Tuesday, September 29, 2020

simple and plain

“A vocabulary of truth and simplicity
will be of service throughout your life.”

~ Sir Winston Churchill

Voyaging through the present pandemic is now beyond the half-year mark. Places of embarkation are long out of view. Horizons are yet to reveal lands of safe arrival. We were all told this would be a long haul; now we’re really seeing it, but are yet to see the other end of this tribulation. In short, the duration of this indefinite and provisional time is unknown. Respecting the rules concerning quarantining and traveling, all my scenery is limited to being very close to home. There’s my apartment, then there are the views from my apartment, the little streets nearby, and the ocean. Living on a peninsula, looking out to the Atlantic is how I can see horizons these days. Navigating these times is that part of a sea crossing during which traces of terra firma are not visible. All that tangibly remains is the going; the baroque philosopher Suárez would’ve said the transition between substances is the modal distinction. And the transit is somehow an entity. Had he lived in a place like the Maine coast, he might’ve left us observations about boat wakes. But the present is one of being at sea.

Enduring these months is a learning experience of what to eliminate or change. There are shortages and there are pinched resources. Less money, in the face of inflation and reduced pay, but less to buy. Three full tanks of gas in my car, in six months. Having less causes a discipline of needing less. As the workplace began requiring a weekly on-site workday, I’ve simply treated my department like a quarantine: A straight-out eight-hour day, with granola bars and thermos of coffee. There are no places to go for lunch, anyway. Then it’s become two days on-site. More granola bars for the perpetual motion. I just want to get the work accomplished, plain and simple. Perhaps it’s an imposed austerity, but the workplace is the place to get work done; there is no more socializing, and it’s hard to tell how much longer the situation will last. I’ve noticed myself working faster and more strategically, as I cram all I can into those hours. Working from home is no less industrious, but it’s much safer. Most of us are under pressure to make the best of a bad situation. I’m grateful, at least, to be working. Life is surely muted and compromised, but I’m always brought to step back and consider this context when I see the clusters of those encamped in the city park with no place to call home. The pandemic forces us to learn to not take tomorrow for granted.

Along with adapting my perspective as necessary reactions to these times, there remain ways to turn the can’ts into how-abouts. For things that can’t be done, how about this-or-that? I’ve occasionally made my desk at home look like a table in a café. The price is right, and I chose the music myself. No traveling has meant no healthful, renewing retreats; my last sojourn was in late January, and there’s no telling when I can do this again. I tried a “virtual pilgrimage,” offered by a contemplative community in France. There were reflective texts, art works, even views of mountain scenery. Well-intended, indeed, but melancholic for me to be away from fellowship, the aromas of the woods, and the promise of the upward roads. Not every can’t has a compensating how-about. This recent half-year has been a combination of restlessness, sedentariness, and exhaustion. Yet, still, I’m very conscious of my hope to be able to write about this odyssey after it becomes safe again to move about and congregate normally.

Survival thus far has meant isolating, doing without, muting energies, wearing a facial covering when outside quarantine, and noting the passage of irretrievable time. And then there’s simplicity. Ambiguous, to be sure. The first sentence in this paragraph lists some of the negative aspects in the unfortunate simplification of daily life. Up against this, positive simplicity needn’t be portrayed as the upside of down. To continue simplifying every side of life is the most responsible thing I can do, leaving some room for creature comforts. After all, this voyage is about survival and sanity. But the positive side of plain and simple is in finding the good in the unextravagant. Running my nuts-and-bolts errands, such as what I call “stealth grocery shopping,” on a weekend day at 6:30am- an ideal time to socially distance- I ponder the better sides of basic. Stopping for a treat at my favorite doughnut bakery, steeped in the perfumes of pastries and so many flavors, I chose a plain doughnut. No doubt, these are fantastic in their plainness, such that I could taste the nutmeg. A old-fashioned just-made plain from Tony’s has the slightest crunch; perfection in its very simplicity.

