Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Tell Me A Story

During this season of discontent, I have gone back to re-examining and re-living things I have enjoyed in the past. One of them is watching HBO’s True Detective series, Season 3, which stars Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo. While watching the first episode I was mesmerized, again, by Ejogo, who plays a teacher, as she reads the following William Penn Warren poem to her class:

Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.  

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.  

I was mesmerized by her reading, which gave me one more interest to pursue during this time of imposed isolation. So now, let me tell you a story I wrote a while ago.

Love Me with Your Eyes

Love me with your eyes
As they look at me from
Across a crowded room.
Love me with your smile
As it lights up the darkness
Inside me.
Love me with your laughter
As it ripples across
The distance between us.
Love me with
Your heart,
Your soul,
Your mind.
Love me.
Just love me.

It may not be the best – or worst - of poems, but now, at last, I have time to pursue my interest and improve my writing! Now it's your turn. Tell me a story. 

Take care, Everyone!

Dear Elvis, my story about love and loss, is available at amzn.to/2uPSFtE

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Just Mercy

A man is at work chopping down a tree. After the tree falls, he looks up at the other trees still standing. He looks at their leaves dancing in the breeze and beyond them at the boundless sky. He takes a deep breath and enjoys the sense of freedom he feels. But only for a moment because in the next moment he is surrounded by men with guns drawn, cocked and pointed at him.

The above is a scene from the movie Just Mercy which is taken from a memoir by Bryan Stevenson, who as a young attorney moved to Alabama “to give hope to men on death row.” The movie focuses on the story of Walter McMillan who was unjustly accused of murder and placed on death row even before his trial began

But McMillan’s story is only one of many stories Stevenson writes about in his memoir. He writes, too, about a case I found to be as egregious as McMillan’s. It’s a story about  a man named Joe Sullivan.

Stevenson became aware of Sullivan when another inmate wrote to him describing Joe as “disabled, horribly treated, and wrongfully condemned” to life in prison for a non-homicide crime he was accused of committing when he was 13.

When Stevenson wrote to Sullivan telling him he was looking into his conviction, Joe wrote back saying, “If I didn’t do anything, shouldn’t I be able to go home now? Mr. Bryan, if this is true, can you please write me back and come and get me.” Joe was 31 when he wrote that letter and had been in prison for 18 years. 

While watching Just Mercy, I found myself thinking about the Pledge of Allegiance I had memorized as a child: Does it really say what I think it does? Does it really say I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all?

After looking it up, I assured myself that it did, and that inherent in those words there is a reciprocal promise my country gives to me to grant me justice, even in the event that I am accused of a crime.

And what about mercy?

When one of his clients is denied a stay of execution and is put to death, Stevenson is ready to quit and to give up his practice until he is suddenly given insight into the quality of mercy. What Stevenson writes about mercy is alone a good reason to read this remarkable book. 

Monday, November 25, 2019

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Sometimes, at night, my mind works like a broken record. After getting into bed it gets stuck on some small, almost inconsequential, thing that happened during the day - some small thing that, even in my sleep, invades my dreams and continues to haunt me in the morning.

But I think I’ve found a cure for that. It’s called the Daily Examen, a spiritual exercise promoted, practiced and shared by St Ignatius of Loyola. My copy of this exercise, which I found and sent away for online, is printed on a card no bigger than two by four inches. Now, every night before I go to sleep, I pick it up and read the questions printed on it.

Some of the questions, like the ones asking what has troubled me or what has challenged me, are easy to answer.

My favorite question is the one which asks where I have felt joy because, even on my worst days, I have found I can look back and discover the joy I felt while listening to the words of a song, or while taking a walk through the park.

The most difficult question for me is the one which asks where and when did I pause because I’ve usually gone through an entire day never remembering to pause and never remembering to look for God’s presence during my day, which may be why St. Ignatius practiced this exercise at noon as well as at night.

The last question, which I read just before falling asleep asks me to determine with what spirit I want to enter tomorrow.

