Saturday, January 31, 2015

Happy 100th birthday, Thomas Merton

I think I've written about him on this blog before, but several years back.

Today, the last day of January, Thomas Merton was born in 1915. 
His life's journey, particularly the first 30 years, was a search for himself, and for the meaning of his life.   Since I've been teaching Siddhartha, and will be teaching other texts this semester related to the search for meaning, I find celebrating this man's birthday very meaningful... not to overuse the word, or anything...

Thomas Merton  1915-1968

Looking at my own life, I observe that I have had three fathers: a physical one, a spiritual one, and an intellectual one, though the three frequently overlap. All three were born within a year of each other: Vince Higgins in 1914, Tom Merton in 1915, and Ralph Harper in 1915.

Ralph Harper   1915-1996

I have thought of Merton as my spiritual father. Especially his autobiography of his early years,
The Seven Storey Mountain, and his journal of his early years in the Trappist monastery, The Sign of Jonas, pulled me into some very deep reflection and prayer.

                                                Vincent Higgins   1914-2007

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Animals in Winter

This picture is cropped from a Christmas card I received one year:

Snowing now... very fine snow, but lots of it.  We won't get what the New Englanders will get, though.

The birds are frantic at the feeders.  I even had a fluffed up Red-Tail Hawk perched on one of the lower branches of the tree outside my window for a long time today. He wasn't interested in the little birds, and they paid him no mind. He had his eye out for squirrels!

This weather makes me think of a poem that has haunted me for years.  It's been one of my fantasies: hosting all the animals during a snowstorm.  The final part, the return of the parents, is enigmatic, puzzling, and in some ways downright creepy, but I still love the poem.  It's by the poet George Dennison.  It was originally in Harper's Magazine in about 1986.  I had copied it by hand in my journal from that year:

The Animals in Winter      by George Dennison


The children called at dusk from the porch.

 They stood facing the fields and woods

 and called to the dogs

 who came home after dark, the great Golden first,

 striking the window with his paws:

 "Children! I am here! Let me in!"

 ----but with him

 came a vixen, red and deep furred,

 and several foxes more, both red and gray,

 and a family of partridge

 advancing one step, and then one step,

 and a porcupine, head down,

 full of purpose and embarrassment;

 and raccoons, with their humping, probing gait;

 a stately skunk, a rabbit

 ---all passed shyly through the hall

 with clatter of claw on the hardwood floor,

 then to the living room

 where they crouched in the lamplight

 on the large blue rug.

 They held their heads erect and blinked their eyes.

 Now the children heard the chuffing

 of the second dog, the black one,

 nose at the crack of the door.

 he snorted, "Children! Is is I! Let me in!"

 and bounded toward them,

 while in his train came three antlered deer,

 a male and female bear, a cow-moose

 lIfting her awesome knees

 past the snowshoes and oots

 and the coats on pegs...

 At last, the slant-eyed one,

 the winsome, fierce Malamute, came home,

 with muskrat and otter, squirrel and mink,

 with fishes and marten,

 and birds of the coming winter:

 chickadees and jays, and like a bolt of silence,

 banking powerfully in the hall,

 the Great Horned Owl.

 The children drank pale tea and stared.

 What a glistening of tooth and eye!

 What a sonorous quiet of breathing!

 Never had the children's sleep

 been buttressed like this by feathers and fur;

 never had the house

 been so anchored against storm,

 so guarded against flame.

 At daybreak the children stood by the door

 and solemnly the animals went out, solemnly they returned at night,

 and so it went, all winter long.

 Snow melted. Ice heaved and gouged.

 There was a sound of water pouring,

 water bubbling over rocks,

 and the parents returned.

 They pushed their matted hair through the wet soil,

 after the crocuses and before the daffodils.

 They turned their heads ---

 and laboriously unfolded their tightly folded eyes,

 then shook themselves and stepped forth -

 and entered the house.

 What joyousness of greeting there was then!

 What eagerly told accounts!

 "We guarded them well," said the dogs.

 "We guarded with our lives."

 "We made tea!" said the children,

 "We built fires! We cleaned the house!"

 "Ah, children, children," said the parents.

 "How we missed you underground! How we yearned

 for the sight of your faces, your small feet!

 Come to us, darlings! Come!" they said,

 and opened wide their arms.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Waiting for Snow

The forecasters are hedging over a "complex storm" that should arrive tonight and continue on through tomorrow.  The folks in New York and New England are going to get the brunt of it - combination of a "clipper" coming from the south and west, and a "noreaster" churning up along the coast.  I'm betting that we get about 4 inches.

In the meantime, I have my schoolwork ready for tomorrow, and am looking forward to the next installment of "Downton Abbey" which comes on at nine.

I came across this interesting list compiled by NPR of readers' recommendations of the best "beach books" of all time. 

It's nice to think of the beach on a night like this.

Anyway, here they are:

I put an  *   next to the ones I've read.

