Friday, February 9, 2018

Portia and Magpie

Eight months ago I moved. Not far. Twenty-five miles, one county to another. Suburban to country. Congested roads after 3 PM, parking lots jammed with shoppers on weekends, road work and school buses and folks in too much of a hurry clogging my psyche.

I attended both high school and grad school in the city, the quality of the schools, not the raucous subways and police rushing to havoc, drawing me. I lived 41 years in the same suburban house that was only two miles from where I was born. I was seeking a place with open spaces and bigger skies.

After eight months of searching, I found it.

Across from me now is a large pond, with fields and trees beyond. The sky is panoramic, unfettered by buildings and utility lines. The traffic noises, at dawn and dusk, are Canadian geese, trumpeting as they follow mysterious roadways over the house.

Deer, fox, rabbits, and crazy ass insects I've never seen before are in abundance. And in the pond are two long time residents, Portia and Magpie. Portia is a 12 year old mute swan. Magpie is a black and white duck.

Portia's mate, Frick, was found dead recently. He disappeared from the pond two months ago. He was 17 and arthritic and possibly hurt when a hunter who had sneaked onto the pond, fired at some of the local mallards.

There is little that happens on the pond that I don't see. It's 24 hour live streaming, no WiFi needed. And what I've been seeing amazes me.

Magpie, who is all white with black wings, never leaves Portia's side. The pond is skimmed with ice now, but when the water was open, Magpie was always inches from Portia's back when she slid gracefully across the water. Magpie often leads the way up the bank to the feeder, built by the community. Magpie's no fool. Food spilled by Portia will be shared by Magpie and the other ducks.

When I asked about the strange little black and white duck, I was told that he/she crossed the road where there are fields and a stream at the bottom of the community eight years ago and has never left. Portia's wings are clipped. Magpie's are not. He/she can fly away at any time but never does.

A new male mute swan in on his way to join Portia. Hopefully they will connect and share many years together. I'm not too worried. Portia will continue to have the friend who has stayed with her during heat and cold, good times and bad, no questions asked.

Steinbeck wrote, "I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why." (Of Mice and Men)

Copyright (2018) by James Hugh Comey

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Fall Seven Times

In April 1990, I found myself sitting at a table in an elementary school library in my home town. I had been invited to speak to students on their Writer's Day Celebration. I had co-founded a nonprofit children's theater company the year before with an accomplished professional actor and her sister, an award winning director/choreographer. Many of the kids at the school had seen our first play, The Monster in the Woods. I had been asked to speak to classes about the process I used to create the many fantastical characters in the play and how we animated them through dialogue, song, and movement.

As a thank you for our time, we were treated to lunch in the library. I am not comfortable with such social events but something pushed down my urge to leave and, there I was, sitting across from a man and a woman. The man introduced himself as Jerry. Sitting next to him was his wife, Eileen.

When we started to eat sandwiches, surrounded by the buzz and bustle of other writers and school staff, I realized that something was wrong. Jerry was upset.

"I can't do this anymore," he said.

"I know something is going to break," she said. "You have to hang on."

I didn't know if I should say anything. I could feel the man's frustration, see his unhappiness.

"What kind of writing do you do?" I asked.

"Children's novels," he said. "Eileen writes poetry and picture books."

"That's fantastic," I said. "You're both writing and getting published."

Eileen went quiet.

"The writing isn't the problem," he said. "I have to work another job to have steady income."

"What do you do?" I asked.

"I work for a magazine whose corporate office is close by. I write blurbs about upcoming TV shows. It's money and constant, but I hate it."

"Your newest book is going to catch on," Eileen said. "We're going to be alright. I can feel it."

"I have a Master's degree in writing from Johns Hopkins," Jerry said. "I've had lots of jobs over the years to support my writing, but I'm not sure I can do this anymore."

People were starting to gather up their stuff. I told Jerry that I admired his courage and determination. Although our children's theater company was taking off (we've gone to have over 100,000 kids see our shows), I was reentering teaching in five months, after taking off for four years, to have steady income.

We said goodbye. Neither Jerry nor Eileen were smiling when they left.

The following January, I opened the Philadelphia Inquirer to see Jerry's picture in large display. His 1990 novel, Maniac Magee, had just won the Newbery Award. It went on to win dozens of other awards, and, in 2007 was named one of "Teachers' Top 100 books for Children" by the National Education Association.

Jerry Spinelli didn't give up. He's now written 35 books. Talent is important. So also is determination and perseverance and faith in yourself.

A Japanese proverb says: Fall seven times, stand up eight.

Copyright (2017) by James Hugh Comey

Friday, January 13, 2017

I Hate Winter

I hate Winter.
It's a splinter in the heart.
Toes freeze.
Nostrils sneeze.
Thumbs crack.
A rack of ice coats
The mind, sears the soul.
Begone wretched season.
Melt into blessed warmth, cherished awakening.

Copyright (c) 2017 by James Hugh Comey

Monday, January 2, 2017


This is first chapter of THE WICKED CLAW (55,680 words), an adult novel that brings together urban fantasy, thriller, and historical elements. Pope Francis, powerful women, vulnerable men, the Secret Service and FBI, a sacred grove hidden in suburban Philly, and a Penn academic who is part fox and part fey populate this story. Loneliness and family, revenge and self discovery resonate through centuries and settings as the Pope's 2015 visit to the US unfolds.