St Ignatius practiced this daily examination because he believed it was a gift that came directly from God and, after doing it for little more than one week, I do too.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Mirrored Images

When my daughter said she wanted to make our annual “Thelma and Louise” road trip to Birmingham this year, I was hesitant – and somewhat paranoid. I hesitated because memories of a city once known as “Bombingham” still lay at the back of my mind. Memories of “Bull” Connor, his hoses, his dogs, and his cruelty. Memories of four little girls who were murdered by the Klan. I was paranoid, too, because we were making this journey on the Tuesday after the Dayton and El Paso shootings.

All of these things were on my mind as we walked through the entrance of the 16th Street Baptist Church where, in the basement, there were four separate rooms, each with a short film related to the events of 1963. One of them showed how news of the bombing was received around the world. In this documentary, there was a picture of a woman living in a neighboring state, a woman who upon hearing about the bombing wore all of her feelings on every line and angle of her face.

My daughter and I were standing in the rear of the church when suddenly we heard a loud screeching sound followed by a thunderous crash. Shaken, we ran out a side door and saw the remains of a traffic accident. A young man whose truck had been cut off had crashed into a pole. Before I even realized she had moved, my daughter raced down the steps of the church and crossed the street. She stood talking to the young man for a minute, then reached up and gave him a reassuring hug. A few minutes later we were back inside talking to one of the guides, an African American woman who was about the same age as me.

“How can you do this?’ I asked her. “How can you volunteer to be inside here day after day. Aren’t you afraid?”

“Listen,” she replied, “You can live in fear, or you can live.” I couldn’t help but smile at her bravery and her determination.

We left the church then and crossed the street to the Civil Rights Institute where my daughter, overwhelmed by displays of segregation and degradation, broke down and cried. As I walked beside her I realized the displays were all too familiar to me, all of them headlines I saw in my youth. One image, however, a photograph of a young Black man hanging from a tree haunted me and kept me awake for several nights until I returned home and saw another that was eerily similar. It was a photo on my Twitter feed, a photo of two policemen on horseback with a young Black man walking between them. A young man whose hands were handcuffed behind him. A young man who was tethered to one of the horses with a rope.  

While in Birmingham I thought we had come a long way since 1963, but back at home I wasn’t so sure.

Dear Elvis, my story about love and loss, is available at amzn.to/2uPSFtE

Friday, August 2, 2019

A Long Time Ago and a Movie Review

A long time ago, when I was young, I shared an apartment with a friend of mine in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia. The two of us took pride in our ability to meet the rent each month and loved returning to it in the evening after a long day at work, or at school, or both. Looking back now I remember the two of us sitting at the table talking about our day when my friend suddenly said, “I want to go home.”

I looked at her and saw the seriousness of her expression. “I do too,” I said. And then I asked, “Do you mean you want to go home to your parents’ house?”

“No,” she replied. “Do you?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head.

It’s funny, I think, how we both felt it - that desire to go home even if neither of us really knew where home was.

That, however, is not the problem for the main character in the last movie I saw because Jimmie Fails, who plays himself in this film, knows exactly where home is. The movie is The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It’s a movie that builds slowly and sanguinely through the streets and neighborhoods of San Francisco, and at first we’re not really sure where it’s going until we see Jimmie and his best friend Mont staring at an old Victorian house with a tower that "looks like a witch’s hat.”

It’s the house Jimmie’s grandfather built back in 1946. It’s the house Jimmie lived in until he was six when his father lost it. And it’s the house that Jimmie Fails has fallen in love with, the house he returns to often even though its current owner wants him nowhere near it. But when the current owner has to move out, Jimmie moves in, in a move that seems more like a communion than an invasion. It is also the beginning of the end for Jimmie Fails.

I traveled thirty minutes to see this movie on a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon and I’m so glad I did because this story is deep, and heavy, and beautiful. It’s a story that reminds us of how much we all long to return home, even when we aren’t quite sure where home is.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco was the winner of two awards at the Sundance Film Festival and is, according to Roger Ebert (and me), “one of the year’s best films.”

