A Sunday Reflection

While looking through a box of books, I found my copy of William Butler Yeats’s Autobiographies. I read it probably 15 years ago. I opened it and saw these words I’d underlined in pencil during my reading.

I have remembered to-day that the Brahmin Mohini said to me, ‘When I was young I was happy. I thought truth was something that could be conveyed from one man’s mind to another. I now know that it is a state of mind.’

Here we have Yeats remembering a bit of wisdom passed on to him which he then memorializes in his own memoirs. Lucky for us. It’s a quote worth some deep reflection.

Choosing to pay attention

These where some memorable lines in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest:

You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard. . . . How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.

In the novel, the context of these lines are a conversation about competitive tennis. But of course they’re ultimately about life. Like it or not we’re all in the great Game, and there is no opting out. We can only choose to try and learn from our mistakes and, more importantly, from the mistakes of others.

As the experience of life shapes us…and, at times breaks us…our task is about “being conscious and aware enough to choose what [we] pay attention to and to choose how [we] construct meaning from experience.”* This is how we shape ourselves. It’s very hard. It can take a lifetime. But no one said the Game would be easy. It can crush you. But we’re better off to keep trying, to keep learning, to keep playing on, to pay attention…and to consciously choose.

New Year's Day at Washington National Cathedral

Most of you recognize Washington D.C. by its neoclassical buildings like the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the ancient Greek temple-style memorials of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

But off in the distance, away from the National Mall and all the government buildings and memorials, on the heights of Mount Saint Alban, is probably my favorite building in all of Washington D.C.: The Washington National Cathedral.

Washington National Cathedral (Photo by J.D. Wills)

The Washington National Cathedral is among the largest of its kind in the world. The massive stone structure sits at the intersection of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues in Northwest Washington, D.C.

For me it’s always been that initial right turn from Mass Avenue onto Wisconsin that gets me. The gothic stone facade of this colossus immediately awes you. Believe me they don’t make them like this anymore.

The full and complete construction of the Cathedral took 83 years. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the corner stone in 1907 and the final finial was placed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

The view as you walk into the main sanctuary is magnificent to say the least. Your eyes are drawn up toward the heavens.

Main sanctuary or “nave” (Photo by J.D. Wills)

The above picture of the nave is only a narrow part of the main sanctuary area. At the far end of this photo is the entrance to the choir stalls and the alter, another 3rd or more of the building.

My family and I visited the Cathedral yesterday for the New Year’s Day communion service and to hear the full peal of the Cathedral’s massive bells (a small sample below).

I’ve been visiting the Cathedral off and on over the almost 30 years I’ve been living in the D.C. area. I’ve attended services and communion a number of times, but we’ve always sat in the nave during those visits. But yesterday we had the rare privilege of sitting in the choir stalls. These wooden benches are located just prior to the main alter. In my experience, this area is typically not open to visitors.

My view from the Choir Stalls (Photo by J.D. Wills)

It was interesting that only a small group of people showed up for the New Year’s Day service. There weren’t many of us, maybe 150 people at best. We (my family and friends) were all feeling a little special that the cathedral staff had decided to have the service in choir/alter area. As we quietly made our way in and sat on the choir benches, our eyes were drawn up to the religious art, architecture, and stained glass, and our mood was made even more solemn by the majestic sound of the cathedral organ playing low.

The message given at the service was about the power of words and their meaning and the importance each of us has in choosing our words wisely. From the use and meaning of our words we reveal the state of our soul.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s hard not to be moved by a group of people reading aloud together the beautifully simple words of the Common Book of Prayer. The beauty and meaning of those words draws you out of yourself and makes you feel connected, if only momentarily, to something greater than our own little ego. It’s in this sacred space, these moments of grace, that we feel our capacity for greater love, charity, and forgiveness.

I cannot say for sure, but this may have been my last visit to the Cathedral since there is a good chance we’ll be moving this year. If that turns out to be true, then I was fortunate and saved the best for last.

After the service we all went outside to hear the bells.

Sound of Full Peal (Bells) at Washington National Cathedral (Video by J.D. Wills, 01/01/2020)

Farewell to Second Look Books

In 2001, when we decided to move from northern Virginia to a semirural county in southern Maryland, I had some concerns. Sure, on the positive side the school system was one of the best in the state (we had a 2 year old at the time), our new home sat on a big, nicely wooded lot, the community was nice, and we were near the town center, so we had quick access to grocery stores and various small shops and eateries. All of this was great. But I had one critical concern: What about a bookstore? I mean this was a serious issue….okay, I’m being a bit facetious, but being a guy who enjoys books I was hoping I’d have somewhere near-by to satisfy my desire to browse, thumb pages, and read bits of prose in search of a good book.

(Photo by Gary Deshotel)

Well, I got lucky. Not long after we moved in, while shopping in the town of Prince Frederick, not far from our new home, I came across a used bookstore. There, in big letters, was the sign: “BOOKS.”

Just a tad bit excited about my find, I immediately headed over to check it out. Now, having a used bookstore is great, but the real test is the owner’s inventory preferences.

I couldn’t have been more pleased. The inside of Second Look Books was a charming and quaint little bookshop with a large selection of books from a broad range of genres. As it would be for years to come, a perfect place to spend a half hour browsing while my lovely wife bargain shopped at other stores.

Second Look Books, center section (Photo by Daniel Cleary)

The bookshop was owned by Richard and Liz. Two very nice people who know their books and are just great people to chat with. Over the years my wife and I got to know them pretty well and enjoyed a number of conversations about books and kids and various other topics. Their bookshop was a valuable part of our community. I have dozens of books I’ve bought from them over the years and, more importantly, a lot of great memories from their charming little bookshop.

Well, this past October, after about 3 decades in business, they closed Second Look Books. We were, of course, saddened by the news. Their children are grown and doing very well and it was time for them to move on to other projects in life.

My wife and I stopped by after the store had closed down and Rich and Liz were cleaning up and tearing down shelves. We talked for a while and raised a toast (we bought wine) to them and to the fond memories of Second Look Books.

"the true meaning of Christmas lies…

The Polar Express — “The North Pole!”

Like so many of you, I’m sure, we watch a lot of Christmas classics during the season. Last night we watched the Polar Express. You know it’s amazing what you can learn when you’re not distracted by so many other things and actually paying full-time and attention to the entire movie! Of course the kids are typically glued to what’s happening, they’re taking it all in, and while younger children can’t usually tell us afterward exactly what the message of the movie was, they do know how it made them feel…which, of course, is what all good Art is ultimately about—affecting our feelings (our heart), and thus hopefully our perspective…and from that flows our behavior and actions.

The Polar Express is about faith and the power of imagination, and how these can sustain each of us in a world where magic is still possible, in a world where we can still believe in a deeper, more connected meaning to our lives and the world around us. The Christmas season is reminder that it’s up to each of us to keep and sustain this faith.

“Just remember,” Santa said, “the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart.”