If you are a literary agent or publisher who would like to discover the inspired mayhem that erupts when seven lethal, funny, fantastical characters kidnap the most popular man on the planet, please let me know. If you are an internet wanderer who found your way here, I hope you enjoy this opening chapter of THE WICKED CLAW.

Chapter 1
Mad Mariana

Mariana’s head snapped up.
She had been sound asleep, dreaming of water. A fire hydrant was spraying her and all of the kids on her block, turning the blistering street into a riot of puddles. She was six years old, before the seizures started, before the headaches and blackouts and all the rest of the crazy shit. She was dancing and splashing in her bare feet, brown like the rest of her from the August sun. Her friends called her “Nut” because she got so dark during the summer.  Everyone on the block thought she was pretty then.  Pretty and normal and likely to marry a nice boy from the neighborhood.
The first seizure hit when she was in second grade, right in the middle of catechism class. Sister Consuela had just read “God made us like himself. This is an important gift from God” from the catechism book when her heart started to race, and she suddenly smelled the scent of the trees that her better off neighbors put in their living rooms at Christmas time. But, there were no pine trees anywhere near the school, and the windows were closed. She started to raise her hand to ask to go to the lavatory, when everything went dark and silent.
When she opened her eyes, her head was pounding and she was on the floor, with everyone looking at her. Sister Consuela was leaning down close to her. She whispered, “You had some kind of fit, Mariana. If you can get up, you need to go to the bathroom. You’ve wet yourself.”
That was the first time that she heard kids laugh at her. “Nut” quickly became “Nut Job” and later, “Mad Mariana.”
She never knew exactly what was wrong with her. Her neighbors blamed it on lead paint in their 3rd floor apartment, rat poop in their basement, and a roof that dripped God knew what when it rained. Her Mamina blamed it on the bad blood of that son of a bitch who fathered her and then took off.  And her mother, who worked two jobs just to squeeze into the ranks of the working poor, had marginal health insurance with a sky high deductible that put an MRI and CAT scan out of reach.
Maybe it was because of the trauma of the first seizure, but the words spoken by Sister Counsela in that long ago catechism class, “God made us like himself. This is an important gift of God” became Mariana’s mantra as an adult. When she was denied a driver’s license because of her seizures, and a decent job because of her health record, and forget about a nice boy from the neighborhood, she would say to herself, in her head, “God made us like himself. This is an important gift of God.” By the time she was 25 and was barely surviving on welfare, she had taken to saying her mantra, and all of the rest of her thoughts, out loud.
That was when she discovered the shrine of Saint John Neumann in St. Peter the Apostle Church on North 5th Street, several miles from her mother’s apartment. A SEPTA driver had put her off the Route 15 Girard Avenue trolley because he said that she was causing a disturbance. Didn’t he understand that when her head hurt very badly, she had to talk louder so that she could hear her own thoughts?
It was cold and raining and too far to walk home. She didn’t know this Northern Liberties section of the city, and she had no money in her pockets. She tried not to cry, but she was so damn frustrated and angry. She had never done anything wrong. Why did everyone look away from her, or nudge each other when they saw her?  Why did her heart race and she smell Christmas trees when it wasn’t even Christ’s birthday? And why, when she found herself lying on the sidewalk, did people just step over her? 
“God made us like himself,” she struggled to say, but her tears and the rain choked off the rest of her words.
“And you are an important gift of God,” a voice said. “That’s what our catechism should teach.”
Mariana looked for the voice.
A priest was standing near a black wrought iron fence just by her. She had not seen him. She looked up into the rain. A stone church with a high bell tower ran almost all the way down the block.
“Saint Peter the Apostle,” he said. “My church and parish. Also Saint John Neumann’s Shrine.”
His hands were full of boxes that were getting soaked.
“I just picked up candles for the Shrine,” he said. “It’s in the lower level of the church. I could use some help with the door to get in there, if you have a minute.”
Mariana stared at him. He wasn’t looking away from her, nor trying to hide a smirk, like so many did, when they saw her.
“I’m Father Francisco Ibanez,” he said, “a Redemptorist priest. Most people call me Father Fran. The kids here at St. Peter’s School call me Cicso, behind my back. They think I don’t know it, but I don’t mind.”
And he smiled at her.
That was how she got the job as Maintenance Supervisor at the National Shrine of Saint John Neumann. She was a department of one.
And that was why she was sleeping in the last pew of the locked and deserted Shrine, as she so often did, after it closed at 6 PM. Her mother still worked two jobs, even though Mariana now helped with the rent and groceries. Her Mamina had died when she was 19. It pained Mariana that her Mamina had not been able to see her with a real job at a prestigious place like the Shrine.
There was no place and no one to rush home to. Plus, she loved the quiet and serenity of the Shrine itself.
Only, she was certain that she heard a noise. That was what made her pop out of her wonderful dream of water and fun on that August day, so many years ago.

Someone or something was in the Shrine with her. 

Copyright (c) 2017 by James Hugh Comey

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'Til It Is Experienced

Close to 40 years ago, I went on a bike trek to the Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. (The photograph shows me and three of my four fellow riders standing on a ledge overlooking a dew dipped valley.) I remember chunks of that ride. There was monsoon rain that blasted us for four hours, in the dark, in fast, heavy traffic, where I could barely see the tail light of the bike in front of me. There were tiny towns tucked neatly on the sides of glens, and forests thick with color and texture and life. There was a mile long log jam of cars crossing into Norfolk for a huge concert that we skirted past on the shoulder, only to be stopped by a state trooper who started to write us up, only to have to stop because there was an accident somewhere.