Shaker Community: Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Just up the road apiece from here is the world’s last Shaker community. In the 19th century, a member of that community wrote the song “Simple Gifts,” which is known around the world. It begins with:

‘Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free;
'Tis a gift to come down where I ought to be.

For the Shakers, simplicity is regarded as a liberating gift. It’s a gain along the pilgrimage of life. This kind of perspective is also found among many spiritual communities and monastic orders. A Quaker’s reference to a person as plain is a great compliment. I remember an elder of the Portland Friends Meeting speaking reverently about a person he admired as being “substantial,” and having “deep roots.” A beautiful, eloquent plainness.

Whether it was during many years of being extremely busy in social circles, or now in spartan isolation, I’ve seen the value of keeping things simple. This is how thought processes and methodologies retain clarity and structure. That “gift to be simple,” as the Shakers taught so many to sing, is also the grace to be very clear in thought and intention. Simplicity, like honesty, is great cause for taking stock. And when we say “simple as that,” we’re describing something highly complex! A photograph such as the one I made of the coffee, journal, and doughnut (at the beginning of this essay) may be “deceptively simple.” The composition is designed so that viewers’ eyes move through and around the image, not landing statically in one place. Simple and somehow elaborate.

Contending with this global health crisis demands compromises, paring-down, simplification. When I stop to write in my journal, noticing how quiet downtown streets have been for months- in a part of the world that always has bustling summers- that’s when I realize the complexity of my tactics that have centered around regaining semblances of normal. The comforts are humble, but their meanings are profound: writing, reading, sending and receiving letters, music on the radio, familiar foods. Parallel to my hours of compressed work commitments is a conscious fermenting with hope to emerge from this as one who will be better cultivated. The basic is the basis, and the most understated forms of modal distinction are conduits to real treasure: written words and spoken words, sounds, tastes, musings, prayers. A Franciscan Brother in France once said to me, “Go to God with trust, simplicity, and affection.” I could gather that beneath his phrase were strata of education, lived experience, and deep roots. From such complexities traversing the cycles of time, the simplest solid truths emerge.

Monday, August 31, 2020

world of our own

“Close the door, light the light
We're stayin' home tonight
Far away from the bustle and the bright city lights
Let them all fade away, just leave us alone
And we'll live in a world of our own

We'll build a world of our own that no one else can share
All our sorrows we'll leave far behind us there
And I know you will find there'll be peace of mind
When we live in a world of our own.”

~ The Seekers, A World of Our Own

redeeming the time

Even in quarantine, there remains a need for safe refuge. And I am bearing in mind how there are woefully so many that are without places of residence, along with those without employment- each in a personal state of emergency. As for my continuum, it is through tentative and part-time work, although my thoughts and efforts are occupied on a full-time basis. Over these pandemic months, I’ve been able to accomplish about 75% of my work from my apartment. Albeit in a small living space, it’s been important to keep the “work work” away from my writing table. The two areas are at opposite corners of my apartment- even using two different laptop computers. Yet still, after the intensities of each day, there must be time and space to decompress. And the recollective and regrounding time lasts well into the night- long after the whole building has gone to sleep, and long after the drunken rowdies from the nearby bar’s outdoor operations have driven away (under the influence, no less). A few midnights ago, I pencilled this on a slip of paper: Even in quarantine, we seek refuge. Tranquility is not automatically part of our shut-in situations.

patience and pace

Every meaningful idea and project takes time and patience to develop. Central to the frustration of the present societal standstill is how the paces of time remain unrelenting. If hurry up and wait wasn’t bad enough, now we have something more like, it must but it can’t. Procedure and impatience never played well together. As children, our superiors reprimanded many of us for our impatience; as adults, many of us must chafe under the impatience of our superiors. Ponder that bit of irony. For this occasion, I’ll single out the professional archival work I’ve been accomplishing for the past twenty-two years through projects and public service. My mentor in graduate school used to repeat to us that we archivists should always be ready to educate colleagues around us about what our work entails- particularly librarians and administrators. Conserving, curating, interpreting, and managing original documents and artifacts is meticulous work. Doing the work methodically and correctly actually saves time, so that it will not have to be re-done later. The best stewardship means choosing not to cut corners, thinking of the benefits to be derived by future researchers. It takes time for any organic entity to bear fruit, and my two decades of experience have shown me how true this is. And the benefits are well worth the hard work- with this attentive labor requiring equal parts of patience, drive, steadfastness, and sensitivity to the subject matter.