Dear Elvis, my story about love and loss, is available at amzn.to/2uPSFtE

Sunday, June 30, 2019


I went to see the docu-movie Pavarotti yesterday. The movie is a Ron Howard production, which means it was exquisite.
This movie depicts the singer from his birth into poverty in 1935 to his death in 2007. But what fills this movie, in both background and foreground, from beginning to end, is Pavarotti’s incredible voice – both his singing voice and his speaking voice which is taken from interviews he gave throughout his career. Scenes in the movie highlight his performances from his first role in 1963 as Rodolfo in La boheme (the bohemian), to his 1972 appearance at the Metropolitan Ă“pera House in New York City (where he stunned the audience with “his nine high C’s”), through his many concerts and benefits, and to his last role in Puccini’s Tosca.
In the late 1980’s when the Spanish tenor Jose Carreras was stricken with leukemia, Pavarotti called him and told him to “hurry up and get well” because he needed the competition. The result of that call was the masterful and infamous concert known as The Three Tenors performed during the World Cup Finals in 1990. (I remember seeing that concert on PBS in the early 1990’s, recording it on one of those old VHS tapes, and playing it again and again so that when, during the movie, I heard the first few bars of O Sole Mio, chills went through my entire body.)
In addition to Pavarotti’s interviews the movie is filled with interviews from his colleagues, managers, friends and family, the most poignant of which is the one with U2’s Bono who teaches us more about Pavarotti than anyone else, informing us that Pavarotti didn’t just sing his music, he “lived” it. Indeed, after a relationship he was in ends, the movie shows Pavarotti in his role in Pagliacci as Canio, the clown who had to go on performing and laughing even though his heart was breaking.
I enjoyed this movie. By the end of it, I felt as though I knew Pavarotti, not as Pavarotti, but as “Luciano” - and as a friend. 

Dear Elvis, my story about love and loss, is available at amzn.to/2uPSFtE

Monday, May 27, 2019

On Failing

I often look, during the week, for inspiration to write a post for this blog on the weekend, and I most often find it from the people around me. But this week, when I sat in front of my computer, I was stumped. It’s okay, I thought, you can take some time off. You are, after all, on holiday.
Then, early on Sunday morning as I was driving to an early Mass, I told myself to stay alert and to look carefully at the world around me, and what I saw moving from one side of the road to the other, was first a squirrel, then a rabbit, and finally a bright red cardinal chasing a sparrow.

It was at that point that I laughed and turned on the radio to listen to NPR’s On Being. I was listening for only a few minutes when I realized I was listening to a voice I had heard before, even though I had never heard him speak out loud.
During a brief break, the host, Krista Tippett, introduced her guest as physician-author Abraham Verghese and I smiled when I heard his name because I knew it was he who had written the introduction to one of my favorite books, Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air. (www.tonimccloe.com/2016/05/when-breath-becomes-air-review.html).
Midway through the show, which was about “rethinking success,” Ms. Tippett opened the microphone to the audience and to a young man who asked Dr. Verghese to talk about a time in his life when he felt as though he had failed. Dr Verghese spoke about attending medical school in Ethiopia until a civil war broke out in that country. Feeling “adrift” and as though “it was the worst thing that could’ve happened,” he decided to leave Ethiopia and join his parents in New Jersey where circumstances forced him to work as an orderly.
And I think,” he said, "it was the hardest part of my life.” He said he felt like a failure. “But I look back now, and if I have any sort of reputation in America, I think it’s come from the fact that I got to see what happens to the patient in the 23 hours and 57 minutes that the doctors are not in the room.” (And, if Dr. Verghese has a reputation in this country, it is in part because of his empathy.)
As I listened to Dr Verghese, I wondered what I would list as my biggest failure. Certainly, I realized, there are too many to list, both in life and in my relationships. But like the doctor I’ve learned that failure can lead to success, and I’ve learned, too, to surround myself with friends who inspire and offer encouragement instead of judgment, and trust instead of doubt. 

My memoir, Dear Elvis, can be found at http://amzn.to/2uPSFtE.