Tasting Life Twice

Archive for the category “Book Sense”

Memories of Florence

A new book from Dan Brown was released today.  An NBC news article states,

Inferno, released Tuesday, sticks with the classic recipe: The novel’s opening scenes are set in Florence, an Italian city with a history as convoluted as its street map. Dante’s Divine Comedy provides literary and artistic allusions — and lots of numerological clues for Langdon.

Florence? Convoluted street maps? Really? You don’t say.

I recall a trip to Florence a few years ago, where we attempted to navigate the labyrinthine streets.

“I think the hotel is this way.”

“Are you sure? I thought it was that way.”

“We just came from that way.”

“No, we can from that direction. I remember.”

“Oh look guys, there’s the Duomo.  Again.”

“Oh. Ok.  Well maybe it’s that way, then.”

“My shoes are wet. I need to buy a pair of socks.”

“How about we stop and get some wine?”

“Good idea.”

“Weren’t we just here?”

As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, “not all who wander are lost.”







Farewell to Ray Bradbury

On the occasion of Ray Bradbury’s death last night at the age of 91, here are a few of my favorite quotes from Fahrenheit 451.

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”

“But Clarisse’s favorite subject wasn’t herself. It was everyone else, and me. She was the first person in a good many years I’ve really liked. She was the first person I can remember who looked straight at me as if I counted.” (Montag to his wife about the young girl Clarisse)

“The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”


Playing on the Shores of Profundity


Hilton Head, South Carolina, 2011

For Alexander there was no Far East,
because he thought the Asian continent
ended with India.
Free Cathay at least
did not contribute to his discontent.

But Newton, who had grasped all space, was more serene.
To him it seemed that he’d but played
With a few shells and pebbles on the shore
Of that profundity he had not made.

– Richard Wilbur

Making Others Visible

“We walk past thousands of people we see every week, not necessarily seeing any of them. I was reminded of this recently when a friend of mine told me of something that happened when she took a train from Connecticut to New York. As the conductor – a large and imposing man – approached, she realized she had left her purse at home. When he got to her seat and asked for her ticket, she, with much embarrassment, explained the situation and braced herself for the worst. But the conductor sat down in the seat opposite and said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Then, for the remainder of the journey, they talked. They shared photos of their families, they exchanged jokes, and they spoke of the one who meant most to them. When the conductor finally got up to continue his rounds, my friend began to apologize again, but the conductor stopped her mid-sentence and smiled, ‘Please don’t pay it any thought; you know, it’s just really nice to be seen by someone.’

This might initially seem like a strange thing to say as the conductor was seen by thousands of people every day. But only in instrumental terms, only as the extension of a function he performed. In this brief conversation with my friend, he felt he had actually been seen as a unique individual, and that was a gift to him.

This is what love does. It does not make itself visible, but, like light, makes other visible to us. In a very precise sense, then, love’s presence cannot be described as existing, but rather is that which calls others into existence; for to exist literally means to stand forth from the background, to be brought forth. As we have mentioned, love does not stand forth, and vie for our attention but rather brings other forth. When we love, our beloved is brought out of the vast, undulating sea of others. Just as the Torah speaks of God calling forth beings from the formless ferment of being, so love calls our beloved out from the endless ocean of undifferentiated objects.”

Peter Rollins, Insurrection


The Secret of Gene Norris

In My Reading Life, Pat Conroy pays tribute to his high school English teacher who, in addition to being an important mentor, ended up becoming a very close friend. In their final phone conversation, as Gene Norris was dying with cancer, he said to Pat:

“Tell me a story,”he commanded, and I did.

Those were the last words he ever spoke to me, and they formed an exquisite, unimprovable epitaph for a man whose life was rich in the guidance of children not his own.  He taught them a language that was fragrant with beauty, treacherous with loss, comfortable with madness and despair, and a catchword for love itself.  His students mourned Gene all over the world, wherever they found themselves.  All were ecstatic to be part of the dance.

One student who was part of the dance of Gene Norris’ life was a young lady who showed up at the reception that followed Norris’ funeral. Conroy writes,

“As I walked along a side street, a beautiful young woman called out to me, ‘Mr. Conroy?’

I turned and this pretty woman kissed me and said, “You don’t know me, but we met when I was three years old.  You were the May king and my sister was the May queen.’”

“Ah!  Your sister is the lovely Gloria Burns,” I said.  “But why are you here?  Did you know Mr. Norris?  You’re too young to have been a student of his.”

“My first year at Robert Smalls,” she said, “I was such a mess.  In trouble.  Boys.  Drugs.  That kind of thing.  They sent me to Mr. Norris.”

“He was good, wasn’t he?”