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler*
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain*
Affinity by Sarah Waters*
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy*
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
The Beach by Alex Garland
The Beach House by Mary Alice Monroe
Beach Music by Pat Conroy
Beginner's Greek by James Collins
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett *
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler*
Big Sur by Jack Kerouac
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
The Brothers Karamazov by Feodor Dostyevsky*
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller*
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger*
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut*
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier*
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns*
Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole*
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosely
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler*
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells*
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
Dracula by Bram Stoker*
The Drifters by James Michener
Drop City by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Dune by Frank Herbert*
East of Eden by John Steinbeck*
Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card*
The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins*
Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett*
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand*
Frangipani by Celestine Vaite
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg*
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson*
The Godfather by Mario Puzo*
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell*
Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald*
The Great Santini by Pat Conroy
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Barrows*
The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling*
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers*
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad*
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien*
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins*
The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy*
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb*
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury*
Impossible by Nancy Werlin
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice*
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Jaws by Peter Benchley*
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan*
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
Lamb by Christopher Moore
The Last Aloha by Gaellen Quinn
The Last Girls by Lee Smith
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Life of Pi by Yann Martel*
Light Years by James Salter
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel*
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly*
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery*
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott*
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov*
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding*
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien*
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Lush Life by Richard Price
Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian
The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy by Robert Leleux
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Money by Martin Amis
Moonstone by Wilkie Collins*
The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie*
The Neon Rain: A Dave Robicheaux Novel by James Lee Burke
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger*
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith*
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway*
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout*
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Peace, Love and Baby Ducks by Lauren Myracle
Pet Semetary by Stephen King*
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov*
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver*
Possession by A.S. Byatt*
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow*
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen*
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy*
The Princess Bride by William Goldman*
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver*
The Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte
The Quincunx by Charles Palliser
The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier*
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris*
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant*
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
Salty by Mark haskell Smith
The Secret History by Donna Tartt*
The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher*
She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb
The Shining by Stephen King*
Shogun by James Clavell
Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson*
A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
The Stand by Stephen King*
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields*
The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever*
Straight Man by Richard Russo
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Summer of '42 by Herman Raucher
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway*
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith*
Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald*
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield*
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough*
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre*
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee*
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith*
Triple Zeck: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus by Rex Stout
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann*
Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
The Waves by Virginia Woolf
The White Lioness by Henning Mankell*
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The World According to Garp by John Irving
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte*
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

I read some of these so long ago that I barely remember them, and only a few of them at the beach!

Friday, January 23, 2015


Found this lovely word collage on Google Images.

I'm teaching a course this semester called "The Search for Meaning."  It's a Writing Intensive course, and it meets every Tuesday and Thursday from 11-12:15, so there is time for discussion and in-class writing.

The class is currently reading Herman Hesse's classic novel Siddhartha. It's the story of a young man's quest for his true self; in many ways it follows the tradition of the bildungsroman - the story of a young man growing into adulthood. In other ways it follows the hero quest genre from medieval romance. In other ways it resembles the "Vision Quest" of Native Americans. Altogether, it is gripping reading for men and women in their early twenties, which is when I read it. My students seem to be finding it gripping, too.

This time reading it, I notice how beautifully written it is.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Meant to write before Christmas

But so much for my good intentions, again.

Almost a month... what has happened ?

I've had two bouts of the dreaded norovirus, commonly known as the stomach bug.
Since I was very very ill with this last June, I've had several lesser episodes of it.  Seems that once bitten, the immunity to this miserable stuff goes way down.
So it hit me December 9 - 12
That's the last week of classes before exams, when I had many papers to correct.  No time is good, but that was particularly unwelcome.
The bright spot came on Sunday, December 14, I cold but sunny afternoon, when I accompanied Lisa Cantwell, one of my poet friends, while she visited with her horses and rabbits at the farm where she boards them.  Then we repaired to her home in the beautiful Harbaugh Valley, eleven miles away from Emmitsburg.  She and her husband live in what once was a summer cabin, one of those cabins on stilts with a deck and screened in porch, overlooking a meadow and valley. It was warm and decorated for Christmas. Lisa has a small flock of chickens, too, very tame ones, and I got to feed them, and even hold one.  I had no idea that chickens like sunflower seeds!
So, that week was occupied with giving and grading exams, finishing up the grades, and baking cookies and bread.  I loved those last two activities.
The week of Christmas continued the baking, but also the decorating of our tree, listening to my favorite Christmas music downloaded on iTunes -  God save me from what comes on the radio- and admiring the Christmas decorations here at the big house where I live:
our tree
the manger , once my parents', now on the bureau in my bedroom
the crib in the Mary Chapel
the crib in the Basilica
From the heights to the depths....
 I had lovely days writing Christmas cards, working on the courses for the Spring semester, visiting friends, preparing for a trip to West Chester to visit more friends, when, at about 11PM on December 30, I was slammed again by the stomach bug.  This time it was an all-nighter,
as they say, "hugging the toilet."
This cartoon captures some of the spirit of this experience:
So I have spent the last four days ( counting today) either being sick or recovering from being sick.
I was too busy entertaining the bug to notice the passing of 2014.  In the weeks prior, I had many thoughts about time and its passing, but won't write them down now.