Monday, May 4, 2015

pencil pensive

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“An observing spirit
can thus derive pleasure from the most
trivial circumstance.”

~ Thomas Cogan, Treatise on the Passions and Affections of the Mind.

familiar, yet anew

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In this fledgling, burgeoning season yet untracked, I take up the pencil anew. Just as the approach of Labor Day weekend annually brings school beginnings past to mind, so late-April rain rekindles the sense of semester-end promise. Gradually, it is becoming easier to write outdoors. Lengthened days remind me to get out and away from walls and ceilings- when possible. Apparently there is life to be lived, aside from the constant dawn-to-dusk workday grind. As daunting as inertia can be, rote repetition of denial has its detriments. Self-limitation can become a debilitating habit. By recollection and writing, at least in spirit I can vault the fence. It does mean expending energy, for a measure of transcendent vigilance. But it’s worth it, and the alternatives would be still more regrettable.

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Back when I had some schedule flexibility at my job, I’d take my coffee breaks outside- even in winter- as daily as I could. Occasionally this is still possible. My pocketable idea journals- after which I named this blog- have been constant companions for years. The musings and fragments are the ingredients for essays to be developed. Aperch on a public bench or at an outdoor café, I’d scratch down the date and time, then pencil some ruminating words beneath the quick heading, graphite today. Not exactly enough time for substantial stream-of-consciousness writing; perhaps more like rivulets. Such trivial habits create links that maintain the vital momentum of inquiry and ideas. Re-reading the lines and pages of these small books help me retrace my discoveries and thought processes- and at present I’m able to retrieve morsels of confidence to continue.

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new season

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At the season’s threshold, attending a baseball game, it was impressive to see the bright and well-tended grass on the field. The rest of Portland is still shaking off the ashen grit of a protracted winter. But the pleasant distraction of time measured out by innings has similarities with my writing intermissions: these microcosm journeys have lives of their own. Within the common threads are my pencilled notations. The intricacies of play-by-play baseball scoring are best expressed in sharp pencil. In the province of graphite, notations can be corrected and emphasized with the game’s progress. Causes to adapt a play’s documentation include a fielder’s choice, a passed ball mistaken as a wild pitch, a force-out, or a stolen base. Space needs to be made for pinch-hitters and relief pitchers. As umpires will occasionally amend a call, the erasable medium capably responds. To erase is human, indeed.

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The materials and instruments of a craft are means toward ends. In their respective contexts of writing and photography, scribal and image-recording tools serve to record perceptions. In turn, recorded thoughts are elements with which creative works are constructed. Well-crafted tools can have their own intrinsic value as objects. Such extensions of our creative selves present inherent inspiration.

For the moment, on the topic of the humble pencil, I’ve long found this particular writing medium to be as patient as it is tactile. Following pensive spells of recollection- which are misinterpreted as stoppages- a pencil will not dry out and have to be re-inked, as is necessary for pens, nor will the display of text shut off, as it happens with computer screens. I prefer writing instruments that wait for me, as opposed to my having to compensate for syntactical dissonances in the tools. (Ponder that, during your next download, update, reboot, server failure, and virus scan.) With the pace- whether fast or slow- is the proprietary way a pencil changes while it is in use. A sharpened point broadens to a smooth chisel edge that mirrors the angle of the writer’s grasp. Similar to dip-pen writing, emphasized downstrokes reflect as bolder lines. With enough writing and sharpening, a pencil transforms into something weathered. Wood dissolves into shreds and sawdust, the eraser (if there was one to begin with) flattens, and its temporal life shortens as its stamped lettering disappears. Like nutrients, pencils are provisional- vehicles that are transformed en route to their intended purposes.