“Mr. Norris told me to come to his office every day at lunch.  We could talk and get to know each other.  I went there for the next two years.  Two years. Yet he didn’t even know me.”

“You got the best of Gene,” I said.

“He saved my life.  He literally saved my life.”

“Come on in,” I said, putting my arm around her.  “I’ll introduce you to a couple of hundred people who’ll tell you the same thing.”

“Mr. Norris acted like I was the most important girl in the world,” she said.

“You were.  That was Gene’s secret.  All of us were.”


A few months ago, I was given a book of poems written by Wistawa Szymborska, a Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996.  Here is one I like, especially the concluding lines: “and whatever I do will become forever what I’ve done”. The poem, “Life-While-You-Wait”, recognizes the improvisational character of our lives.

Life While-You-Wait

Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.

I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine, I can’t exchange it.

I have to guess on the spot
Just what this play’s all about.

Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for hammy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me even more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.

Words and impulses you can’t take back,
Stars you’ll never get counted,
Your character like a raincoat you button on the run –
The pitful results of all this unexpectedness.

If I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
Or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
Since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).

You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
Taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.

The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
Will become forever what I’ve done.


The World Within Earshot of Mother’s Stove

We all have received untold gifts from people who are now dead and the many who are still alive.  In My Reading Life, Pat Conroy pays tribute to Thomas Wolfe and his novel, Look Homeward, Angel.  Wolfe helped Conroy to honor the particularity of one’s time and place. 

“Boys like me – you know the ones – we’re the boys from the families no one knows, from schools that few have heard of, from towns defined by their own anonymity, from regions unpraised and unknown, from histories without stories or records or echoes or honor.  Thomas Wolfe taught me that if looked hard enough at the life I was living, the history of the world would play itself out before me within earshot of my mother’s stove.”

X Marks the Spot

“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges–
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”
   ~ Rudyard Kipling

My uncle is a man of many interests and talents.  One of his interests is collecting memorabilia and one of his talents is finding profit in doing so.  A few months ago, he bought a collector’s set of GI Joe figurines for $700.  These soldiers were still in their original boxes and hadn’t seen much combat duty in the battlefield of little children’s hands.  A few days after purchasing the set, the seller contacted him and asked if he’d be willing to sell two of the fifteen he had just purchased.  She said she knew someone else who was interested, and needed just two pieces in order to complete a set.  As you would expect, my uncle was hesitant to turn around and sell what he had just purchased, saying, “I hate to break up the set but give me the person’s contact information and I’ll consider it.”  He contacted the prospective buyer and the man said he was willing to buy two GI Joe collectibles for $4,200 in order to complete his own set.  My uncle thought that made good business sense and, wisely, he agreed to it.  While awaiting the cashier’s check, he admitted he was a little skeptical about the offer.  But the check arrived.  The following day, a FedEx envelope came to the house with an unlikely return address:  One Steinbrenner Drive, Tampa, Florida.  It turns out, the prospective buyer was Hal Steinbrenner, one of the co-owners of the New York Yankees.  After the transaction was completed, my uncle received a picture from Steinbrenner with the G.I. Joe figurines proudly displayed in his training camp office.

That’s a great story.  My uncle has better business acumen and decency as I probably would have held out for more.  I would have required field level World Series tickets or tried to get Steinbrenner in a bidding war with the owner of the Boston Red Sox.“Yes sir, I will consider selling them to you but I must tell you, I have another prospective buyer interested in the two toy soldiers.  Some guy named John Henry from Beantown.  He really wants them and he’s offered a lot.  How much are you willing to pay?”

I don’t think we ever outgrow our fascination with stories of hidden treasure and fortuitous discovery.  We love the accounts of adventurous hunts and unexpected finds.  I reflected on that this week while preparing for a sermon I gave yesterday morning.

A few days ago while at the tire shop, I watched a PBS special on the “lost cities of the Amazon”.  It was a television version of the story told in a spellbinding book, The Lost City of Z, about Colonel Percy Fawcett who disappeared deep in the interior of the Amazon while searching for a lost civilization that he was certain existed.  Then, the Sunday paper told of the growing popularity of geocaching, a modern scavenger hunt where people use GPS devices to find objects hidden somewhere nearby.  Later in the day, I read how the Antiques Roadshow just had their highest appraised find ever, a collection of Chinese cups in Tulsa, Oklahoma that are valued at over $1 million.  Still later in the day, I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams which tells of the Chauvet Cave in southern France and the oldest collection of paintings known to exist.  Back in 1994, three guys were looking for cavernous openings when they felt a draft, removed some rocks and repelled deep into the hollow of an unknown cave.  What they discovered upon entering the cave was a Paleolithic art gallery displaying many different primitive animals.  And then there’s Teri Horton.  Who can forget that story?  A seventy-three year old truck driver from Missouri, Teri goes into a thrift store and buys a painting for $5 as a gift to her discouraged friend.  Turns out, that $5 painting might be a Jackson Pollack piece and worth $50 million.  In the 2006 documentary film, Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock, Horton is offered $9 million from a Saudi Arabian art collector but she holds out, wanting the art establishment to validate that the painting she has, is, in fact, a Jackson Pollock piece (it’s the principle of the thing, you see).  And this morning, while on my way to the office, I noticed how many people slowly drive through neighborhoods looking in other people’s trash to find some valuable throwaways. 