archival processing

In September 2009, I seized upon an unusual opportunity that very few archivists ever encounter. After years of taking on and completing a number of regional archival and preservation projects, I was alerted by a family member of the city’s newspaper founder that the company had been resold and the building housing all publishing operations was being gutted. Rushing downtown on my bicycle and descending to the old building’s sub-basement, I saw large piles and stacked boxes and bags of unorganized photographic negatives. Being both a career photographer as well as an archivist, I recognized the mounds of cellulose fragments as camera originals, and very likely a century of Greater Portland history in primary form. Through the buzz of removal service workers, I found the supervisor and asked him about the film. He found it curious that I wanted the discarded negatives, even after I told him about my livelihood. “You want this stuff? You gotta take it away this week, or it’s all going to a smelter,” he said, evidently referring to the silver content in the film. Speaking for my institution, and with the newspaper founder’s elderly granddaughter ready to support my rescue, I said “That’s not going to happen. I’ll take it all.” With the descendent’s extremely valuable support, the ownership and copyrights were legally cleared in favor of my institution and department, and all the film was moved out of the gutted sub-basement to a temporary offsite workspace for me to use as I began organizing this massive accession. And there began my odyssey of salvaging and rescuing what has turned out to be a priceless trove of more than a half-million unique photo images, taken between 1936 and 2004.

The process is surely worth its own series of essays, but for the moment it suffices to say that my life’s experiences served me well, marching into this project undaunted, using and defending the best practices of my field at every turn. It took three years to analyze, organize, and arrange all the pieces of film; during that first-pass I began creating the control document- known as a finding-aid. I examined over a million exposures. The second pass has been the highly critical descriptive treatment, which I merged with rehousing the images into non-acid alkaline enclosures. The process is painstaking, even at my level of dedication and devotion, and a great deal of research has been needed so that these images (which had been right on the precipice of a smelter!) could be brought out to audiences. I’ve been making productive use of these lockdown times by turning up my paces with this vast project, having fewer interruptions, focusing on the digitization of the most informative of these images. I’m carefully identifying all locations and coordinates, including building addresses, personal names, and intersections, remembering how researchers value pictures of streets and structures. The best of the images have intrinsic value, but that value is inestimably enhanced with through descriptive information providing context for the subjects.

the phenomenon of archival photographs

When I rescued all the film discarded by the newspaper, I had a fairly good idea concerning the extent of the manual and intellectual strain that would have to follow. Despite knowing that physical space for processing and storage was going to be a problem, the urgency of securing the images was my greater concern. And it must be written here that as clearly as I recall the trash removers’ remarks about smelters, I also remember looking at those sorry mountains of scattered negatives and visualizing the completed work in my mind’s eye. I’m almost there. To be able to advance this project on a daily basis, on a shoestring and without proper facilities, I fronted my own money for some equipment, generated a grant, and recruited a team of volunteers to assist with the cataloguing and rehousing. And the unexpected joy in this stewardship is how the project began to take on a community aspect.

My hand-picked assisting volunteers have been senior citizens with a flair for history and memory. They remember many of the subjects in the photos, and our work together has been as satisfying as its been productive. We’ve had to use a work table in a public area, which has meant many passers-by have been watching the project take shape. People naturally ask questions, and the years of banter have forged a fellowship of appreciation for preserving local history. Everyone has stories, and I’ve been glad to listen. Such splendid intangibles cannot be properly bullet-listed in annual reports. Spirited friendships are for the archives in our hearts.