"You're lucky today," he said as he put away his ticket book and quickly climbed into his cruiser, flipping on his lights. "Lady Luck just smiled on all of you."

What he didn't know was Lady Luck had already smiled on me earlier in the day.  A man in a older pickup truck, on a crowded, multi lane highway that bypassed Washington, DC,  had been driving next to me. We were going about 60 mph. The sun was not in our eyes and there were no crosswinds. At one point, I looked over and made direct eye contact with him. I looked directly into his eyes, not five feet away from me.

Suddenly, I sensed movement and glanced to my right. His truck was veering directly toward me.

I hit my horn and lifted my head and shouted, "HEY!" underneath the visor of my helmet.

The man flinched when he heard my shout and pulled back into his lane. He looked like he had seen a ghost.

"Asshole!," I shouted. "Pay attention."

Now, almost 40 years later, after many incidents where I have made eye contact with car and truck drivers, waiting at stop signs, only to have them pull directly in front of me, I believe that something else is at play here. These people are experiencing "inattentional blindness." There is nothing physically wrong with their eyesight. Nor are they deliberately trying to run me down.

The Canadian writer and professor, Robertson Daves, wrote, "The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend."

Two cognitive psychologists, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, performed an experiment in 1999 where they filmed three people in black shirts and three people in white shirts, shifting constantly and passing a basketball around. Participants were challenged to count the number of times the people in white shirts passed the ball to each other.

The result? As the British writer Douglas Adams wrote, "Reality is frequently inaccurate." Over half of the participants, including me when I watched the video, counted 13 times that the ball was bounced between the white shirts. I was proud of my accuracy. I was also astounded when I discovered, along with the 50%, that I did not see a person dressed in a gorilla suit step out in the center of the moving people, pound his chest, and walk off the screen.

I was so focused on the people and shirt color and basketball bouncing that I never saw what was directly in front of me. I was not looking for a gorilla. That man on the multi lane highway was scanning for cars and trucks, large machines with four or more wheels. My two wheeled bike and my direct eye contact never registered, even though he saw me. I was blind to him.

I suspect, however, after that day, when a slim guy suddenly materialized next to him on the DC bypass, he may now be aware of bikes.

John Keats wrote: "Nothing has ever become real 'til it is experienced."

Copyright (c) 2014 by James Hugh Comey

Saturday, February 15, 2014

God is in the Trees.

I had a dream the other night that I cannot shake. It wasn't happy or even a tad scary. Nor was it the typical scenario where I'm frustrated or lost or reliving past anxieties. It's tone and tenor and sense of wonderment was exhilarating.

It was about trees.

Trees have been on my mind for the last month. Snow storms have been battering my house and corner of the world. Over 700,000 people in my state lost power due to tree limbs, overtaxed by brittle ice, snapping power lines. Wind gusts have toppled stately pines throughout the region, and a fractured Cyprus branch from my neighbor's yard collided with my shed roof. (The roof is still intact.) A large branch from the very top of the Holly tree in my back yard snapped and fell like a javelin, impaling the frozen ground beneath it. And the 40 foot Maple tree in the front yard, which I had reinforced last summer with cables in the upper branches and bolts through the dual trunk, shook and twisted furiously, as each frigid storm pummeled it with sleet and snow.

My wife and I began to wonder if we should have the Maple tree removed. Its branches extend over parts of the house and the street. If one of them should break, it could be serious.

And yet, the Maple tree has been my companion and house guardian for the 37 years that we've lived here. Its bark is a wrinkled elephant grey, its shade cool and welcome in the summer. Birds grace its branches even as they poop on my cars. And the fall is a riot of red and orange leaves that become the mulch for our rear garden.

I went to sleep the other night, weighted with the thought of cutting down the Maple.

And then, something remarkable happened. I dreamt of trees. Not my Maple tree. I dreamt of trees throughout the world. Glens and forests on moors and mountain sides. Canadian wilderness and tropical rain forests stretched before me.

And then, I heard a voice. It said, "God is in the trees."

It wasn't my voice. It filled the sky and my vision and my heart.

I do not take drugs and don't drink. I have never had a revelation. But, if I lived during those times when dreams foretold miraculous births and included visits from celestial creatures, I might have believed that I had. Freud would tell me that it was my conscience. Odd that it has such a strong voice and waited 66 years to reveal itself. The theological implications of "God is in the trees" has been resonating inside me.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote: "The tree is more than just a seed, then a living trunk, and then dead timber. The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky."

My wife and I still have to make a decision. Safety comes first.

But the life force that flows through my guardian is not unlike my own. We both have wrinkles, both seek to stand tall and straight. Storms may try to make us fall. Through all of this, I will try to remember the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

"I hear the wind among the trees
Playing the celestial symphonies;
I see the branches downward bent
Like the keys of some great instrument."

Copyright (c) 2014 by James Hugh Comey

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Man in a Glass Box

In 1961 I began a four year pilgrimage to St. Joseph's Prep, a Jesuit high school at 17th Street and Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia. I was 14 years old, weighed maybe 100 pounds, and was scared as hell.

It took an hour each way to travel a tad over 15 miles from the western suburbs. Each morning I braved jammed trolleys, ELs (elevated trains), and subways. In snowstorms and rain, wind and heat, I carried a gym bag bottom heavy with textbooks and assignments. I had three hours of homework every night. Cicero and Virgil, Moliere and Steinbeck spoke to me of wars and brave men and broken hearts.  Over 720 days and nights, I persisted in leaving the quiet safety of my suburban home for chaotic city streets and the demanding hallways of a school that had been teaching boys since 1851.


