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

In Fountain Court

Dawn on June 2, 2020. “The flickering green of leaves that keep / The light of June”

Last week, I mentioned that I would post about the poet William Blake. And here I am, following up!

I have to confess, I can’t hear William Blake’s name mentioned without thinking of one of my favorite scenes from Bull Durham. Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) shows up at the home of Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), dressed like she might be ready to attend a cotillion in some hot-weather place, and he calls her out on it. To which she replies, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. William Blake.” And then they just start shouting the name William Blake at each other, and there’s so much more going on between them than just a discussion of a 19th century English poet and artist.

My love of this scene didn’t seem to fit with the sober tone of my last post. But anyway, here are some things I learned after looking into the “fearful symmetry” from Blake’s poem “The Tyger:”

  • According to Wikipedia, William Blake spent his last days at Fountain Court in London.
  • Unless I read something wrong, Fountain Court is part of the Temple area of London. I have a vivid depiction of the Temple in my head from reading Dickens’s Great Expectations last year.
  • The poet Arthur Symons, who wrote the poem “In Fountain Court,” shared a flat in Fountain Court with W.B. Yeats.(!)

There’s a reason the mention of Blake living at Fountain Court had me dig a little deeper. It’s because I immediately recognized the title of Arthur Symons’s poem, since it’s one of my favorites. And I always think of it when June rolls around, because it just so happens to feature the month of June. (I wrote about all this 3 years ago: June in New Orleans.)

I guess all of this has given me a better idea of the setting of “In Fountain Court.” And maybe evened deepened my impression of the anticipation and hope that wend their way through the lines of the poem. In the last line — “Soon, love, come soon” — I choose to believe that real change, a true transformation, just might be possible.

 

Great Expectations: 100%

The collapsed Hard Rock hotel in New Orleans, January 11, 2020.

So, I finished Great Expectations at the very end of 2019. And I’m overdue in offering my appraisal of this book. So here goes:

Great Expectations has earned a pretty high spot amongst the ranks of my favorites, especially within the “classics.” Most likely because of Pip. He is such an identifiable character — everything from his fear when he first encounters Abel Magwitch as a child, to his shame and repulsion when he encounters him as a young adult, to his desire to become a gentleman all for the love of the unattainable Estella.

I figure Dickens was in his late forties when he wrote it, and I’m glad I first read it as a middle-ager. If I had read it as a younger woman, I’m sure I would have still identified with Pip, but I imagine I might have been sorely disappointed (spoiler alert) that Pip doesn’t wind up with Estella. Reading it when I did gave me more opportunity to identify with the storyteller, and the choices he made.

Because, let me tell ya, Dickens is no slouch when it comes to writing. I remember when I was reading Count of Monte Cristo, it gave me a yen to see the south of France. I didn’t get the same feeling with Great Expectations — because I felt like I was there, in the marshes of Kent, and then later in London. Dickens depicted those settings in such a way that I’ll never be able to see in real life, because time and place were so intricately linked in his descriptions. Unless time travel becomes feasible in my lifetime, I’ll never be able to see the Kent and London of the mid-19th century.

I’ll finish this up by tying in my choice to use the Hard Rock hotel as the image for this post. I saw it close-up for the first time this past weekend. There’s the obvious connection of great expectations dashed (and by no means am I trivializing the lives lost in this horrible accident, God rest their souls). But seeing it for the first time in real life, it reminded me of a Dali painting, especially the melty clocks in “The Persistence of Memory.” And with Great Expectations so fresh in my memory, it wasn’t too far a stretch to think of the stopped clocks in Miss Havisham’s house, and the ruined and rotted wedding cake in her dining room. Young Pip summed it up best, as he described Miss Havisham’s house:

“What could I become with these surroundings? How could my character fail to be influenced by them? Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed, as my eyes were, when I came out into the natural light from the misty yellow rooms?”

That’s it for now.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Having been ensconced with Dickens for the past month or so, I’ve had a renewed yen to see the 2017 film The Man Who Invented Christmas. I wanted to see it when it released two years ago, but never did. As luck would have it, there were a bunch of limited-time, free movie channels available on my TV this past weekend. It was playing on one of them, and, while I didn’t catch it cover-to-cover, I saw about two-thirds of it (including the ending).