As the reckoning with quarantining and having to work from home set in, many of my coworkers found themselves either furloughed or scrambling to keep busy. Capitalizing on this productive solitude, I brought access to my thousands of image scans from the negatives, plus that priceless finding-aid, to my dining table so that I could begin building substantial digital archives. As with the initial processes, digitization and accurate interpretation is equally demanding. But these are necessary results, fruits of the labors of salvaging and preserving, and respecting the historicity of these treasures. Each uploaded image has been prefaced by my analysis and delicate scanning. More often than not, I confirm precise locations with maps and city directories- even when I know places from my own memory. Each image has stories to be respected.

Just as elements of serendipity have surfaced throughout this project, from the initial pass through the researching stages, this unique archive brought to life during pandemic times has accumulated a serendipitous audience. As the digital image collections have been growing in substance and coverage, viewership has been exponentially increasing. For the past several months, I’ve been hearing from hundreds of grateful browsers from places far away from Maine. Local residents, ex-pats, and admirers love the photos; and they tell me about their connections to the subjects. Most are people I’ve never seen before, and would not have been among my walk-in traffic. The comments are profoundly touching. This inadvertent and large new audience gives me a lot encouragement, and the sum total confirms to me that I’ve been doing the right things in the right ways- from the day I saw those acetate heaps in the gutted building. These images, these frozen moments in the lives of places and people, are indeed meaningful to many. The affections of the viewing public are equal to mine.

Among the many things I’ve been learning over the past 5 months is about the sustaining power of nostalgia. People everywhere are shut away from the lives they had before last spring. The months since have been filled with news that is at once grim, disappointing, and often tragic. Future hopes of cures, vaccinations, opportunities, socializing in person, and economic recoveries are too far away to predict. And in our natural inclination to dream, amidst closed doors we look to the past. More precisely, we look for comfort to what we like about the past. People tell me about the stores and dining places dear to their remembrances, and because I’ve so carefully catalogued these businesses by names and addresses, I post to the online archive the beloved department stores, small shops, diners, coffeehouses, and restaurants of Portland. I’ve been adding schools, streets, parks, and aerial views- all to the delight of many. It ceaselessly amazes me to see how a still image can ignite emotional and detailed stories from people far and wide. I digitized and posted a photo of a popular doughnut shop, and another of a delicatessen- and streams of comments followed, regaling me about what everyone loved to order, summer jobs, school days, and family traditions. When I post photos of stores, people tell me about what they bought at these places. It’s really wonderful. At the sight of a picture of a furniture store, a man told me that he had no pictures of his father’s store from decades ago. Well I found it and posted it, to his great joy. Into people’s frustrated quarantines, I’m providing some consolation through their memories, using archival imagery.

Louis Armstrong gets a Maine lobster.

worlds of our own

When an anticipated turn is undetectable, good news can come from reminders of the past visiting our present. Reflective personal writing and professional life both cause me to comprehend this; often the two spheres are juxtaposed. I can certainly understand my corresponding library patrons just as I could with years of walk-in seekers. Even the most serious researchers want to reminisce. And I accompany all of them, occasionally blending in names and locations from my own memories. As for the negatives- especially the later images, having been a journaling local and an active participant in this city, I’ve enriched descriptive metadata that would never have been gleaned from minimalist microfilms. As an archivist, the facts must be verifiable, and yet I've discovered the crossroads of archival processing and a kind of documentary narration. I'm able to provide descriptive context from my own memory, giving roots to the subjects when they are missing.

I was present when the photos were taken, took one of them myself, and personally knew the people in the photos. In addition, having found these photos, I am able to document the connections between the social resource and its founding church, to tell the most complete story possible. It's important to be the one that can AND will do this sort of thing.

As we do what we can do, and refrain from what we can’t do, having worlds of our own will be integral to survival. I do not consider nostalgic viewers of archives as different from me. It is as though thousands of individuals, each with a camera, are pointed at the same locations. Obviously, the differences are in our ages, backgrounds, personal interests, and how each of us look at life. While I’ve been assembling archives out of the film I rescued, diligently entering coordinates, names, and dates, I’ve also been reconstructing a world that is gone yet still remembered by many. The crisp and captioned photographs are sharpening countless memories. People are telling me they had forgotten how this store and that store were across the same street; they ask me “what’s at so-and-so’s address now?” The photos are sparks that rekindle vibrant recollections, well worth recording. Photography has unique ways of saying, “yes, this was true,” and “it was really there, and so were you.” In that sense, archival photographs are evidence, stopping time in the click of a one-hundredth-of-a-second’s lens shutter. It is a phenomenon that is part of my every day.