Because I believed that this expensive (I had to work weekends and summers to help pay the tuition) pilgrimage would help shape my mind and my spirit. I hoped that the brilliant teachers and fellow pilgrims would give me the skills to find my way through college. And I trusted that, if I worked my tail off, I just might develop the endurance I would need to face whatever might come my way in the future.

I was right. Years later, when my mother was very ill, I wanted to complete my doctorate degree at the University of Pennsylvania before she died. My victories were always my Mother's victories, and, with her health failing, I wasn't sure if I could complete the research and write the dissertation in time. Tapping back into my Prep days, I presented my proposal, did the research, wrote the paper (295 pages), and defended in 11 months time. I taught during the day and worked every night and weekend. I knew how to work hard.

Eight months after my Mother wept openly as she watched me receive my Doctor of Education degree in the International House at the University of Pennsylvania, she died. Neil Gaiman wrote: "You have to believe. Otherwise it will never happen."

However, I never could have imagined that I would be taking yet another pilgrimage to North Philadelphia. And this time, not to the Prep, but to a man in a glass box.

After teaching for 17 years, I decided to leave public education and received training in a variety of counseling fields. For four years I saw clients with a wide range of concerns. My daughter was getting ready to attend college and salaries for public school teachers were starting to go up. After much reflection, I decided to reenter teaching. The problem was, with much better salaries, there were 500 applications for every opening. And worse, why hire a teacher with 17 years experience when you can hire someone fresh out of college at a much lower salary?

I was in a difficult place. My determination and hard work couldn't change the hiring climate. The upcoming college tuition and room and board and books were steep, and I wasn't getting invited in for interviews. The well worn academic paths I had learned at the Prep had served me well, but they weren't working now.

That was when I remembered the man in a glass box. My relatives had made visits to the shrine of Saint John Neumann in North Philadelphia. I remembered hearing how John Neumann had come from Bohemia and started the first Catholic diocesan school system in the United States. I also knew that he had been Bishop of Philadelphia in the mid 1850s and canonized a saint some years back.

I decided to visit his shrine and was stunned to discover it was only 1.1 miles from the Prep. I had not been in North Philly for some time, and made my way in late March to Broad Street, then east down Girard to North Fifth Street. The Church of Saint Peter the Apostle sat on the corner. Below the church was a low ceilinged chapel. And, in the front of the chapel, just before the altar, lay the body of John Neumann. He was clad in white bishop's garb, as if asleep, encased in clear glass.

It was very quiet, the sounds of Girard Avenue gone. A man in an expensive suit was kneeling at the altar rail, only several feet away from this priest who had been declared a saint, the only male US citizen ever done so. The man in the expensive suit was quietly weeping. They were not tears of joy.

I sat in a pew in that quiet place. Finely wrought applications and snazzy cover letters had not landed me an interview. Ernest Hemingway wrote: "The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." I decided to trust this sacred man, in this sacred place. I asked humbly for his help. I asked if he could find a position for me where I might help kids to think and question and wonder. I asked if he might give me the strength and patience to find my path.

Two months later, I was called in for an interview. Two weeks after that, I was hired. I taught in that school district for 20 years, retiring in June 2010.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "All that I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen." My trust that March day in a man in a glass box changed my life, and taught me that hard work, determination and belief in more than yourself is a worthy pilgrimage.

Copyright (c) 2013 by James Hugh Comey

Sunday, May 12, 2013

More Than Life Itself: A Eulogy

Today is Mother's Day, 2013.  My mother, Mary Comey, died 17 years ago. Recently I came across the eulogy that I wrote for her funeral service at Saint Thomas Church in Villanova, PA. My brother, Dave, valiantly delivered the text. On this day dedicated to mothers, I offer excerpts from this tribute to the woman that I miss with all my heart.

A Eulogy

It's difficult, in just several minutes, to describe a life that spanned over three quarters of a century, especially when it's your mother. Yet there are qualities of Mary Comey that well up strongly in our memories.

The first of these qualities is determination. For those of you who didn't know my mother, she stood four foot eleven inches at her prime. Because of her physical size, some people, especially sales people, mistakenly assumed that she was small in her determination and her power of will. Each of us can remember watching her thoroughly exhaust, wear out and wear down furniture, clothing, appliance, and dozens of other types of sales people as she artfully used every manner of persuasion to bring them to precisely the amount that she had determined when she first entered their store. And each of us frequently found that she worked her persuasive magic just as effectively on us, usually right after we had declared in a loud voice that we were not going to budge, that we had made up our minds. There was little that could deter Mary Comey, not even death. In the last month of her life, when living became just too physically difficult for her, she convinced God that it was time for her to come to Him. She wouldn't accept no for an answer, and ever God Himself knew better than to mess with Mary Comey.

The second of her qualities was a rich love of telling stories, together with a remarkably creative imagination. All of our lives, we were treated to the most extraordinary tales by our mother. We heard about a Nazi spy she met who ran a boarding house in Saint Louis when she followed my father to the Midwest during World War II; the adventures she had as the Executive Secretary to the Director of the War Bond Division of the Philadelphia branch of the Treasury Department when all of the big celebrities of the day came into town, and the most wild adventures just going to the corner gas station or food store. When my mother went to the Wawa, almost anything was possible. It's no wonder that my brothers and I have been directly involved with the theatre and other media, and that each of us generates our living in a performance-based profession. It is also no surprise that all of her grandchildren have found themselves before some kind of artistic, athletic, or government-related audience. My mother lived life with high drama, and her legacy is that her children and grandchildren are carrying forward her joy of sharing their thoughts and feelings with others.

