Friday, August 30, 2013

Everyone is young, once

I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook, most likely because I have to manage a corporate Facebook page as part of my job (along with other social media). I do like seeing what friends are up to, and I “like” several pages related to writing and poetry and check those on a regular basis.

Everyone has a “reconnect” Facebook story. Last year I had a surprise friend request from my best friend in junior high – someone I hadn’t seen since high school. We actually were able to talk on the telephone, and it was great fun to remember life at 12 and 13 years old (and he remembered things I had long ago forgotten about, like riding the bus into downtown New Orleans for a movie, and where we went biking).

This past week, a friend request arrived, and I looked at the name and said “It couldn’t be.” But it was. The guy who was a copy boy at the Beaumont, Texas, Enterprise in 1973 had sent the request.

Something like this happens, and you move back 40 years in time. It was the summer of 1973, and my first job out of college. I was all of 21, engaged to be married, and working as a brand new copy editor. The copy boy, John Sniffen by name, took photographs; I believe he was taking a photojournalism course at the local university.

And there we are, again, a group of editors, mostly young, working on the publication of three editions of a newspaper in a small town in Texas. I remember the names of my colleagues. This photo would most likely have been taken in June because of where I’m sitting – the spot designated for whomever was the new kid on the block. Because staff turnover tended to be high, with three months I would occasionally sit in the position at the far left – assistant slot man. Three months was all it took to go from newbie to No. 2 on the copy desk.

It was an exciting time to be in journalism – the Watergate scandal was unfolding; Vice President Agnew would resign that fall; and the Yom Kippur War broke out in October, ushering in the first oil embargo the United States had experienced. The world changed forever in those few months.

After we were married that August, my wife also worked here as a copy editor.

Another interesting (for me) part of this is that we reconnected because we have a mutual friend. John is a member of the same church as Marcus Goodyear, editor of The High Calling.

A Facebook friend request, a photograph – and suddenly you’re reminded that you were young, once.

Everyone is young, once.

Photograph by John Sniffen, summer 1973, Beaumont, Texas, Enterprise copy desk.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

When Writing a Poem Could Get You Arrested

(This post was originally published at The Master’s Artist, which still exists online but is no longer publishing new material. From time to time I’ll be reposting some of my articles here.)

In free nations, we usually take our freedoms for granted. We don’t think about getting government approval to rent an apartment, buy a car or move to another city. We would likely be outraged if someone told us we had to do that.

What if writing a poem could get you arrested? Would you still write? Would you share your poems with friends? Would you take huge personal risks to keep writing your words?

Elena Shvarts (1948-2010) began writing at 13, during the so-called but short-lived “Khrushchev Thaw” in the Soviet Union, the same short period in the early 1960s when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in the Russian literary magazine Novy Mir. It’s hard to imagine the impact on Russian literary imaginations when an account of the Stalinist prison camps was published in an approved Soviet publication. For a short period, it must have seemed something was breaking free.

It didn’t last.

And, so, celebrate the meager light,
Curse not the twilight.
If Christ is to visit us
It will be on such pitiful days as these.
--from “A Gray Day” by Elena Shvarts, translated by Stephanie Sandler

Shvarts continued writing poetry, but none of it was published for the next 27 years, until the Soviet Union itself collapsed. She was 40.

Yet her poetry had found an audience – the samizdat audience, the people who secretly shared writing of all kinds – poetry, fiction, non-fiction – that could not be published in the Soviet Union. Possession of samizdat documents meant arrest. Documents with your name on them meant arrest if they were discovered.

I love fire so
That I kiss it,
Reach out towards it
Wash my face in it,
Since the gentle spirits
Inhabit it, like a bud,
And a band of magic
Thinly rings it.
--from “Candle at a Wake” by Elena Shvarts, translated by Sasha Dugdale

Shvarts published 16 books of poetry and prose, plus a four-volume collected works during her lifetime. That 13-year-old girl became a major figure in the Leningrad underground and widely known and translated after the fall of the Soviet Union.

She wrote about many things in her poetry; her obituary in the Independent said she explored themes of “marginality, poverty and authenticity,” while the one in the Guardian said, “In Shvarts's poetry, the world about her is transformed into a unique and mystical landscape, half real, half Bruegelesque fantasy.” But so many of her readers – the ones who read her in samizdat and the ones who read her published works – knew her as a poet who also wrote about doubt, faith and God.