“Joy is the serious business of heaven,” wrote C. S. Lewis as the narrator in Letters to Malcolm. Amidst reading and hearing about the cheers of recalling things cherished, I am in a humbled wonder at the effects of the pictures. And it is very serious business, too, to be accurate and thorough. By presenting these archives, I am “giving back” the histories of those whose existing imagery was through what they try to remember. Anecdotes faded and blurred by the mists of time are sharpened. In an archivally metaphysical way, I’ve been rebuilding demolished places that are missed by many. During the voyage of tracking through seven decades of negatives, I saw how many churches this city had, which are long since torn down- and quietly as a subseries, I created a complete visual database of houses of worship. These are vanished places that are both historically very interesting and also very dear to many. Once again, it is a vital role to be the one who can and will do this sort of thing. Treating the joys as serious business has generated a heartening appreciation that exceeds anything I’ve experienced prior to this past April. There is more to do, and there are moments to be seized while possible- even in the unpredictable not-knowing. The worlds of our own may include grand stores and luncheonettes, Victorian railroad stations, houses and neighborhoods, repair shops, pastries, holidays, events, celebrities, relatives and friends, children’s street games, and big snow storms. We have these worlds, and the more they inspire and instruct, the more they are worth cultivating and conserving.

Monday, August 3, 2020

no return

“Got your past behind you
Got your future in front of you

You can't go back
You can go on

You can't go back
You can go on

You can't go back
You can go on”

~ Michael Roe and the 77s, God Sends Quails

Now into the fifth month of these times of pandemic, distancing, and quarantining, discernible perceptions continue oscillating between settling and changing. The term “novel virus” has long since left the news cycles. We’re all about equally sick of hearing the word “unprecedented,” as we are of hearing about “the new normal.” It was new for a very short time, and this was never normal. When not occupied with work-from-home routines (for which I’m actually grateful), stealth and sparing masked errands, the adversity of boredom sets in. Not being able to do anything, go anywhere that isn’t mandatory, travel, or visit anyone amounts to significant boredom. Fortunately, I have journaling, letter-writing, and studies to keep me musing, sharp, and aware of others. But there is nothing normal about stagnation. I tend to use words like purgatory, plague, and exile for these times. I remember immediately noticing extremes in human behavior, that good souls tended toward generosity while malevolence tended toward intense cruelty. This still manifests. As well, I credit the strength of the human spirit in the ability to continue looking for equilibrium during crisis times. I’ve loved going for walks all my life, but the sight of my deserted city is too painful to behold. The other day, while walking an errand, I heard myself say “this is endless; just endless.” Repeating this felt terrible.

When the lockdown began, my automatic response to the sudden workplace changes had me reaching for a few modest essentials. With hardly a thought, after receiving permission to fetch my laptop and some project materials from my office space, I went back out to buy a few items as businesses were starting to close in. I bought pen refills of various colors, a clipboard, a dozen household light bulbs, and cold medicine (in case of any symptoms). All of these things have been put to use, for working from my dining table. My electricity bills have surely increased due to resourcing my work-space, but at least I’m employed. Even after 4 ½ months, all of this still feels like “fight-or-flight.” By urgency and necessity, I’ve had to learn some new disciplines related to avoiding the plague. A great many emotions are being stuffed into my journals. Many longings amidst the witnessing of tragedies. I’m also remembering my many years of studies in medieval history and philosophy, and how the major plague in Europe was called “The Great Dying” by its mystified contemporaries. Is there a hastened death sentence upon all of us? But we have many technologies and means that did not exist 6 ½ centuries ago. On this indefinite road to a better version of “normal,” part of my self-talk is to focus on hopes instead of adversities.

A few weeks ago, amidst my self-directed studies, I revisited an old morality tale called The Purgatory of Saint Patrick. It was written during the late 12th century, in an ancient style of French, and influenced Dante’s writings about journeys into netherworlds. In very brief, this captivating story is about the penitent Owein the Knight whose search for the sacrament of reconciliation brings him to the door of Purgatory. Before he embarks upon the deep and distant descent, an abbott warns Owein that he must persevere and endure the full extent of Purgatory to find and secure his salvation. The abbot counsels him and says, “In whatever torment you will experience, call on the name of Christ; you will be delivered by His name.” Owein must remember without ceasing, throughout his torments and extreme trials. The story is replete with graphic descriptions of tortured souls that were unsuccessful in their passages across the dangerous terrain, having fallen into fatal temptations. Heriocally, Owein repeatedly remembers to call upon God as instructed, often within a thread of hellfire. More than the pains of the crucible of purgation, Owein’s response to his suffering demonstrated his transformation and eventual ascent. He experienced deliverance as he insisted upon trusting the compassion of God. Owein’s experience and survival changed him, and he became a better person after he returned to his worldly life.

A chronic insomniac, I often listen to the radio late at night. Unfortunately, just about all the programming is so negative and absurd, I wind up on sports stations- even if just for a few minutes of doze-worthy escape. Being within about 325 miles from New York City, I can pick up the AM signal from the always entertaining “66 The Fan.” Amidst these times, the world of games, statistics, trades, and trivia has essentially been ground to a halt. And oddly enough, WFAN’s erudite and urbane Steve Somers has evolved into a late-night philosopher. During a broadcast, probably at around 2am, Somers began asking the listeners to talk about what they wanted to discuss- and it didn’t have to be about the baseball and basketball games that were not going on. From there, he became the soothing and wise presence which has endeared him to an even larger audience, broadcasting from his kitchen in Manhattan. At this writing, some games are being played- to empty seats decorated with cardboard photos of spectators, as athletes have been contracting the virus. Many have understandably decided not to take the risk of playing. The radio discussions broach the merits of simply cancelling the compromised baseball season. Somers asked his listening audience:“Should there be sports at this time?” He added, “What’s fair to expect?” From there, my musings continue with wondering about how indefinite is this temporariness?

Much is said about “mitigating risks,” and I’m certainly in favor of such preventative activity. What about mitigating the misery? I have to think even the most stoic among us must be affected by months of bad news and desolation. Forget the “other side” of this, there’s surely a during. Yes, at some time in the future, we’ll find out about the deleterious psychological aspects of the coronavirus era. But there’s a layered buildup quite far along in its development. Being between the fight-or-flight and the boredom, I am attuned to my reactions when I have to visit a business, when I hear jolly music on the radio, when I see images and symbols of happiness, when I am reminded of places and people I love, and when I sense the roadblocks at every side. At the same time, whether listening to sports trivia on the radio, or through my creation of digital archival collections, I’m part of the reaching back for good reminiscences in the midst of desperately anxious times. In this pandemic age, Owein the Knight is reminding me of Isaac Watts’ words in O God Our Help in Ages Past:

A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guide while troubles last,
And our eternal home!

Friday, June 26, 2020


“If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work.
The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable.”

~ C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

I chose the Lewis quotation, because my experience has come to be something of its opposite. In these times, work has become an awaited distraction. The days are difficult to distinguish from each other. “Remote-work” from my apartment, along with journaling, helps me to know one day from the previous, or the next. But I surely agree with the second sentence in the Lewis quote. For me it is a combination of pursuing knowledge, along with distracting myself from intensely unfavorable conditions. Certainly, I much prefer studying in pleasant circumstances; but as things are presently, the intensity of my continuing pursuits in philosophy amount to an escape portal.

Rather than pound away at all matters obstructive, I’ll continue attempting at the healthier diversions. Under the constraints of quarantining, it’s even more important to think about open ended ideas and to look forward. Journaling daily, I keep up my commitment to honest writing, and that has to mean plenty of venting. Even throughout life before March 16th, my journal has been the safest place for complaints and criticisms. That in itself is healthy diversion. The pages of grousing become launch surfaces for my written ambitions. And writing my hopes is the foundation of my healthier brand of diversion. These times combine an erosion of horizons, with a closing-in of community and mobility channels. I try to force these things back open again, by studying and by writing letters. These are humble and subtle endeavors, but these are movements toward the times beyond this crucible. Investments that strengthen others and self anticipate the sunrise.

Based on persisting conditions, it looks as though curfews and lockdowns are being prematurely lifted. Though I still keep those out-of-my-apartment excursions to the barest minimum errands, behind a mask, I do make sure to walk and look up to the skies. Looking to the nearby ocean, looking upward and outward, I’m trying to remember the vast world. Finding good things to ponder takes a lot of effort. It means seeking very intently. It also means being content with modest blessings, as long they are positive. Just as I’m finding myself fed anew by my numerous years of studies and careful notes, I’m also unexpectedly rewarded by the depth of my spiritual formation through monastic life. The Divine Hours are always part of my days- though not slavishly. So are vigils, meditations, times of silence, and my appreciation for simplicity. Though I did not learn this easily, solitude can indeed be savoured and has its own healthful sense of completeness. The quiet caused by the pandemic is not a peaceful silence: it is tense, anxious, and with a strange void prevailing. By contrast the inward life, founded upon silence, becomes a healthy distraction. At times, quarantining wavers into hermitage, into inviting contemplation.

This time last year, I was at Weston Priory for eight days of unstructured retreat. The monastic community has taught me much about appreciating simple pleasures. Simple, yet eloquent. Notice the progress of the natural elements- how the light, air, and trees evolve and transform with time. Taste the victuals and beverages unhurriedly, and know what they are. Observe the marks produced when writing. Meditate upon the words sent to friends, and even in business correspondence. These times have dropped barricades across so many turns, making diversions necessary.

Through social outlets, many among us refer to things they miss. We can each make interesting lists, and I certainly have. That is itself a diversion. For this moment, I’ll just mention how I greatly miss my usual outlet of making plans for travels and visits- near and far. The action of planning sojourns and assembling provisions has been one of my best healthy distractions through many years of difficult situations. Forward-looking has now taken an entirely spiritual dimension. My reflex continues to be one that reaches toward open ends. Try as I might, life has been forced into a much more humbled state of affairs. In an earlier essay, I wrote about my self-coined daily mantra, that “I’m fine; Stay the course.” Another phrase I hear myself frequently say is: “Everything has to wait.” This is how I address all those desired and postponed plans. It’s how I console myself about what cannot happen for the undetermined time being, thus distracting myself from staring at the barricades. Everything has to wait. No mountain trails in Vermont this summer. Instead, the trails are nearby, circuitous, and labyrinthine. My instinct is to soothe, as it is also to continue pursuing improvement. Faith says that conditions will not always be unfavorable, and also that my studies will generate future sources.

Monday, May 25, 2020

staying the course

"Humble your heart and endure: incline your ear and receive the words of understanding
and do not make haste in the time of darkness. Wait on God with patience:
join yourself to God and endure, that your life may be increased in the latter end.
Take all that shall be brought upon you, and in your sorrow endure,
and in your humiliation keep patience.
For gold and silver are tried in the fire,
as we are in the crucible of humiliation."

~ Sirach, chapter 2

Among the popular wisecracks in circulation (and all “socialization” has been through indirect means) are the sarcastic regrets about having purchased a 2020 calendar. Many say, what use is it? With extended, necessary lockdowns and cancellations it’s difficult to tell the days apart. An “occasion” is now defined by requirement, rather than by whim: as examples, we all know about trash-collection dates and times, but the privileges of spontaneously visiting a café and travelling to random destinations are long past. The seasonal elements have noticeably advanced, but the weather seems not to matter anymore. Though gratefully still employed, albeit at a significantly reduced salary, I still keep track of days and hours. Weekdays and weekend days are signified by whether or not I am tethered online to the workplace, fulfilling tasks. I enjoy getting work done and seeing the good results, no matter the circumstance. But the contrast is stark, between stagnation and movement; it’s running in place against a rolling backdrop.