The Man Who Invented Christmas stars British actor Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens, fairly early in his writing career. He races against time, and his own personal demons, to write and publish A Christmas Carol in time for the Christmas holiday in 1843.

I found the movie charming and clever. Here are the probable reasons why:

  • Dan Stevens’ portrayal of Charles Dickens reminded me an awful lot of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. The manic energy, the hair, the frightening turn when you disturb him. Since I’ve loved Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka for pretty much my whole life, it was hard for me to not be charmed by the similarity I saw in Dan Stevens.
  • As Dickens creates the characters, they appear “in real life.” In his study, and about London as they follow him as he goes wandering in search of inspiration. He bickers with them, and they bicker with each other. Christopher Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge was especially fun.
  • The struggle Dickens has with how to end the story felt very relatable. He wants Scrooge to remain irredeemable. It isn’t until he comes to some reconciliation in his personal life that he’s able to write the ending we all know. I have to think the story would not have achieved the popularity it did, if it ended with the visions of the ghost of Christmas future realized.

Who doesn’t love a redemption story? God bless us, everyone.

Great Expectations: Thanksgiving Edition

So, I’m 53% of the way through Great Expectations. And since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I figured I’d focus on what I’m grateful for, regarding my reading of this work.

I’ve realized this year, 2019, has turned out to be my introduction to several 19th century classics. All published within a 20-year span during the mid-1800s. The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1844, Moby Dick in 1851, and Great Expectations just ten years later, in 1861. Monte Cristo and Moby Dick are both relatively fresh in my mind, so I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between the three in my “gratitude” list:

  • I’m enjoying Great Expectations more than the other two. It’s definitely funnier. Granted, I don’t think Dumas or Melville were going for comedy, but their stories could have withstood being a touch less self-serious.
  • Pip is certainly the most relatable character in the three novels. Written in the first person, it begins when Pip is just a child. So many of Pip’s experiences, as Dickens relates them, ring true and timeless. Check out this quote: “In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.”
  • Speaking of injustice and timelessness, my ire hasn’t been raised as much with Great Expectations, as with the other two. There’s no getting around Melville’s racism, especially in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Or Dumas’s misogyny — in my numerous posts about Monte Cristo, I went on at length about how much I hated how Mercedes’s character and story line were handled. While Dickens is hardly a model of modern sensibilities — I’ve already read at least one dreadful depiction of a Jewish person — if I were to weigh the three works, I feel like Great Expectations has less to offend.
  • On a lighter note, I might be most grateful for the Serial Reader app. It’s reawakened my reading habit in more ways than one. I’ve found that I like reading on my phone so much, that I downloaded the Kindle app. I’m about halfway through Hugh Howey’s Wool series, all read on my phone. (Wool has been on my TBR list for years.)

I could go on, but I won’t. For everyone celebrating the holiday, have a happy Thanksgiving!

Great Expectations: 4%

“As soon as the great black velvet pall outside my little window was shot with gray, I got up and went downstairs” — Great Expectations, Chapter 2

So, not much has slowed down since I last posted here. I’m still struggling to find the time to put the finishing touches on The Conclusion on the Causeway, and my hopes of having it ready for public consumption before the holidays are dwindling.

But — I’ve started a new book on my Serial Reader app. I found I was missing the 15 to 20 minutes I put aside each day for the specific sort of reading Serial Reader enables. That little chunk of time is like an anchor, connecting me to my writing vocation, and helping me not drift too far on the currents of my day job and other obligations.

Up ’til now, the authors I’ve read via Serial Reader (Herman Melville, Alexandre Dumas, et al), were completely new to me. I’d never read any of their works before. I can’t say the same for Dickens. I remember enjoying A Tale of Two Cities when I read it in high school, and I remember really liking Sydney Carton.

I was considering David Copperfield, because it’s supposed to be a semi-autobiographical account of “a young man’s journey to becoming a successful novelist.” (I’m hoping to pick up a few tips.) But Great Expectations is about half the length of David Copperfield in Serial Reader issues. So I can reasonably expect to finish Great Expectations by the end of this year.

My way of managing my own “great expectations” into at least one goal I’ll be able to reach by year’s end.