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ideas and speculating

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Through a meandering journey measured in jots, my pencilled notions represent various reaches. Sentences scratched in curved graphite parallel my often fractured prayers: constant and unvarnished. But these held thoughts are purposeful means toward ends. I develop ideas and observations by tracking and articulating them. Pilgrimage is surely a voyage of comprehension. In the 18th century, Thomas Cogan wrote voluminously about emotion and philosophical speculation, in his Treatise on the Passions and Affections of the Mind. He described our abilities to cultivate ideas as a testament to our existence, fascinated by the ways we know that we possess our ideas. Cogan describes an idea as follows, from vol.2, p.153:

“It is that wonderful something which pertains to the thinking principle, it is its exclusive property, is indicative of an awakened state of mind, and which the mind knows to exist with such an infallible certainty, that we consider the conscious possession of ideas, as the strongest evidence of our existence.”

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Speaking for myself, not all my ideas are wonderful somethings, but wonder is surely a motivating ingredient. Writing, reviewing, and writing more ideas provides a continuum of recorded motion. Thoughts may be expressed into tactile and tangible lines in a notebook, for example. Instruments and surfaces for our ideas have their primary qualities- in this instance, the intrinsic properties of the physical writing tools. From there, an individual’s creative discernment can derive secondary qualities- impressions- based upon practice and experience. Strong sunlight upon writing-paper that reflects the warm end of the light spectrum; the sound of pencil-point upon the surface; the aroma of sharpened wood; the sense and warp of paper humidified by ocean winds.

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During one of my always-enlightening lunches with an elderly Chinese colleague, we talked about classical “thinking gestures.” Comparing generalities and tendencies of East and West, we noted the tradition exemplified in Auguste Rodin’s Thinker, with head-holding gesture. My friend described the Asian gesture of a “thinking philosopher” as having folded hands across one’s torso. This brought up how western spiritual practice has tended to emphasize the mind, compared to eastern practice emphasizing the heart. Even the classic Eastern Christian teaching about contemplation has been to “descend into the heart” so as to make ascent.

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Above: Rodin's Thinker;
Below: Korean Scholar, 16th century.

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One day last week, having successfully stolen away to read and write, I suddenly noticed my own gesture while trying to fathom a very complex text. My hand tends to prop my forehead, while holding a pencil. Comprehension may require writing down something! Hence the digestion by the soul, via the craftsman’s motion. Pursuing the essence of the sacred draws the writing outward and onward, often drawing the map while the exploration is in progress. Realizing this, I gratefully look ahead to more graphite todays.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015


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“There is a reason, well known to Job, why
even good men must drink the bitter cup of temporal adversity:
in order that the human spirit may test its mettle
and come to know whether it loves God
with the virtue of trusting faith and for God’s own sake.”

~ Saint Augustine, Civitate Dei, Book 1, chapter 9.


Wakeful nights are generally unlit. The grainy grey crepuscule misses the advantage of critical navigational visibility. Pacing my darkened apartment, I notice the dormant windows of the nine-storey building across the street. Or perhaps they are not all dormant. Others might be awake and about, in their respective shadowlands. Amidst the carbon dimness, snippets and scrapbooks of the mind reopen. Decades of scenes and words return to my thoughts in astonishingly categorized compendia. Being threatened on a New York street during a work day of delivering groceries when I was 16. Rewording what I should’ve said during a lecture I gave last week. Noticing the books I’ve collected and wondering where they will go when I’m gone. Opening a drawer of pencils and pens, slowly.

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Years ago, I worked with a former Navy photographer who had a million stories. One that stuck to me was about another photographer he worked with, a fellow who worked tirelessly, and eventually died on the job in the print room. My twenty year old self found the death horrifying, but John thought the setting was even more shocking. A frequent recollection comes from a more recent job, at a college. I often ate lunch with the chaplain, who was hilarious, yet grimly serious, and extremely energetic. Admiringly, I asked him what kept him going; he instantly responded, “Fear!” By that, he meant a fear of being unable to accomplish all that was required of him. A fear of inefficiency and failure. Achievement is frequently synonymous with survival.