The third quality, and perhaps the one that most exemplifies and defines my mother's character, was her total devotion to her family.  All of her life, she lived within spitting distance of her brother and her sister. She was fiercely devoted to my father, John Comey. Other than a forced separation during World War II, my mother and father were inseparable for half a century. They consulted each other on every matter, often using their own special and robust form of communication. And for her three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, she traveled by plane, train, car, bus or walked up mountains so that she could applaud, cheer and hug each one of us after every event, regardless of its scope or importance. She always cried at our ceremonies because she deeply admired our efforts and our willingness to dare to try.

In a letter that she sent after we surprised my parents with a 50th anniversary party, my mother wrote, "I love you more than life itself." We were with her when she died, my father, brothers, and I, her family together as she wanted throughout her life. We will miss her powerful presence and her deep caring for our well being and happiness. We love you deeply, Mother, and ask that you not give God too hard a time if He should dare to disagree with you.

Copyright (c) 2013 by James Hugh Comey

Friday, March 8, 2013

Silence Is My Friend

There is a sound that has always comforted me. When the crash and bang of the world rings in my ears and I cannot think straight, I seek it. When a room full of people all seem to be talking at once, and department stores and fix it yourself warehouses are blaring announcements that are echoing inside my skull, I look for it.  When meetings with folks are trying to outshout each other, and highway traffic is swallowing my sanity, I need it desperately.

The sound I love is silence.

My good fortune was moving in fourth grade to a new house that had a steep slope behind it that led to 120 acres of untouched woods. It was my own personal sanctuary. I would climb down the 70 degree slope and sit atop a ragged crag of high rocks for hours, watching and listening to Crum Creek meander through my woods. The conventional entrance was at Smedley Park, off Route I in Nether Providence, some miles left of the bottom of the hill. Few people would venture to the bottom of my hill and beyond. The tree branches each had their own voices, with giant, arthritic oaks groaning against the caress of fall breezes, and elegant maples swishing their leaves in elegant harmony on summer afternoons. Bird song and squirrel barks mingled with the rustle of tall cattails near a marshy area that ran down from the Springfield Golf Course. Snakes and toads and tiny fish by the edges of the creek swirled in the clear water. The sun smiled through the thick canopy of trees, warming the soil and my rock perch and me.

I sometimes wondered, as I sat alone, if what I was doing was normal. I did frequently come down into the woods with neighborhood friends and raft on the creek, and climb Indian Rock (someone had painted an outline of an Indian long ago), and explore caves. But I just as often sat solitary, atop my giant rock perch, soaking in the smells and sights and sounds of my quiet sanctuary. It felt akin to being in church.

A short time ago I happened to see Susan Cain speak on TED. Her speech was called "The Power of Introverts." I was transfixed. I knew from the Myers Briggs test that I was INTJ, the rarest kind of personality. (I have written about my discovery of this in an earlier blog.) But to hear a total stranger so accurately describe me was remarkable. Her TED speech was based on her best selling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking ( I immediately read the book. Again, I was struck by the similarities of the people described in her book and myself.

One example is a very successful professor who was popular with his students and a sought after speaker. He played the part of the outgoing teacher, but then fled to his country home where he avoided parties and most social gatherings. When he was away from home, presenting at a conference, he walked outside, alone, between speeches, or, if it was too cold, hid in areas where he didn't have to engage in small talk. It wasn't that he didn't like people. He simply preferred quiet. Sensory overload was unwelcome, and schmoozing with strangers was alien to him.

My classroom was a very quiet place. Students engaged in conversations with me and each other, often on an intense level, but without shouting or interrupting each other. If I asked a question, I would wait quite a while before a hand went up. The silence in the room didn't bother me. When students would look at me, wondering why no one was saying anything, I would say, "Silence is my friend."

I did not attend the retirement party for a cluster of educators who retired when I did. I knew what people thought of me without going to a noisy environment where I wouldn't be able to hear or think. And, like the professor, I do not have the schmoozing gene. Both of my brothers are outgoing and enjoy large groups where strangers meet and chat. My wife and kids are easy mixers in social situations. But, as Susan Cain so aptly describes in her speech and book, there are people like me, and her, and others, who often prefer to read over talk. We enjoy the company of a small group of intimates, in a quiet setting. Sensory overload can feel almost painful, and thinking and productive work is most often accomplished apart from others.

We, introverts, agree with Confucius that "silence is a true friend who never betrays." And, when the world becomes too loud, we gently ask, "Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods" (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Copyright (2013) by James Hugh Comey

Friday, September 21, 2012

My Head Exploded

Forty six years ago, my head exploded.

The year was 1966. I was a freshman at West Chester State College, beginning my undergraduate training to become an English teacher. I had just completed four years of an arduous Jesuit education at St. Joseph's Prep. I had commuted by trolley car, elevated train and subway over 700 times from the suburbs into the streets of North Philadelphia. Police sirens, screeching subway wheels, blaring traffic on Broad Street, and congested concourses underneath City Hall were my white noise while I navigated my way through Latin and French translations, obscure mathematical concepts, and the gobbledy gook of scientific charts and formulas.

Now I found myself in West Chester, PA, 30 miles outside the city, where the sky was blue, the streets were sleepy, and I knew no one. Classes didn't meet every day. Many professors didn't take attendance. And assigned readings in mandatory freshman subjects that had no bearing on my life were dull and not due for several days. 

Because I have always sought refuge in a library when I feel isolated and alone, forty six years ago I found myself  before a book in the Francis Harvey Green Library. I don't know why this particular book caught my attention. Maybe it was its green cover, or its images of trees and mountain tops, or its title. Or maybe it was my time to find and read this particular book.

I picked it up and read the opening line: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

Four years of Latin and Roman phrasing and mythology crumbled before the powerful Germanic and Scandinavian imagery that began to flow along the pages. A small, merry village of hairy-footed creatures, a wizard with uncertain motives, a gang of boisterous dwarfs, a perilous journey to find a dragon. I had never tasted such wonderful words. A single small creature had to find the pluck to venture away from all that he knew, surrounded by new companions and new enemies. I didn't know that Vietnam Nam and the draft board was just around the corner. I didn't know that a girl was going to burn herself to death outside the library two years later in protest to the war. I didn't know that Martin Luther King was going to be shot to death my junior year, or that Woodstock was going to erupt my senior year, or that four students would be killed at Kent State in 1970 for protesting. The revolution was only a tiny, unfelt wind in 1966. And I was a lonely kid who had found a book, and then a trilogy, that offered an imaginative place where courage and determination and the magic that comes from caring can make a difference in the world.

Today is the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. Tomorrow, the 22nd of September, is the celebrated birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo. These two creatures, along with their creator, blew apart my imagination close to half a century ago. And I thank them for it.

“Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

Copyright (2011) by James Hugh Comey

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Sudden Coming Together

My wife, Trish, saved a life two days ago. She hadn't planned on doing it. It happened quickly, in a sudden coming together of events. The players were a mixed bunch of actors, each with their own needs. The setting was our side and back yard. It was late afternoon, a gorgeous June day with a cool breeze that demanded open windows and easy conversation.

But, that conversation was suddenly pierced by the sharp cries of two catbirds that had landed on the fence just outside our side bay window. They were cries of anger and alarm. Something was very wrong. The catbirds have a nest on the other side of our house, in our other neighbor's high bush. The catbird couple are extremely protective and will sound the alarm at anything with beak or teeth. And their alarm was on full volume, so loud that I couldn't hear my wife speak.

I went to the bay window and looked out. Just below the catbirds was Mama Cat, with something in her mouth.

Mama Cat is a very large feral cat (maybe 20 pounds) that lives in the window well of our neighbor's house. They built a flap entrance for her so that she can enter into a small wire enclosure in their basement to escape the winter's cold and the summer's heat. They provide water and food for her. They captured her once many years back after she dropped a litter of kittens in their back yard and had her spayed. It was the only time humans have ever touched her. She is as wild as the wind. Her tracks are found in the deepest snow in the coldest months, and she sleeps under the tall ornamental grass in my backyard from April to August. I respect her independence and freedom. I especially respect her claws.

At first, I thought Mama Cat was holding a mouse by the neck. But then she turned slightly to look up at the screaming catbirds.

"Trish," I said. "Mama Cat has the baby bunny."

For weeks, we had been watching a tiny bunny in our back yard at daybreak and dusk. It was so tiny, at first, that it looked like a chewing dot of fur. Slowly, over time, the dot was growing. It could move like a blur when we approached, although it usually ducked beneath the smallest plants, thinking we couldn't see it.

"Trish," I said, turning, thinking she couldn't hear me with the din of the catbirds.  "Mama Cat has ...."

But Trish was gone, and I heard the back door slam.

"Oh shit," I said and ran.

When I reached the side of the house, my wife and Mama Cat were facing off.

"Drop it!" Trish said.

Mama Cat's instincts were on full throttle. She had made a kill. It had been a clean kill, probably with many hours of stalking and waiting to make that one fatal lunge. This was not your garden variety kitty. This was a wild animal that had survived God knows how many threats from enemies of all kinds. She was not about to be intimidated by a mere 5' 1.5" human.

"Trish," I said, coming up behind her. "It's too late. The bunny's dead."

"No it's not," she said. "I saw it move."

The rabbit hung from Mama Cat's mouth by its neck. Like its distant relatives on the African plains, Mama Cat had seized its prey by the throat and suffocated it.

"DROP IT," Trish screamed, rushing Mama Cat.

The catbirds flew with alarm into the air, and Mama Cat, trapped by a closed gate, leaped onto and over the fence to escape the charging woman. The bunny lay on the ground where she dropped it. Mama Cat had survived these many years by knowing when to fight and when to flee. And it was time to flee before the fury of this protective woman. The bunny was not Trish's child. It was not human and it was as wild as Mama Cat. But it was also helpless and young, and somewhere its mother was looking for it.

I looked at the lifeless body of the rabbit.

"It's dead," I said again. "It's too late to do anything."

Trish reached down and lifted up the body.

"I can feel its heart beating," she said quietly. "It's beating very fast."

The bunny didn't move in her hands. It didn't blink or struggle to get away from her.

Trish slowly laid the body in our garden. There was still no movement.

"Maybe it's neck is broken," I said.

"I'm going to stay with it," she said. "I don't want Mama Cat coming back and taking it."

I left Trish and the bunny in the back yard. Ever practical, I wondered what I would do with the dead body.