We are birds in migration from this world to that.
(That sounds coarse, like the German Tod.)
And when our hour is announced‚
When our season nears its end‚
A true compass awakens inside us
And shows the world’s fifth point.
Invisible wings flutter nervously
And the inner gaze slowly turns
In bitter longing‚ as if prophetic‚
Toward the garden it knows: it
Sees miracles‚ and longing
Lengthens‚ doubled‚ as
The caravans fly off.
--“We are birds in migration” by Elena Shvarts, translated by Stephanie Sandler

Born in what was then called Leningrad under Soviet rule, Shvarts died in her beloved St. Petersburg in March, 2010. She was a poet who had written poetry when it was a potential crime against the state, and written it in spite of the state. She lived long enough to see her poetry published freely in her own country and published openly in other countries.

Some works by Elena Shvarts

Photograph by Vera Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Returning home

Once I had to return home
but the door was locked,
the house for sale and a stranger
had to be called to open the door
with a new key. The cypress tree
by the driveway had been cut
down when I was a child; the one
in the front yard survived
the subdivision until its branches
tangled the power lines during
a hurricane. But the impression
in the yard is still there, though,
right where the stump was,
suggesting an eventual subsidence
into original swamp.

Photograph by Yagan Z Dongobar via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Poets and Poems: Seamus Heaney

I’ve been reading Seamus Heaney’s Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 (1999), and simultaneously reading Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (2010). This wasn’t actually planned, but both books had been sitting on my shelf and it seemed to make sense to read them together.

What is particularly helpful is that O’Driscoll has arranged the interviews to cover some introductory subjects and then each one of Heaney’s collections, and Heaney’s volume pulls selected poems from the volumes through 1996. So I can read the poems and then read the interview covering the volume the poem’s appeared in.

The interviews occurred over a period of years. Most were done by letter and email. Two were actually broadcast programs taped and later transcribed. All of them describe what influenced Heaney, how he put the collections together, and what all of this work came to mean over time.

To continue reading, please see my post today at TweetspeakPoetry.

Monday, August 26, 2013

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I really did have to write essays in elementary school answering that question, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.”

Sometimes, answering the question was easy. “We went to Pensacola, Florida,” or “We went to Gatlinburg, Tennessee” (this was before Gatlinburg was discovered and made over as a tourist mecca).

Those were the times when my parents had the financial resources to take a vacation. When they didn’t, my answer to the question might be “I spent a week with my aunt in the Ninth Ward” or “I spent a week with my grandmother in Shreveport.”

Except for my trips to Shreveport, our vacations were always by automobile. I can remember long trips to Washington, D.C., North Carolina, the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, and Parris Island, South Carolina when my older brother “graduated” from Marine boot camp. I can also remember short trips to Dallas (Six Flags!), Galveston (revisiting the one family vacation my father knew as a child), and Pensacola.

And on those long trips, I can remember asking – many times – for something to drink because I was thirsty. My father’s response was to hand me a cup of “imaginary water.”

Because me and my siblings were rather chronologically spaced out (eight years between me and older brother and ten years between me and my younger brother), there were a lot of vacations as an only child or as the oldest or youngest child by a wide margin. The benefit of that was a lack of sibling rivalry and fighting in the car. What I remember most about those long car rides was spending a lot of time reading or napping.

The memories I have of those vacations are largely good ones. I loved the mountains, and wading in mountain streams, and hiking up a nature trail in the Blue Ridge to suddenly come upon the entire Shenandoah Valley laid out before us. I also remember the massive traffic jams in Houston and Washington, D.C., and the severe sunburn in Florida. But vacations were good times, fun times, things I remember as fun and different, and things I could write about in September for the inevitable essay question.

Vacations have changed. Now they seem to have to be planned with all the strategic and tactical details of a battle plan. Life seems more complicated, or we’ve allowed it to become more complicated, including how we have to keep the kids from getting bored (which, of course, is the major horror of 21st century culture – boredom).

In The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler describes how he talked with the game maker Zynga about what to do to keep children occupied on vacations, particularly for those times when plans might go awry (traffic jams, delayed planes, thunderstorms closing the beach). But tension can happen even when things go well, and Feiler has some good ideas for that as well: “…worry less about eliminating the negatives and focus more on maximizing the positives. One easy way to do that: put away your phone, get down on your kids’ level, and play.”
I like that. Get down on your kids’ level and play.