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Having recalled and gleaned collected anecdotes, the dusky scrapbooks close, and my steps circuitously return to more attempts at repose. Marveling at all I’ve seen and experienced, my sense of intact self-survival is offset by doubts about misdirected turns. What have I learned? As I wonder about surviving, my thoughts turn to preservation and how I’ve been tenaciously conserving archives and books as a career. My colleagues and I go to great lengths to safeguard the conveyance of past and present into the future. Archives are assessed for their informational value, and thus interpreted in their indexing. We want these artifacts and their respective contextual documentation to survive.

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Why preserve knowledge? Does it have a future in this throwaway wilderness eviscerated by impatience? Do I genuinely survive? The wakeful questions persist. A vital aspect of an archivist’s work is to assess material for its authenticity and relevance. The invisible side of painstaking conservation is what our profession calls “the fine art of destruction.” Both parallels demand scrupulous conscientiousness. Imagine a human mind’s “records retention policy.” In order to survive, and survive well, there are burdensome excesses to discard and otherwise surrender in favor of what is worth preserving. Perhaps that is built into the continuum of personal survival. But as with archives, the process must be worth the vigilance.

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What is the purpose of survival, and what good is it? Persistently, achievement does not surface, and things appear to be adrift. I’ve found stagnation to be synonymous with erosion. Seeing no dividends from the promises I have tenaciously banked, naturally I am brought to question my investments. What is their worth? Will they mature in value and remunerate? It is easy to absorb the contagion of a popular culture that obsesses over “metrics,” “outcomes,” and “monetization.” Definitions of what is “redeemable” change with the rapidity and fickleness of software upgrades. Wondering about the value of survival also causes me to question the effort and its emphases. Why endure, when cost and “collateral damage” are so steep- or to borrow another corporate nugget, “unsustainable?”

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Goals must be re-examined, to justify all it requires to get there- let alone to tread water. Perhaps this perspective demonstrates my exposure to that very outcome-based culture that causes me to bristle. Ancient and profounder wisdom teaches me to savour the journey. The insomnia-riddled present questions all my tireless striving. Why excel and exert as I have all these years? Amidst the piles of wakeful thoughts are musings about why I’d done so well in school and worked so hard at all my jobs. What of that “permanent record” we were all warned about during 12th grade? Countless exams, research papers, projects, and presentations; where have they brought me? They are no more of a foundation than last week’s time-sheet. Can a mind weep over what was- and what might’ve been? Where does the road turn?

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survival is longing

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Only a few minutes’ reflection brings esteemed survivors to mind. I have personally known survivors of wars, the Holocaust, near-fatal illnesses, severe accidents, and various traumas. Their examples and insights have made deep impressions upon me. Thinking of these individuals brings me to recognize that built into survival is a driving sense of longing. Perhaps the forces that fuel the spirit of survival contain hope that is certain as to the transcendence of misery. Survivors entrust their aspirations to an innate knowing that their trials do not have the last word.

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My days witness endangered treasures. Facilitating and teaching history, I’ve versed myself in the critical dates and sites of destruction, repurposing, and transition. On my daily errands, my mind’s eye sees what once stood upon today’s empty lots, malls, and cheap sheet-metal postmodern structures. Privately, I see the deterioration caused by ailing health among loved ones and colleagues. Even parents, whom I habitually continue to perceive as mighty and everlasting, look uncharacteristically fragile. Memory has come to include places and people that predate me, affecting a past as powerful as the dynamic present itself. An archivist that is spiritually awake is never off-duty.

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Striving, and thus surviving, my abiding ache is to see fulfillment. It is as much a personal as a professional longing, and long overdue. Yearning indeed drives survival. Experience and knowledge sown must come to fruition. I have inherited portions of the survival legacies of many, and for that mere sake the squandering of such treasure is an unbearable prospect. A notable survivor, St. Augustine, wrote in the late-4th century with insights that read today as strikingly modern. The north African Christian leader and philosopher wrote through his own survival. Trying to make sense of the highly complex mystery of layered thought, he distinguished the realm of mind as differentiated from that of memory. Augustine observed how we can remember sadness with a mind that is gratefully glad. In exemplary Eastern fashion, spirit is shown to reside deeply within the viscera:

“Surely this does not mean that memory is independent of the mind. Who could say that? No doubt, then, memory is as it were, the stomach of the mind, whereas gladness and sadness are like sweet and bitter food. When they are entrusted to the memory, they are as if transferred to the stomach and can there be stored; but they cannot be tasted.”
~Confessions, ch.10.

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How or whether I survive to see better circumstances may be a question from which I’m best off disengaging. Perhaps the very aspect of the unknown as it concerns the future, its very open-endedness, will help me survive for whatever length of time is necessary. With my sense of what archival records-management means, choosing only to preserve what is vital, a great deal of faith is needed. Better than to survive is to survive intact. I know merely to press on, in spite of poor visibility. Part of that unknowing is my astonishment at how I’ve survived this far. Through this mortal life, alas, the simple answers are outnumbered by complex questions. There isn’t a wakeful night or an essay to solve them all, but as the sun rises there comes another try.

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Monday, March 2, 2015


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“Everyman, I will go with thee
and be thy guide,
In thy most need
to go by thy side.”

~ Knowledge, speaking to Everyman, The Summoning of Everyman.

My intention is not to write about disillusionment. There are more than enough reasons for discouragement, and so I will resist the temptation of enumeration. For the moment, it suffices to merely acknowledge adversity and the existence of troubled times. To hopelessness, I say to it that I can see it; I know where it lies, and I know how near to my boundaries such threats lurk and encamp. And I continue writing, pencils sharpened, aware of threats and vulnerabilities, along with the blessed mystery of open ends unknown.

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As well as being a steady companion, writing is at once historic witness of things past, and reminder of what is hopeful. The phrase, “the unobserved life is not worth living,” attributed to Socrates by Plato, is surely subverted by those who write of their lives. We may say the written life is one that is accompanied, and acknowledges that very accompaniment. Sojourning among mountaintops, valleys, and protracted stretches of surface, reflective writing does not waver in its importance. Persistence as an active observer through disillusionment finds a parallel with perseverance in belief.

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Over the years, I’ve seen many individuals define their identities by their adversities. Indeed, not one of us can avoid being shaped by that which affects us. Somehow just the other day, when a colleague talked about street crime, in passing I mentioned having been mugged four times in New York. In subtly embedded ways, such ingredients find light of day long into an unpredictable future. Relatively small grains of time potentially leave undiluted impressions. Assaults, confrontations, and betrayals span from youth through adulthood- all with a first-person narrating protagonist in common, all with the threat of disillusionment, all with some sort of incidental instruction. It seems I retain a foothold in the territory of childhood, as I continue to see and recall as I had many years ago. There remains an idealism that affirms a belief that productive work will lead to advancement, and that it is of greater consequence than cronyism, even when success does not materialize.

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Writing proves to be a witnessing documentation, no matter the level of accomplishment in an individual’s life. Disappointments and fears have their places for acknowledgment, truthfully within our contexts. But not all points of reference serve well as focal points. A costlier pitfall than failure is that of cynicism. A rarified form of perseverance is an outlook that is free of bitterness. I would rather be identified by my aspirations than my defeats. To write honestly, both aspects deserve their place; it is for the journal writer to determine their emphases.

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Through my years of studying medieval history and philosophy, I’ve long appreciated the Everyman quotation. Books printed by the publisher Everyman’s Library include the phrase on their front flyleaves. The source is a morality play, in which the characters are named after various traits- an aspect also found in such classics as Piers Ploughman and Pilgrim’s Progress. Everyman struggles with temptation, making an arduous pilgrimage of reckoning. He carries his “account book,” or ledger of his deeds. We might say he keeps a journal. Among those he meets along the way is his friend Knowledge, who pledges to be Everyman’s guide in this odyssey en route to eternity.

