It’s an avalanche of anniversaries during last week and this: my writing mentor’s eighty-ninth birthday on the nineteenth, my wedding date on the twentieth, and the commemoration of the third year since my wife died, today.
I thought the best way to handle it all was to seek sanctuary.
So I drove first to New Haven, CT, for Sunday morning services at the Ukrainian church pictured above—a warm return to my religious heritage.
Then a twenty-mile hop to Stamford, to visit my old English Lit professor, Monsignor Leon Mosko, who is now legally blind and housebound in an apartment in the same building where he spent his life teaching.
He reads some three hundred books a year. Well, not reads, but listens—to audio versions. And he still loves to talk about books . . . and writing.
During my visit last Sunday, he wanted to describe a book he had just completed, a compilation of novelists discussing the commercial aspects of their work. But he couldn’t quite remember the title.
There was a long pause, then he held up a finger and said, “Wait” while he furrowed his brow in trying to remember.
Another pause, this one long enough to be embarrassing.
“I’ll get the title from the packing case,” I offered.
Without missing a beat, he shot back, “That would be cheating.”
The un-remembered book was Scratch.
As he does at the end of each of my visits, he asked if I could recommend some books I’d read recently and liked. Here’s the list I gave him:
- The Ninth Hour Alice McDermott
- Death Comes to Pemberly P. D. James
- The Seven Storey Mountain Thomas Merton
- Washington Square Henry James
- Forest Dark Nicole Krauss
- Patron Saint of Liars Ann Patchett
- Mars Room Rachel Kushner
- The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath
- Bury Your Dead Louise Penny
- Still Life Louise Penny
For the remainder of last week, I gave myself a time-out to assess my widowhood.
The death of a loved one is grief enough. But when the departed is your life partner of a half-century, as was my wife, you yourself become fundamentally different.
Sometimes you find that your habits have changed in ways that make you chuckle. For example:
- I now need to apply greater self-discipline, because she is not here to keep me from downing the entire pizza
- When I turn over at night, I don’t have to stay on my side of the bed like a chicken on a spit or worry about ruffling the sheets and blankets and disturbing her sleep
- If I publish a new book or poem, she’s not there to pat me on the back, so I have to go on Facebook and pimp myself for “Likes”
As Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote in Love and Living, we are each called to create a better world. But we are first called to a more meaningful and exalted task—creating our own lives.
So on Monday I drove north to the unfrequented hills of western Massachusetts to try to discern the answers to three questions:
- What future can I create in the time left to me?
- What steps must I take to create that future?
- How can I stay focused and motivated?
Saint Joseph’s Trappist Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.
I chose to make my retreat at the Trappist monastery not for its quiet, but for its silence. Quiet may benefit our neighbor, but silence benefits our soul. In silence and solitude we can unmask illusion, recognize reality, and occupy ourselves with something larger and truer than our egos.
The Trappists of Spencer, live a dichotomy—solitude in community. They have followed a daily routine of prayer and work in an atmosphere of near-absolute, round-the-clock silence since their founders resettled from France by way of Nova Scotia two hundred years ago.
They begin each day in darkness, rising at three in the morning to pray and listen. They start the day so ridiculously early because theirs is a rhythm different from that of the world.
If they listen well, they say, the silence speaks to their hearts—as it did to mine.
Evil exists only if you let it. If you enjoyed reading this, you will like my new novel, Billy of the Tulips, a sensitive boy’s grim engagement with innocence and iniquity, now available in both print and Kindle from Amazon.