More interesting to me than the little book of Latin abbreviations was the story of Father Robert’s life, both because his early years were so similar to those of my character Brother Alphaios, but more-so for its trajectory, much of which was quite remarkable in mid-twentieth century America. In short, he was born in 1932. Entered a Trappist, cloistered monastery when he was seventeen. Professed as a monk some five years later and then as priest. Choirmaster for his brothers. Left the cloister after some eighteen years. Fell in love with the principal clarinetist of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Resigned his collar and was dispensed from his vows by Pope Paul VI. Wedded the woman he loved and fathered a child. Became an instructor of calligraphy at Reed College. Was widowed only eighteen years into marriage. Petitioned the Church to return to the cloth. Was given papal dispensation, and once more became a seminarian and once more a priest. When retired, continued to serve numerous parishes when their clerics were ill or away. Passed away in February of 2016 at the age of eighty-three.
I would have liked to spend more afternoons with him, learned much more about his nature,… Continue reading
The subject of a recent radio segment on NPR’s Morning Edition was an ongoing exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s titled “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible”, and features some two hundred pieces of artwork which were never completed: paintings, sculptures, bronzes, reliefs.
The subject struck me perhaps because, I too, have hanging in my office an unfinished and unframed painting. It is of San Xavier del Bac, the historic Spanish mission just south of Tucson, Arizona. The piece was abandoned, I suppose, when the artist became ill or died or just lost interest and moved on to other projects. It’s neither signed nor dated. I acquired it at a local estate sale, and didn’t pay much for it at all.
The strength of the artist’s colors draw me in: the rich, deep and variant blues of an active, stirring sky; the intense red ochre of the central façade; Burnt umber for the stone wall that surrounds the structure; the two white towers in the pink light and purple shade of a late Southwest evening. The west tower (the domed one) is more finished than the other, upon which the… Continue reading
One of the reasons I’m convinced of its sublimity is that I’m really not keen on poetry, and in fact don’t care for anything else Eliot ever wrote.
But this particular poem encompasses, encapsulates, the entirety of human existence, in a way no other type of writing could. A novel would make all the subtext into text, and rob it of its nuance; a play would make it mundane and common by forcing the words to be spoken by mere mortals; setting it to music would limit and trivialize it. It has a solemn, tragic beauty that would be diminished in any other form.
The poem isn’t flawless (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws …” is a tad goofy), but the missteps add to the poem’s overall perfection, the way a slightly “off” feature on a beautiful face makes it even more beautiful.
This is my favorite stanza:
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail… Continue reading
“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.”
So says Hanta on the first page of Too Loud a Solitude, a novella by Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997).
What more could any writer wish than to have such a reader?
And, too, the words are so vivid as to create the very physical sensations of which he speaks.
I considered posting the sentence with only a simple “wow,” but found myself wanting to know more about these words and their context.
I was in for a surprise.
This happy sentence, chock full of the delights of discovery (and the savoring of it) stands out in the novella as brilliantly as a diamond—not so much for the quality of its construction or insight (for that is superb throughout), but in its brightness of mood. Too Loud A Solitude is full of oppression and darkness and even the putrid. And… Continue reading
Five full drafts from conception and one major reorganization later, BOOK OF HOURS: Peter’s Parchment is off to the editor. There is no doubt he will provide a full, insightful and constructive critique with his well-pared quill. “He” is Peter Gelfan, Associate Editor at The Editorial Department.
It is a sequel. In BOOK OF HOURS: Peter’s Parchment, Brother Alphaios and archivist Inaki Arriaga discover an ancient parchment, which,if made public, could rock the very foundations of the Church. Or, if allowed to remain in the hands of its unscrupulous billionaire owner, it could provide him immense leverage against the Church for his own illicit purposes. Either outcome would render their magnificent Book of Hours—to be a gift for the Pope himself—into nothing but a hollow, bitter vessel for a religious scandal of millennial proportions.
How does one preserve history against such odds? How does one enlighten it?
Meanwhile, the same self-serving mogul has his sights set on acquiring for himself the real estate upon which the humble Monastery of St. Ambrose sits, for it occupies one of the most valuable pieces of land in the entire city. How do a handful of monks, who seek only salvation in… Continue reading
“Information is light,” announces the bronze plaque set into the sidewalk at my feet. Then it continues: “Information in itself, about anything, is light.” The source is cited down in the corner: Tom Stoppard, from Night and Day, 1978.
Another plaque states: “I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” – Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday, 1946.
The plaques are part of the Library Walk, and set into the East 41st Street approach to the New York Public Library. Looking mostly upward in the vertical city, I nearly missed them. Along with a number of others, they have given me both introspective and instructional pause.
Both of these statements were prescient counsel for our culture, our country. Nonetheless, we seem to have slid into a period of willful, noisy ignorance, of petulant dismissal both of “facts” —information and conclusions which we have long mutually accepted as reliable—and the orderly ways in which we determine them. Science, through no fault of its own or its practitioners, has among many of our fellow travelers become suspect. Knowledge itself, whether scholarly or just widely experiential,… Continue reading
Some time ago, my best friend Liz (now my wife) and I were discussing the burdens of responsibility at work and home, the rush of our lives, the clamor of family. Each of us spoke of a need to be alone from time to time and the quiet pleasure it can bring.
Time alone allows our minds to rest, our emotions and physical bodies to settle, to breathe. For her, to peruse recipes, imagine fine meals and cook them at her leisure—and emerge relaxed and recharged. For me, to let my mind drift and mull.
Peace and relaxed introspection was our common wish.
We could not find a word or phrase that captured the sense of it. “Alone” or “being alone” weren’t sufficient, for they did not carry a sense of contentment or pleasure. And the words “lonely” and “loneliness” convey negative values such as sadness, depression and even anguish—the opposite of what we wanted to express.
Accustomed to playing the occasional word game, we found ourselves working backward from “loneliness”—the antonym, we decided—until it came to us: Drop the first letter and create an entirely new word: oneliness. … Continue reading
On April 18, 2014, The Editorial Department published a guest blog I prepared entitled “What Do I Know?” It gives my take on the old stumbling-block of an adage, “write what you know….” Yes, I have a grasp of several subjects, but what I know best is how I perceive the world around me, emotionally, intellectually, viscerally and visually. And that opens up a world of possibilities. Check it out:
(The Editorial Department’s Peter Gelfan was the editor of BOOK OF HOURS: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios.)
On April 21, 2014, Lucky Bat Books, my publisher, posted my guest blog “Mr. Kissinger and Me.” It tells a story I heard years ago about the famous Henry Kissinger, the former U. S. National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. No, I didn’t remotely know him, but it posits a very high standard for one’s work—one which I think authors should keep in mind. Here’s the link:
J. S. Anderson
Photo by J. S. Anderson. Chiaroscuro at Park Headquarters, Saguara National Park West, Tucson, AZ
It seems an apt statement for creative writing as well, no matter the form.
I wrote “Blue Notes” several years ago while living in Tucson, but was never really sure I’d finished it. It seemed to leave its subject unresolved, a town (and its people) in slow and silent decline into the dust from which it rose. I’ve felt the poem was missing either the spark of optimism or the mercy of certainty.
Yet sometimes the blues are not just a beat. Sometimes they just don’t end.
I’ve come across another observation about art which I hope applies to this poem. It’s from Paul Gardener (Strength to Love, 1963): “A painting is never finished. It simply stops in interesting places.”
The colors of this town, once vibrant and proud,
Have blanched toward white, tan and brown.
House paint and trim and storefront signs,
Once bright of hue are faded and rimed.
Even the tags of graffiti, once… Continue reading
Its synonyms include “spontaneous,” “extemporaneous,” “impromptu,” and “off-hand”. Have you come across another word whose sound seems so contrary to its meaning?
“On Saturday, we made an autoschediastic trip to the beach.”
“Don’t take offense, John. I’m sure it was just an autoschediastic remark.”
“I don’t have a prepared speech for you today. I’ll be making just a few autoschediastic remarks.”
Is there any other word whose structure and sound are so unlike its meaning?
Agony and antagony: The noun form of this word is agony, yet its direct antonym is antagonism. Seems to me the more symmetrical construction “antagony” should at least be an option. It’s more direct and more poignant. In this form, it is clear emotion. In the other, it’s once removed, a thing. Whatever happened to “antagony?”
And what about “minify”?
Several dictionaries define the word “magnify” as “to make greater in actual size.” For a word meaning the opposite, “to… Continue reading