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An underpinning for this blog is the perspective of an everyman. I’m an everyman, a writing soul that documents a pilgrimage of trust. In my blog photographs, I do not fully face the camera, and I use a pseudonym. The pilgrimage is the grand, overarching setting for an ordinary life. In spite of anonymity, there abides something unique even in an ordinary worker’s life. Common and fragile as a reed, as Pascal observed, yet no less than a thinking reed. A weathered, vulnerable plant that can distinguish significance, being, and articulation. An anyone that writes, insisting upon my own meaning, despite having been denied it at many points in my history. Thinking, or speculatively observing, along with writing, entwines as an unfolding testament to hope. Essentially, creativity is aspiration.

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An everyman (or, an anyperson) that is demandingly individual. Do these terms conflict? The contrast may find its sole exception within the complexity of a human’s life. Though dust, and to dust shall we return, each sojourning soul has potential as a creative instrument. Temporal and eternal, the wavering reed and the rock of eternity, exist together. A humbled everyman, I am distinct enough to write my journeys. Journal-writing is an affirmative to living, a declaration of meaning- albeit held privately. But the pursuit must not be self-obsessed. I prefer to think of reflective writing as an interaction with my environment, a mode of communication that combines contemplative recollection and exploration. Writing gives place for acknowledgment of what my soul witnesses and experiences. With the freedom to contemplate and write honestly, even if just for my own eyes, I’m able to respond to any person, thing, or event- now, near, or far.

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And indeed, with a medium such as the one through which you see these words posted, we have the fellowship of writers’ and readers’ crafts. That means writing, even journal-writing, allows me to participate and contribute in the direction of something larger. Part of this contribution is encouraging others to write their observations, and thus sharing the craft- from the documentation aspect to the arts of handwriting. Learning and observation must continue. These days, in between my work and caregiving responsibilities, I am writing to find some new goals. A life of short projects causes my ambitions to look too modest. Beyond my occasional “busman’s holidays” to Boston, fine as they are, there must be something grander. My hope is for this to materialize as I continue writing and reading, which thankfully happens without much effort. Let Knowledge go alongside this Everyman.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015


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“Your mind is also blocked.
Yet the right road awaits you still.
Cast out your doubts, your fears and your desires,
let go of grief and of hope as well,
for where these rule the mind is their subject.”

~ Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy.

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Hoping to do justice to my years of conscientious work on this site, I’ll begin the year with this short note. My recent three months of exhaustion have brought my creative pursuits to a detrimental silence. Along with tireless full-time employment, I’ve taken on the role of caregiving and advocating family member. Between these two spheres, journal writing has been thinly inserted during short breaks and in places such as waiting-rooms, kitchen counters, and surgical units. On most nights, after work, my appetite has intuitively gravitated toward reading- reading consoling words. I intend to explore the latter theme with an essay. Added to these trying times, northern New England remains in the throes of winter weather which has exceeded most recorded statistics.

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Today, I reminded myself of an employment burnout experience- years ago- when I drove to an ocean cove, rather than back to my apartment. I needed to interrupt the breakneck pace, and clear my thoughts. Looking at the crags, the vast sky, and the waves, it occurred to me that I hadn’t been making any new photographs. Possessing the tools and the vernacular was not sufficient; these instruments and the mind needed to be put to greater use than to merely punch the time-clock. The following weekend, I began developing film and printing my own work again. Needless to say, this led to several shows. But the important thing was the retaking of my own creative threads.

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This past week I gave a lecture, and referred to my concept of the archives of the soul. Each one of us collect, curate, and organize our own preserved thoughts, images, and “recordings.” We bring life to our archives as we share them. Later that night, I thought of how I must continue practicing what I preach. Vigilant daily journal-writing, in and around participating in life, will surely lead to something. Just that small shred of hope, albeit beneath some eighty inches of snow, is enough to record these words and post them. More to follow, as I persevere.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

after eight

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“Eight days a week
is not enough to show I care.”

~ John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Eight Days a Week.

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La Vie Graphite, the blog you presently see before you, is eight years in progress, and now into its ninth year. The actual anniversary is in June, but this past year has been an unusual one. Among the many adventures documented among these essays, my long sojourn at Oxford- combined with a return to Wales- led to the recent string of fourteen essays. My determination to complete the cycle of writing delayed the annual recognition of my online writing continuum. Dreamlike and dream-fulfilling as the experience was, the time of exploration, substantial study, and expression was highly concentrated and not easy to describe. After returning, I’ve been trying to regather my forces through intense exhaustion. The usual output has curtailed, but I have every intention to resume my pace.

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As always, gratitude is at the forefront with each milestone. I am grateful for the reading audience- especially considering the autobiographical nature of most of the content in my essays. My thankfulness also continues for the opportunities thus far in my adventures with the written word, the life of pilgrimage, and simply for the ability to write. Amidst eight years of essays, I’ve written from various countries, many retreats, countless indoor and outdoor perches, and during a couple thousand workday lunch breaks. This format is almost as portable as the always-handy pencil and notebook.

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For me, blogging began as an outward version of my written journals. I wanted to reach beyond a blank bound book, composing some completed, more polished thoughts as essays, using photography- which for many years was my livelihood and career. And thus the production has proceeded, through travels and motifs, with readers and fellow writers, gratefully as somehow part of an ethereal fellowship in the blogosphere- even the Typosphere. Indeed, I continue with my daily handwritten journals. About ten years ago, I began the pattern of maintaining two journals: one that has structured observations written in ink, and another that is simply a place for fast jottings in pencil- which I’ve long referred to as la vie graphite. The latter tends to be a pocket-sized notebook which accompanies me as easily as a wallet. Pencilled observations, like charcoal sketches, can be smudged, drawn-over, and redrawn, due to the amenable nature of graphite. Blogging adds yet another useful dimension, aside from online presentation: a commitment to production. The “date stamp” of blogging is a constant reminder to continue. I can’t sit on my hands- or lean on my elbows- if I want to be a writer. At the same time, I must live the experience as a participant in life and as a practitioner, and write, if I want to be a writer. Commitment and authenticity help to counteract ignorance. In some memorable words of written correspondence, Flaubert described this passion very well, invoking Pierre de Ronsard:

“Ronsard advises the poet ‘to become well versed in the arts and crafts- to frequent blacksmiths, goldsmiths, locksmiths, etc.- in order to enrich his stock of metaphors. And indeed that is the sort of thing that makes for rich and varied language. The sentences in a book must quiver like the leaves in a forest, all dissimilar in their similarity.’”

Flaubert quoted the 16th century poet, in a letter he wrote in 1854, and here I have added this to the blogosphere in 2014. It is wonderful advice, and I have found such perspective extremely useful in my observations and reflective writing. Listening for the vocabularies of mechanics, scientists, and engineers- as examples- has opened descriptive doors I might not have found otherwise. In this way, journal-writing is something of a journalistic adventure. Returning to my gratitude, observing and writing seem to continue for me quite naturally.

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Above: Portland Road, in Oxford, England.
Below: Portland, Maine.

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Now to look forward. Even after having traversed these years, there are still many words and themes yet to assemble. There is much more writing to do than there is time available. It is as though a very lengthy path has a very short span of daylight. A personal journal is an ever-unfurling manuscript, mirroring the places and times of the writer. From the point of writing- the present- we can exercise our forecasting, while producing an archival record for our future reference. The recorded word represents a quest, and in such cultivated pursuits we may find our applicable philosophy. In his commentary upon the works of Saint Bonaventure, John F. Quinn observed how the intention of moral philosophy centers on the practice of compassion. Revolving around that intention, our moral action consists in

“ unremitting search for beatitude, or happiness, founded on a general knowledge or innate awareness of the principles of natural law and on a natural or instinctive desire for the one and only good that can satisfy a human’s proper longing for spiritual fulfilment.”

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With prow to the waterways, Year Nine proceeds with hopes for more octaves to follow. I also hope to find more new recommendations for blogs to read, as well as more readers with whom to interact. The pursuit remains worthwhile. Some of you have asked me about the writing process and about the materials of our craft. I’ll try to balance some of these practitioner’s notes, alongside the journeys and observations. Here’s to eight going on nine!

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