Taken together, these are stories of treasure.  Stories of hidden treasure.  Stories of treasures hidden in plain sight.  Jesus used to tell stories describing the presence of God this way – the kingdom of God is not something a long time ago in a land far, far away, but right now, right here; at this time, in this place.  The kingdom is “in your midst”, the kingdom is “at hand”, the kingdom is “within”.  The gifts of God are somewhere on your property, in the grass underneath your feet and in the spice rack of your kitchen cabinet, in the particularities of your own personal history (the good, the bad, the ugly), in all that makes you, “you”.  Like clues in the game of letter-boxing, like an easter egg hunt in tall grass, like a child’s game of hide-and-seek, “grace is everywhere”, (George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest). 

Barbara Brown Taylor makes note of this when she writes in An Altar in the World:

“People seem willing to look all over the place for this treasure. They will spend hours launching prayers into the heavens. They will travel halfway around the world to visit a monastery in India or to take part in a mission trip to Belize. The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives. What possible spiritual significance could a trip to the grocery store have? How something as common as a toothache be a door to a greater life?

….the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”

The Loving Eye

While prepping for my trip to Ireland last summer, I came across a book by the late John O’ Donahue. Entitled Anam Cara: a Book of Celtic Wisdom, the book considers the nature of friendship (anam cara translates as “soul friend”) and some of the gifts bequeathed to us by the Celtic tradition. The author describes what I would call the WYSIWYG way of wisdom: what you see is what you get. With echoes of Jesus (“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light”) and St. Augustine “(“our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eye by which God may be seen”), O’ Donahue describes how our pattern of seeing the world around us shapes how we relate to the world around us. Think of it as an eye examination of the spiritual life, where our eyesight is tested against the 20/20 line of the great wisdom tradition and corrective lenses are offered to help us see more clearly whom we should be and the way we should go.

To the fearful eye, all is threatening.
To the greedy eye, everything can be possessed.
To the judgmental eye, everything is closed in definitive frames.
To the resentful eye, everything is begrudged.
To the indifferent eye, nothing calls or awakens.
To the inferior eye, everything else is greater.
To the loving eye, everything is real.

Literature as the Master of a Thousand Disguises

image Recently a friend gave me an excellent read by Pat Conroy, My Reading Life.  The book is a celebration of literature, language and the magic of storytelling.  Conroy talks about the significance of some important books in his life, including Gone With the Wind, Look Homeward, Angel and War and Peace.  He pays tribute to some influential people in his life, mentioning his mother,Frances, a mentor named Gene Norris and a bookstore owner named Cliff Graubart. 

Conroy tells of being a student at The Citadel and taking an English class with Colonel Harrison.  He writes of the day when Colonel Harrison read Walt Whitman’s poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”  This early excerpt describes the power of the spoken word and of fiction to transform a life.  It reminds me of something Yann Martel once said: “the great thing about books is that they give you more lives.”

Here’s the selection:

“With the softest of voices, he read to his class the poet’s moving elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln.  Halfway through his recitation, he confessed to us that he always wept whenever he read that particular poem.  He apologized to the class for his lack of professionalism.  He wiped his glass and, with tears streaming down his face, he dismissed the class and headed toward his office.  The grandson of a Confederate office had been moved to tears by a poem commemorating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  For me that day will last forever.  I had no idea that poetry could bring a grown man to his knees until Colonel Harrison proved it.  It ratified a theory of mine that great writing could sneak up on you, master of a thousand disguises: prodigal kinsman, messenger boy, class clown, commander of artillery, altar boy, lace maker, exiled king, peacemaker, or moon goddess.  I had witnessed with my own eyes that a poem made a colonel cry.  Though it was not part of a lesson plan, it imparted a truth that left me spellbound.  Great words, arranged with cunning and artistry, could change the perceived world for some readers.  From the beginning I’ve searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul-killing doubts.  I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate.  I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own trouble passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die.”

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