lewis died just a few months after he wrote those words to her. I suspect the intended solace was as much for his peace of mind as hers. As for me, I’m satisfied to take that hopeful message to mean there’s a light at the end of the 2020 tunnel (that’s not an oncoming train). 🙂

Vigilance and Stevie Wonder

From Sunday’s walk. I believe those were clouds related to the first storm.

Note: this post has nothing to do with vigilantes, a noun whose meaning is significantly different from “vigilance.” It’s a pity the words look so similar.

No, I’m concerned with the state of vigilance: “the action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.”

And Stevie Wonder? I’ll get to him in a bit.

I have a propensity to be hyper-vigilant. Especially during hurricane season. This past weekend, with two storms headed toward Louisiana, my Hurricane Tracker app was definitely getting a workout. As of right now, the first storm has passed, with little to no impact on the area where I live. The second storm, Laura, is forecast to become a major hurricane and come ashore near the Louisiana-Texas border late Wednesday night, Aug. 26.

So I’m still hyper-vigilant right now. While the eye should pass well to the West, we are likely to see high winds and rain.

And in the midst of this, it occurred to me — I’ve been in a state of hyper-vigilance for the past six months. Checking the Louisiana Department of Health’s COVID-19 information site daily (but only during work days, I give myself a break on weekends). Watching the hospitalization trends, ventilator usage.

Here’s the crux: I’m not sure how this state of prolonged hyper-vigilance is affecting me. My guess is, it’s not a net-positive.

This is where Stevie Wonder comes in. On Sunday, I happened to hear a snippet of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” his #1 single from 1974. I queued it up on Spotify for a better listen, and it did NOT disappoint. It has everything I love about his particular style of funk. Here’s a link to the song on YouTube, if you’d also like to take a listen:

But I also paid particular attention to the lyrics, probably for the first time. They really struck me. Catch the opening line:

“Ow
We are amazed but not amused
By all the things you say that you’ll do”

I wondered if he had written it about Richard Nixon, and Wikipedia proved my assumption correct. Apparently, Nixon resigned two days after the record’s release (though I’m pretty sure the record was not the reason).

Personally, I think the song translates very nicely to our current era, but Nixon is the only Republican politician I’ll reference in this post. Instead, I’ll take the song’s accusation and tie it back to my personal life.

What if my hyper-vigilance, against forces of nature (plagues and storms), has caused a paralysis? Six months ago, when I found myself home A LOT more, I thought it would be a boon to my writing. So far, that hasn’t panned out. Regarding the necessary re-writes and edits on my third novel, to quote Stevie, “I haven’t done nothin.”

So I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder for what I’m reading as a fortuitous kick in the pants. While it’s not in my nature to lose the vigilance completely, I’m planning to be more mindful of its negative impacts.

The Celtic Twilight: 100%

View from our Dublin hotel room, at the end of May 2019. It was nearly 10pm, a much later twilight than I am accustomed to in Southern latitudes.

So, I finished W.B. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight on my Serial Reader app a few weeks ago, but haven’t had the opportunity to share anything about it until now.

Overall, it was a mostly fun and light-hearted read, especially after slogging through ALL The Canterbury Tales. While most of The Tales felt undeniably real, the essays in The Celtic Twilight had an ephemeral quality to them. Case in point, in “The Friar’s Tale,” the devil in his green suit seemed like someone I could easily meet today. The faeries and “Sidhe” that Yeats wrote about felt as shimmery and fleeting as you’d expect such otherworldly creatures to be.

A few noteworthy items I took from The Celtic Twilight:

  • Yeats wrote about Ben Bulben, a mountain in County Sligo: “…the mountain in whose side the square white door swings open at nightfall to loose the faery riders on the world.” I love this idea. If I ever return to Ireland, I would love to go hiking there.
  • In an essay entitled “Dreams That Have No Moral,” Yeats lays out a rambling history of a young man named Jack and a series of giants who cry, “Fee-faw-fum, I smell the blood of an Irishman.” A little different from how I learned Jack’s story, and this tale had no beanstalk.
  • I’ll wrap this up with my favorite quote from The Celtic Twilight:

“Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear.”