This month at The High Calling, we’ve been discussing The Secrets of Happy Families. Check the site today to see what Seth Haines has to say about the final chapters in the book, covering vacations, sports, and family reunions.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Scripture was reading me

The Scripture was reading me,
tripping sensibilities flat on their faces,
upending understanding, biases,
cultural expectations, uncovering
discomfort, anger, perplexing
my confirmations all because it
wouldn’t tell me what I wanted,
what I expected to and demanded to want,
confounding my tightly constructions,
my view, my line of sight, casting
a light on the interior shadows,
launching an attack on what previously
been an impregnable fortress, or so
I believed. Seven times the Scripture
read me, until with a shout
the walls collapsed.

Photograph by Alex Grichenko via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Four Shorts, All Good

We can legitimately lament, and perhaps mourn, the transition of the bookstore and the rise of the electronic book. But one of the benefits of e-books, and there is more than one benefit, is the accessibility of short works – short stories, novellas, short novels – that would never have seen the light of day except packaged with similar-length works. I’ve been working now and then on my own novella, which will most likely emerge one day in pixilated form.

Before us are four such short works – two children’s stories, two suspense stories.

Peter Pollock’s A Very Different School is the first of his Professor Alexander stories. The town of Rosefields has constructed a new school. Even if only a small number of students will be attending. The teacher is Professor Alexander, and he has a unique way of teaching – by time machine. In this first story, he takes his students to the very first Easter week, to see Jesus enter Jerusalem on a donkey, the last supper, the betrayal by Judas, the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and the arrest of Jesus, Peter’s denial, the crucifixion and the resurrection. Three of the children in the story just happened to share the same names of Pollock’s own children – and that’s how the story came to be written.

Pat Hatt’s Tune at High Noon is a very different kind of story – a rhyming story about the town of Rumbling Tumblewood and a host of animals who are the townspeople. It’s a sleepy, happy kind of town, until a band of outlaws (played by cats; Hatt has a cat or two that he often writes poems about) arrives and takes over. Things go from bad to worse, until Goosey Air (who runs the saloon) figures out a way to corral the cat gang and their cohorts. It’s great fun, and it’s mean to be read aloud.

I can see myself reading both of these works to my grandchildren, an engaging way to learn about Easter and a fun way to learn about standing up to bullies.
And now two for adults.

Rearview by Mike Dellosso was originally part of a collection of seven stories by various mystery and suspense writers, and then broken out as a separate novella (or long short story). Dan Blakely is a college professor who arrives at school one morning to find himself accused of assaulting one of his female students. He’s told to clear out his office and leave. As he experiences his life turning upside down, he decides to kill himself, but survives a car crash to find his been given a reprieve of seven hours. So what would you do with your last seven hours? We find out what Blakely does, and Dellosso weaves a story that is reminiscent of the old Twilight Zone television programs.

Mirror Image, a short story by Dellosso and Aaron Reed, begins in a library. A man finds a book, and the picture of the author is the man’s doppelganger. He finds himself tracking the author down, learning what his life is like, and then determining to take the author’s life as his own, even if murder is required. This is another story with twists and turns, as we come to occupy the mind of a man determined on a fateful course of action.

Four short works, two for children and two for adults. And all thoroughly enjoyable.

Related – author’s blogs:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

He took a word

He took a word, cutting it
carefully from the dictionary,
making sure the edges were
straight and aligned.
He took the word, holding it
gently in his hand, then buried
it as a seed, and waited until
it took root and sprouted.

The word grew. Empires rose
and fell, disappearing into dust
finer than white sand. A thousand
suns rose, set, and burned
themselves to cinders, as planets
journeyed in preordained orbits
until breaking free from gravity’s
pull, moving into darkness.

Still the word grew.
Still the root endured.

Photograph by Ian L via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Frank Bidart’s “Metaphysical Dog”

Reading Frank Bidart’s new collection of poems Metaphysical Dog, I learned something about how I read poetry. I learned from the absence of something.

In reading a poetry collection, I usually look for one poem, any poem, that will center the entire collection for me. It might be the title poem, though it often isn’t. But one poem becomes, for me, the filter for the rest, a kind of prism of understanding what the poet has done with the poems he or she has included in this particular collection. I admit that this may be a practice peculiar to me.

I didn’t find that one poem in reading Metaphysical Dog, even after reading it three times.

However, I had a fall-back position. I ended up reading the collection of 39 poems as a single poem, each individual part blending into what preceded and what came after. I don’t believe Bidart wrote the poems that way, but that is how I ultimately understood the collection.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, August 19, 2013

What Grandparents Do

There was a time when I would have thought that being a grandfather was for old people. Either my definition of “old people” changed, or I was really stupid. Or both.

Today I have a t-shirt that proudly proclaims “Grandpa since 2010.” Somewhere along the line I became smart.

I love being a grandfather. I love being with my two grandsons. I love playing toy trains with the three-year-old. I love the expressions on the one-year-old’s face when you walk in the door, the expressions that say, “Who are you? Do I know you? What are you doing here?” I love hearing my wife say “I saw the two grandsons today, and the first words out of the three-year-old’s mouth were ‘Where’s Grandpa?’”

I also know that spending time with them will eventually result in a very good night’s sleep, a nap, or both. Grandchildren require energy – a lot of energy.

My mother was almost exactly my age when she watched our three-year-old while we spent two weeks in Europe. And the three-year-old was a bit more intense than his own three-year-old son is today. I don’t know how she managed it. Two solid weeks.

In The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler says that grandparents “are often considered second tier in families, but there’s a striking new body of research that says they’r a primary reason humans were able to live in families.”

Grandparents help raise their grandchildren, he says.

Grandparents reduce stress for parents (especially when they’re not criticizing) and help create more well-adjusted children.

The more involved grandmother sin particular are, the more involved dads are, too.

Grandparents teach social skills like how to cooperate.

While parents lead in disciplining negative behavior, grandparents encourage positive behavior.

And yet I did know. Watching my son and daughter-in-law, I remember my own days as a parent of small children. When you’re a parent, you’re caught up in doing, for yourself and for your children. When you’re a grandparent, it’s all about being.

Feiler cites three things – three jobs – grandparents can become expert at.

Offload siblings: When our one-year-old grandson was born, we packed his older brother off to the zoo, giving Mom and Dad time to get to know the new baby, and his brother the opportunity to know he was still a major presence and wanted.

Be an escape valve: Grandparents can give grandchildren a perspective (and respite) their parents often can’t.

Hover: Hovering parents often lead children, especially older children and teenagers, to rebel. Hovering grandparents, probably because they’re not around 24-7, allow older children to feel cared for and worried over. Older children cut their grandparents some slack that they would never think of giving their parents.

Who knew? I thought it was all plain fun.

Over at The High Calling this month, we’re reading and discussing The Secrets of Happy Families. Since this week’s group of chapters includes the one on “the sex talk,” I suspect you’ll learn a lot from the discussion.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The scrapbook

Seventy years old, the scrapbook
is in surprisingly good condition, filled
with yellowed news clippings, each
carefully cut, trimmed, pasted into place,
clipping from two newspapers, back
in the time when two newspapers
per town was the rule, when the news
was more yellowed than the clippings
would become.

Each clipping, the one from the Journal
and the same story from the Times,
is about fire, a fire, a specific fire, scores
of yellowed clippings about fires, scores
of fires that burned orange red and yellow,
yellow like the clippings they’d become.
The scrapbook and its contents at first
a mystery, a puzzle, until a memory
yellowed in time surfaces, a memory
of the time before I knew him, the time
before I was, the time he was both
a newspaperman and a firefighter,
one calling supplementing the income
of the other.

The yellowed clippings chronicle both,
the fires and the news, and had to be kept
or burned when memory failed.

Photograph by Society of American Archivists, Manuscript Repository Newsletter.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The house is empty

The house is empty
now, waiting for the next,
but it should not be empty
now because it is 18 years
of life and 40 years of memory,
and visits, and laughter,
and grief, and Christmas trees,
and Thanksgiving dinners
with Mogen David wine
and the night the roof leaked
from Hurricane Betsy
and the fraternity party
and the king cake parties
and the breakfast after
the senior prom
and the arguments
and the slammed doors
and the children
and the children’s children
and mincemeat pie
and salmon croquettes
and banana fritters
and barbequed ribs
from the barbeque drum.
The house doesn’t remember
now, the house is empty
now, but the house is never
empty, never will be,
never is now is never and
why do I always remember
the hardwood window sills

Photograph by Kim Newberg via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Peter Ackroyd’s “Foundation”

Rarely have I enjoyed reading a history book as much as I’ve enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England from its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors.

In one sense, it is a traditional history. Covering the period from the earliest traces of people in Mesolithic times (some 15,000 years ago) to the beginning of the Tudor dynasty about 1500, Foundation is structured largely along the lines of rulers and kings, whom, Ackroyd aptly points out, we know more about than commoners, farmers, serfs, and others of the lower classes. And so we learn about Julius Caesar and Claudius, the legend of King Arthur, the Anglo-Saxon kings, the Plantagenets, Yorks and Tudors.

But Foundation is a traditional history with a twist, actually two twists.

First, Ackroyd breaks up his kingly (and queenly) history with short vignettes: the effects of climate; how houses of the people changed; what the roads were like; descriptions of that most English of institutions, the village; the seasons; how non-English writers viewed the English; family life; the seasons; and others. These short chapters are less a sop to contemporary sensibilities (we democrats want the commoners’ story told) than it is an almost welcome relief from what otherwise would have been a pile-on of royal history.

Second, there is Ackroyd’s style. It is lively, fast-paced, and pointed, engaging the reader’s from the beginning and never once letting go. Ackroyd engages with the people he’s writing about, whether a monster like Richard III (or was that just a bad rep courtesy of Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare) or a more saintly rulers, like Edward the Confessor. Without coming outright and saying so, the author seems to favor Henry II over St. Thomas a Becket, who doesn’t come across as the saintly figure he’s believed to be, at least in Ackroyd’s hands.

It can seem a jumble at times, just trying to keep track of all of the lines of Saxons, Vikings and Danes, Normans, Burgundians, Bretons, Welsh, and Scots, not to mention the English themselves and all their tangled lines and descents. But Ackroyd ties it together with essentially two themes. One is that England is not a country so much of law as it is a country of custom. And the other theme, related to the first, is that while much had changed over the course of 15,000 years, some things in English life have not changed at all. It’s a point he repeatedly returns to.

Foundation is a thoroughly enjoyable, highly readable book, filled with large ideas and small stories, artfully combined to present a picture of the country we know as England.

Photograph: Arundel Castle, West Sussex, by Karen Arnold via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


An old shoebox shoved
to the back of the top shelf
of the clothes closet,
forgotten, recalling
another time, a ship,
the exotica of Manila,
the danger of Tokyo:

a sewing kit of flaking leather
a ration card, partially unused
a photographic booklet
   of Shanghai
a pocket New Testament
   King James Version
a stout cloth belt still usable
a Christmas card dated 1945
a receipt for the purchase of a lot
   back home signed
   by someone unrecognized
a brass Chinese wedding cup
a warship’s newsletter
discharge papers

discharge papers

Photograph: USS Repulse, World War II

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Then and Now

She sits on the hood
of his car, a 1938 Packard
owned by his funeral parlor
father. Unsmiling, she looks
what people call saucy,
an attitude that promoted
her to hood ornament.

She stopped going
to class reunions when
numbers dwindled
to insufficient to make
a class reunion.
Fifty became forty
became twenty-seven
became sixteen became
eight became two,
the two who never
liked each other but
they’d mourn each other

It’s Open Link Night at dVerse Poets. To see more poems submitted, please visit thesite. The links will be live at 2 p.m. Central time. 

Don't You Hate Your Job?

About once a week, I’m asked the same question.

“Don’t you hate your job?” A variation on the theme is, “How do you stand your job?”

Well, I admit there are some days when I dream about living on a beach.

But I don’t hate my job.

I lead a social media team for a large organization. Our team is tiny, about a fifth of what it needs to be. The last 10 months have been tough: too much work, not enough people to do it, pressure to do it anyway. The organization has questions and issues. From time to time, some people get mad. And then they vent. They don’t have to be mad at us to vent. We’re just convenient.

After doing this for two-and-a-half years, I’ve discovered there is no profanity, or creative variation of profanity, that can make me blush. (The profanity also suggests how far public discourse has fallen – many people seem unable to communicate without it.)

To continue reading, please see my post today at The High Calling.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Poetry at Work: Casey at the Bat

If there is one poem that many adult males (and likely many adult females) will remember from elementary school, it is Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.” Perhaps it was included in the elementary curricula because publishers, anthologists, or teachers realized it was exactly the kind of poem that could capture a boy’s attention and imagination. (Only one other 19th century poem is as well known as “Casey,” and that’s Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”)

The poem has an interesting history. Written by Thayer and published by William Randolph Hearts in May 1888, it made no great impression, until the comic actor DeWolf Hopper read it between acts at a performance in August of 1888. In the audience were several baseball players; it was “Baseball Night” at the theater. I\the reading was a huge success, and Hopper went on to recite the poem an estimated 15,000 times over almost 50 years. Other than his work as a student editor of the Harvard Crimson, Thayer is not known for any other writing.

What any of us (male or female) might remember most about the poem is the penultimate concluding line, the line that captures all of the emotion of dashed hope, bitter disappointment, and angst we might imagine: “But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Difficult Conversations

Last week, I mentioned that I came from a “yours, mine, and ours” family. Both of my parents had been married before, and I have a half-sister and a half-brother from those previous marriages. And then there’s me, and my younger brother.

We are spread out chronologically, partially because of those various marriages. My half-sister is 11 years older than I am, my half-brother eight years older, and my younger brother is 10 years younger than I am (my younger brother has a nephew one month older than he is).

We are spread out geographically as well, with only my half-brother still living in the New Orleans metropolitan area. We see each other usually once a year, but in May we three sons were together at my mother’s house. My half-sister has physical problems that don’t allow her to travel.

What we were there for was the beginning of breaking up my mother’s home. Our childhood home. The house where we grew up. My mother had lived there for 58 years, and the time had come for her to move to a retirement home.

My younger brother and I flew in on a Thursday night from different cities, met at the airport, and drove to my mother’s house. My half brother and sister-in-law arrived on Saturday.

In one sense, the difficult conversation had already happened. My mother had agreed that she could no longer live alone. She had had hip surgery the previous year and was maneuvering around the house okay, and had some wonderful neighbors who helped her tremendously. But about a month before, she had fallen and didn’t have the strength to pick herself back up. And she couldn’t reach a telephone. Hours passed before a worried sister called my sister-in-law, who finally reached a neighbor.

The difficult conversation we faced wasn’t to convince her to move. She already had a new apartment lined up. The difficult part was invading every bit of privacy she had left and sort through the contents of the house, decide what she needed and wanted to bring with her, and what to do with everything that remained.

My younger brother and I did most of the sorting that weekend. My sister-in-law has been the real champion, though, taking care of my mother, helping her find a new place, handling arrangements, talking with doctors, and hundreds of other things that can only be done by someone on the scene.

In a real sense, we were sorting lives, and personal histories: photographs, letters, personal effects, books, souvenirs from old vacations, scrapbooks both of my parents had kept when they were much younger, old income tax forms. Deciding who would get what furniture, and how to divide photo albums.

And there was my mother, sitting in the middle of all of it. We found things she had forgotten she had.

I was three years old when we moved into the house. Every time we’ve gone to New Orleans, that’s where we stayed. It’s the house my two sons know as “Grandma’s house.” And it’s the same for all of my nephews (we only have nephews in my family, and one great-niece).

In The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler describes his own experiences with aging parents: his father with Parkinson’s disease, his mother hurt after a fall, and he and his siblings living nowhere close. He lists four critical elements of a difficult conversation, based on the idea that such a conversation is part of a larger narrative.

Be curious about the other side’s story.

Tell your own story second.

Create a third story together.

Remember this is not the last story you’ll tell together.

I hadn’t read Feiler’s book until months after that “sorting” weekend. But we actually followed those four steps. We spent a considerable amount of time talking with my mother about the house and various effects. Listening to her tell her stories. And then we told our own. We all went to visit the new apartment and retirement home, and thus started the third story. And there is still some time for making and telling new stories – we were not telling our last story.

Over at The High Calling, we’re discussing The Secrets of Happy Families. This week’s discussion covers three chapters: “Fight Smart,” “The Buck Starts Here,” and “Talk about the Marshmallows” (difficult conversations).

Photograph: My mother’s house, and the house where we grew up in suburban New Orleans.