Twice I saw Mama Cat on the other side of the fence, staring into our back yard. I had the sense that she was calmly waiting for the human to go away so she could retrieve her prize.

Trish finally came inside.

"That was really nice of you," I said, "trying to save the bunny."

"It's gone," she said, washing her hands.

"Gone?" I said, confused. Had she already placed the body in a trash bag?

"It sat up after a while. I think it was in shock. Then, it got its feet under it and ran off into the neighbor's yard behind us where we always see it go."

I was stunned. I had written the bunny off. Twice.

"You saved a life today," I said. "That's incredible."

"I saw it move," Trish said and smiled. "I had to help it."

Over the last two days, I have thought repeatedly of Watership Down, one of my favorite books. Courage and persistance are the hallmarks of the rabbit characters in the novel. Against terrible odds, Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig and a host of others struggle to survive against many enemies.

At the conclusion of the book, Lord Frith says to El-ahrairah, a folk hero of the story: "All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed."

Add now add my wife, Trish, and her caring for the helpless and young to Lord Frith's blessings.

Copyright (2012) by James Hugh Comey

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Bless You, Ray Bradbury

My friend, Ray Bradbury, died yesterday. He was 91. Advanced age, a stroke 13 years ago, the refusal to have a driver's license or own a computer or fly in airplanes, never slowed Ray down. He wrote 1,000 words a day, every day, in the end dictating his words through the phone to one of his three daughters. Ray absolutely loved to write. I know, because he told me.

In 1986, I read an article in the February issue of Writer's Digest that featured Ray. I had been teaching various Bradbury stories to high school and community college students for 17 years. I showed the 16mm film, The Story of a Writer, so that students could sense and feel the development of Ray's writing process, to let them know that stories found in anthologies were real, the spawned creations of vulnerable humans. I invited my students to dare stroke the downy side of his imagination, to see if they could dance within the faerie rings that he created.

The Writer' Digest article stopped me dead in my tracks, for within it, Ray Bradbury revealed the single time and place and person responsible for setting his imagination on fire. It was Labor Day, 1932, and the Dill Brothers Combined Shows had arrived at Waukegan, IL. In front of one of the tents was Mr. Electrico, a man whose hair was standing straight up and whose body was glowing with "ten billion volts of pure blue sizzling power." Mr. Electrico spotted a 12 year old boy in the crowd and stretched out a charged sword, dubbing the boy on both his shoulders, and then touching the tip of his nose.

"Live forever!" Mr. Electrico cried out to Ray.

Ray's life would never be the same.

The next day, he snuck back to the tents and met Mr. Electrico, now minus the voltage. The man was a defrocked minister from Cairo, IL. He showed Ray all of the acts: the jugglers, the acrobats, the strong man. Then he said a most remarkable thing to the wide-eyed boy.

"We've met before. You were my best friend in France and you died in my arms in the Battle of the Ardennes Forest. And here you are, born again, in a new body, with a new name. Welcome back!"

It took me a full day to get over reading that story. I sensed that I needed to do something. I had two manuscripts that had been languishing with agents, and I was feeling drained. I was teaching during the day and writing at night, and it felt like I was getting nowhere.

So, I sat down and wrote a letter to the man who wrote such classic works as The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 and the screenplay for Moby Dick, that earned him an Academy Award nomination. At the conclusion of that letter, I wrote:

"I have recently completed reading "Ray Bradbury's Nostalagia for the Future" in the February issue of Writer's Digest. I was immediately struck by the tale of Mr. Electrico and the subtle metaphor it seemed to present to me. In 1932, a man who didn't know you from Adam touched your imagination with his vitality and showmanship and offered you a moment of friendship. Like you, I don't fly (I have since flown), but I did work in a gas station for 8 years to pay for my high school and college tuition. In the gas station, I learned that the quickest way to revive a battery run low is with a surge from a dependable energy source, perhaps one with "ten billion volts of pure blue sizzling power." I don't know if jumper cables would stretch from Los Angeles to Philadelphia or if you will even read this...."

Two weeks later, I received the following letter:

"Dear James Comey:

How kind of you to write.

Consider that this is the jumper cable across the country to electrify your batteries and jump-leap-bound-cavort-lark your wildest dreams to pour out of your fingertips.

Remember: throw up every morning, clean up every noon.

DO and then think.

DO first. Get it down and done, with joy.

Then think about it.

Bless you.

Much love for all of your life,
And thanks,
Ray Bradbury"

Included with the letter was a copy of an article that he had written for The Writer magazine in July 1961 called "How to Keep and Feed a Muse." He had gone through the article and underlined various sections that he thought might help me.

Our correspondence continued. He always had the most remarkable letterheads, and, one October, there were Halloween stickers on the outside of the envelope.

Then one evening, my phone rang around 9 at night.

"Hello?" I asked. I wasn't expecting anybody to call.

"Jim!" a voice shouted. "This is Ray. I was going to write but I wanted to talk to you."

"Hi Ray," I mumbled, my lips numb.

"Listen, Jim. Don't let those editors and agents get you down. What the hell do they know? It doesn't matter what they think. All that matters is what you think. Love what you're doing and don't listen to the bastards. Will you do that?"

"I will, Ray," I heard myself say

"It's what's kept me going, all these years, Jim. Love what you're doing, and it'll show. I just wanted to tell you that, Jim. Bless you."

And he hung up.

A stroke hit him a short time after that.

And now, he's gone.