If the Path Be Beautiful

The quote on this month’s “Pathways” calendar page feels particularly poignant. One of the things that the stay-at-home guidance has afforded me is almost daily sunrise walks in New Orleans City Park. I have indeed seen some beautiful paths over the past 5+ months. And even though the paths are the same, the scenery does change, because the light hits differently as the Earth makes its way around our star. I’ve included a few of the more wondrous sights at the bottom of this post.

When I looked at the front of the calendar, to check its title, lo and behold, it features this quote: “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” Attribution unknown. Could there be a better overarching hope for this singular year?

Just a few observations about the quote for August, before I share some of my beautiful paths. “If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads” is attributed to Anatole France. Although I couldn’t find which work it’s from. I’ve also been curious about his name — a French writer with the last name of France — and found out it’s an assumed name. He was born François-Anatole Thibault, which seems more likely for a child born in 1844.

Without further ado, here are some sunrise photos from the past several months.

April 13, 2020

April 24, 2020

June 2, 2020

July 4, 2020

Comet NEOWISE

I went looking for a comet last week. Didn’t have much luck.

Armed with my Sky Guide app and a telescope, I met up with three nieces at the Bonnabel Boat Launch on Lake Pontchartrain. Just a quick aside — the Bonnabel Boat Launch is just a few blocks from where I grew up. It has expanded quite a bit from the days when I used to run down there, looking for slate to skim on the typically placid lake.

While there were more people hanging out than I expected to see, we still had a clear view of the northwest sky. That’s where the Sky Guide app said to look for Comet NEOWISE. It came closest to Earth on July 22, and just a week or so had passed from that date, so I figured we should have had a pretty good shot at seeing it.

Except…we discovered the telescope was missing a critical component: the eyepiece. We were trying to look at Jupiter and Saturn, which were visible in the eastern sky. But without that additional lens, all we could see in the viewer were two dots, on a much smaller tableau.

The fair amount of light pollution in the New Orleans atmosphere, and my aging eyes, didn’t bode well for my chances of seeing it unassisted. My nieces thought they caught glimpses of it with their naked eyes. When I looked where they indicated, I think all I saw was a floater.

Having read War and Peace this year, where the Comet of 1812 plays a pivotal part in Pierre Bezukov’s epiphany, I took the Comet of 2020 to be a sign of some sort of modern-day pivot. What kind of pivot, I don’t know. And I wanted to see it while I still could.

Instead, I witnessed a beautiful sunset (pictured above) over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, with three of my most favorite and beloved people. I’d be good with more of those sort of pivots.

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Pre-pandemic, I was a fairly regular attendee of a weekly Catholic Mass. However, I was not as hard-core about it as my parents. These are folks who, on marathon family road trips across the U.S., would be sure to find whatever Catholic Church we might be passing in Wamsutter, Wyoming, on a Saturday evening or Sunday, so that we could meet our Mass obligation. (To be fair, I think my father was more hard-core about this than my mom.)

Anyway, one of the things I like best about Mass, and one of the things I miss most, is listening. Not necessarily to the homilies, which can be hit or miss depending on the orator. But I miss listening to the readings and the music. Between the Old Testament readings and the Epistles, many times, something new will strike my ears. Of course, there’s nothing new about the readings themselves; but with the passage of time, I gain new experiences that bring a different perspective. So maybe it’s more apropos to state that I bring a new set of ears.

Case in point, several years ago, I especially noticed one of the songs used during a Mass I attended. The song was “How Can I Keep From Singing.” Now, this song dates back to the 1860s, credited to a Baptist minister named Robert Wadsworth Lowry. And I also discovered that Enya covered this song in the 1990s. So there’s a pretty good chance that I had heard this song before I took special notice of it.

The new set of ears I brought to this song relates to being married to a man who likes to sing. Tim comes up with a song for everything. This usually works out well for the both of us, since I like to listen. But from hearing the very first verse — “My life flows on in endless song” — I thought, that’s Tim!

It’s really a lovely song, too. Here’s another sampling of the lyrics:

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing
It finds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

From a certain point of view, I can say I have Mass to thank for introducing me to a beautiful, hopeful, song, that always makes me think of my husband. I can live with that.

If you’re curious, here’s an appealing rendition from Audrey Assad: