Monday, June 29, 2020

A Book and A Break

Although I normally write memoir, I thought I would try something different today:

Anna slid into a booth across from her friend and started talking. “I’m reading the best book,” she said because that was the way the two of them often started. “It’s called Olive, Again and it’s about a rather cantankerous old woman, a former schoolteacher, who lives in a fictional town somewhere along the coast of Maine.”

“I picture lobsters and fishermen wearing rain gear,” her friend said.

“I do, too,” said Anna, “But it’s not just about the woman. It’s also about her neighbors. There’s a different chapter devoted to each person, with Olive in the center or rotating somewhere along the edges.

“One chapter is about a woman named Cindy, who’s on chemo with a fifty percent chance of survival, although her husband won’t admit it or come to terms with it. And neither can the woman.” Anna stopped for a moment before continuing. “I mean, the woman knows she’s dying, and she’s scared.

“Olive, who always says what she feels and often catches people off guard, is sympathetic, telling the woman that she’s scared of dying, too. And that everyone is, and that, in fact, everyone is ‘just a few steps behind her. Just twenty minutes behind her.’"

Anna stopped talking and looked around her. “I used to work at a restaurant just like this one.  During breakfast, I used to serve the same bunch of men every day. My regulars. Most of whom were service workers – linemen from the telephone company. And men from the electric and water companies. They all took their break at the same time and it was a real challenge serving them all at once. But I enjoyed it.

Again, Anna stopped talking. She looked out the window and then back at her friend. “Lunch was different though. Most of the time I had a different group of people every day. Except for the undertakers. There were two of them and they came in early – just after eleven – and always sat in my section. I’d take their order and, because no one else was around, I used to sit with them while their order was being prepared.

“And they were funny. Lord, were they funny,” Anna said as she tucked a lock of grey hair behind her ear. “The older of the two, Harry, wasn’t much to look at but he had a great, big personality – one that was probably wasted in his line of work - and an even bigger laugh,” Anna said, remembering his laughter.

“Anyway, one day they came in later than usual. Probably because they had a funeral that ran overtime. And there was a third man with them who was also an undertaker. I was busy when they arrived so I couldn’t sit with them. Harry introduced me to the third man, and I was about to take their order when the man looked at me and said. ‘I’m happy to meet you and I’m dying.’

“I was flabbergasted. I was taken aback and speechless. I wasn’t like Olive. It didn’t occur to me to say what she would have said – that we are all twenty minutes behind you. At that moment, I was overwhelmed, trying to keep everyone's order in my head. So I didn’t speak. I didn't use the sarcastic tone I use to use back then, rolling my eyes, and saying something like 'I’m twenty minutes behind' or something that would have made everyone laugh. I didn’t say anything.  

"The next day when the undertakers came back, I asked about him and why he said what he did.

“‘He was told by a therapist to do that,' the younger one said.

“But it made me so uncomfortable,” Anna told her friend now.

“Of course, it did,” her friend responded. “We’re all uncomfortable when faced with our own mortality.”

“You’re right,” Anna said. "I felt uncomfortable because he reminded me that I’m dying, too, and that I could be just twenty minutes – or even just twenty seconds - behind him.” 

Dear Elvis, my story about love and loss written as a series of letters to Elvis, is available at

Friday, May 8, 2020

I Went to Work Today

I went to work today.
I work for a school district.
I drive a school bus,
But I went to work today
To see if this were a joke, a prank.
To see if everyone else 
Had returned and 
Forgotten to tell me.
I went as though 
Awakening from a dream.
I went, but no one was there.
So I turned and went back
To my real life, and
Away from the dream.

Dear Elvis, my story about love and loss written as a series of letters to Elvis, is available at

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. 

Dear Elvis, my story about love and loss written as a series of letters to Elvis, is available at

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 written as a series of letters to Elvis, is available at

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 written as a series of letters to Elvis, is available at

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. (
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, <>a story about love and loss written as a series of letters to Elvis, can be found at

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Stay Well, Go Well

I read another book today. It was a book I bought and owned 55 years ago but never read. I’m glad I read it now. The book was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, a story about the people – both Zulu and European - of South Africa, and a story about the land itself. 

While reading it, I felt as though I were not reading, but living it, seeing the land all around me, and interacting with the characters who inhabit it. All the people were real to me. All their pain was real to me. And, if I ever doubted that there is beauty in simplicity, I know it now. 

The story begins in a remote village in the province of Natal in eastern South Africa when a minister (called umfundisi in Afrikaans) receives a letter summoning him to Johannesburg where his sister has fallen ill. 

After discussing it with his wife, Stephen Kumalo begins his journey to the city where he witnesses the unrest caused by racial and economic disparity and the greed that divides people. In Johannesburg, too, he learns that his son has spent time in a reformatory. In the meantime, a newspaper reveals that a man called Arthur Jarvis, a local white proponent of racial equality, has been murdered in his home during a burglary. 

Kumalo then learns that his son, Absalom, has been arrested for Jarvis’s murder, and that he has confessed to the crime, and that the victim was the son of a wealthy white man who is his neighbor back in Natal. 

After Absalom is convicted Kumalo returns to his village. On the night before his son’s execution, he withdraws to a mountain to await the time of his son’s death and weeps until dawn. 

This image of Natal, which I downloaded from Shutterstock,com, is titled mountain reflection

Cry, the Beloved Country is a story so beautiful and so heartbreaking, I cried. It is also a story written with language as lyrical and as deep as the compassion with which Paton portrays his characters, both black and white.

In South Africa when one companion is leaving another, it is the custom for the departing one to say, Stay well, and for the other to reply, Go well.

Stay well, my Friends.

My memoir, Dear Elvis, can be found at