I have never forgotten the joy and awe and thankfulness that I felt that night. In the conclusion of "How to Keep and Feed a Muse," Ray underlined: "Be certain of this: When honest love speaks, when true admiration begins, when excitement rises, when hate curls like smoke, you never need doubt that creativity will stay with you for a lifetime."

 Bless you, Ray Bradbury.

Copyright (2012) by James Hugh Comey

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Rubbing Elbows: Part Two

In "The Song of Wandering Angus," Irish poet and mystic, William Butler Yeats, writes: "I went out to the hazel wood, because a fire was in my head." I have had a fire in my head for the last six months. There is a story simmering just below my consciousness that singes my dreams and teases me with maybes and what ifs. It has heat and electric sparks, flashes of scent and guarded mystery. It is a tale in the becoming. The mulch of my fears and hurts, hopes and fragile needs is slowly blending with my memories to stir life into a story that seeks light and air.

This morning I awoke with the memory of a night in the late 1970s when my brother, Dave, and I went to a benefit in a loft in the SoHo section of New York City. We were both teaching at Upper Darby High School, just outside Philadelphia. Dave was the theatre teacher; I was a 12th grade English teacher. The benefit was being staged by Poets and Writers, a nonprofit literary organization that had started in 1970 and was kind enough to list me and my 1975 novella, Death of the Poet King, in their Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers. Their membership list was impressive, I wanted to meet a New York literary agent who had agreed to represent one of my books, and Gregory Peck and Walter Cronkite were speaking at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Harlem. It was an ambitious night, especially after teaching all day, but Dave and I were not afraid of traveling by Amtrak to the land of Oz to see how many wizards we might discover. We had no idea when we boarded the train at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia what lay before us.

By the time we arrived at Penn Station, grabbed a taxi, and made a mad dash up many steps to the agent's office, we caught her just before she was leaving. She was not what I was expecting. All business, with little patience or interest in me, she told me that she would try her best to find a home for my fantasy novel and dismissed us.

It was a spring evening in NYC so we decided to not let her lack of social graces get us down (she never did sell my book) and jumped on a bus to take us all the way up Amsterdam Avenue. When we arrived at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, there were limousines everywhere. The stone cathedral, dating back to 1892, was immense. Six hundred and one feet long, with a nave 124 feet high, the crowd inside was swallowed by seven chapels, long pews, and an air of majesty and reverence. A solo violonist began to play in the center of the cathedral. Just beyond him was Zubin Mehta, the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, gently guiding the mournful sound up and up into the shadows above us. No one spoke or breathed or blinked. Then Walter Cronkite began to speak from a lecturn on the raised high altar. The voice of America, the man who told us the truth each night on the CBS Evening News, here was the man who had walked me through triumphs (Apollo 11) and tragedies (assassination of John F. Kennedy). There was no separation between the man and the information he gave me each night, because "that's the way it is."

Then, without warning, Captain Ahab and Atticus Finch and Captain Mallory from the Guns of Navarone was before us. Gregory Peck, as handsome and deep voiced as his movie counter parts, looked at each and every one of us, and, heaven help me, I heard not a word the man said. I knew that he had a distant relative, like my own, who was involved in the Easter Rebellion in Ireland. I know that I had feared for him in The Omen, cried with him in The Yearling, and pitied him in How the West Was Won. Now, he was a flesh and blood man, decended from the big screen (there were big screens then), speaking with that particular cadence and tone directly to me.

I felt that the night was complete. It was only starting.

By 7:30 we found our way to the Poets and Writers' benefit  in SoHo and checked in. It wasn't crowded yet, but the buzz moving through the loft was that celebrity guests would be arriving shortly. The buzz was correct. Within an hour, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, E. L. Doctorow, Kurt Vonnegut, James Baldwin, Erica Jong, Susan Sontag, and I were standing in the same large room. I was teaching a Composition class at Delaware County Community College two nights a week to help ends meet, and we had just read a short story by Baldwin. Fortified by a couple of beers, I approached Baldwin and asked him if I might ask a question about the story. Much to my surprise, he was very open and spoke to me at some length about the origin of the plot. He was a short man with very expressive eyes and a slow, distinctive manner of speaking.

Dizzy with my success, and another beer, I approached Kurt Vonnegut, who, I quickly discovered was ahead of me in beer consumption. We chatted for half an hour about his unexpected entry into becoming a Sci Fi writer and where he saw his career heading.

Before the night was out, I found myself dancing to funky music between Erica Jong and Susan Sontang in a lower level of the loft. The benefit didn't break up until 11:30. Dave and I had to teach the next day, but the night wasn't over for us yet. But, I'll leave that tale for another blog.

Over the years, I have often wondered if any of this happened. Reality is such a fragile thing, and I have always had an active imagination. So, when I woke up this morning, remembering this odd adevnture where elbows were rubbed with the gods of film and TV and literature, I had to smile. Because, the first email that I opened was from Poets and Writers. And, in that email was this photo of the late James Baldwin, the late Allan Ginsberg, and Erica Jong from a benefit in a loft in SoHo in 1978.

 Poets & Writers party

Copyright (c) 2012 by James Hugh Comey

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Transformation

I big thank you to Robert DiLallo at his excellent site, Boomers Remember When, for posting my blog "St. James Place" ( and mentioning my enovel Uncommon Glory. His professional layout and pictures of Atlantic City from 60+ years ago has transformed my humble and private memory into a glossy and polished article.

Copyright (2012) by James Hugh Comey