Another cause for gratitude is the ability to write. I’ve been journaling steadily for more than 20 years. Doing so has been a completely reliable endeavor and companion; as well, I always know what day it is- and I can read back about last week, last month, and this time last year or ten years ago. These times amount to intense trials of self-discipline and resourcefulness. Life appears to be “on hold,” but the paces of time do not pause. Neither do bills, whose paces are also unabated. These contrasts between what is in motion and what has had to stand still make for a challenge of perception. Trying to look at the present without being stalled by despair has altered my instincts that want to see all the details. This has meant adjusting to tuning out a lot of current events media, and limiting my sights to the immediate. Built into this are psychological games I apply to the effect that all of this is a test: In this sports-less world, I am amidst preparatory “spring training” en route to the big games. This is temporary; this is provisional.

As present conditions impose a survival posture with severe quarantining limitations, healthy reflexes look for what can be done. The way to navigate unknowns is to find ways that are possible, based upon experience and perception. While trying to figure the modes of productivity within reach, I’m also instinctively looking for stability. Having some strong impressions of how it feels to be assured and stable has helped absorb the shock of sudden exile and uncertainty. We all find ways to fall back on our “comforts.” A memory from years ago brings to mind Wanda the bookkeeper at a photo company I worked for. She had a gravelly smoker’s voice with a thick Boston accent. We would chat during breaks, perched on the loading dock; she always had a cigarette, a coffee in a styrofoam cup, and a Boston Herald. Every day. Our comforts help us stay grounded. As well, one’s “groundedness” can provide comfort. As ever, even working from home, I wake early and am washed, dressed, and caffeinated by 7:30. The breviary and a few words for my journal follow. Employment from my dining table skips lunch hour and breaks, though accompanied by cheese or hummus with crackers. Tidbits like these are what I call “exile staples.” There are many walks to the window, to be able to see something of the world outside. My radio is always tuned to music. Each night includes vitamins, more writing, and the study of philosophy.

Amidst this holding-pattern existence, especially under such unusual constraints, distant memories become yet another outlet to inform me of my being. A person’s memory can be a full-spectrum library of good and bad, of every lived emotion. It is also a way to make sense of things. And in the throes of crisis, my instincts gravitate to the more pleasant recollections. More assurance; more reminders of purpose, being, accomplishment, and a sense of mission. Still a professional archivist, I’ve come to regard memory as a trove to be processed and curated in order to be understood. As well, I appreciate the enormous value of recollections. Remembrance is instrumental to survival, and survival makes it so that remembrance can be instrumental for others. Consider the supreme value of the preserved memories of those who endured extreme situations, such as Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

As consolations and memories can help us stay the course, so can communication. Although we presently have technological outlets that surely did not exist a century ago, how we communicate is impaired by the loss of in-person interaction. This is even challenging for a writer. In keeping with the exile life of quarantine, generous helpings of patience and compassion are required when it comes to words and references. This is also true regarding oneself. Early on I developed what I call The Mantra, speaking to myself, my context, and my sense of direction: I’m fine. We’re fine. Stay the course. You are more than welcome to appropriate this motivating insistence. It’s even trinitarian. And it’s a good thing to repeat daily. I’m also staying the course of notation and preservation, determined to emerge better than before. Holding course is pointed toward the future; it is a statement of faith. A member of my Philosophy Forum, during a “Zoom” session, asked about how different we’ll all be in the aftermath. An insightful question, to be sure. My response was that we can’t know, “while we’re in the middle of this.” We don’t know where the end of this is, or how it will manifest- especially as our perceptions of the future have so drastically changed. I think we can commit to our trial-tested ethics while we indefinitely stay the course. Built into that is the practice of thinking of the well-being of others. “We’re in this together,” is a popular motto-du-jour, and it represents good spirit. And while we are in this, we can be observers of present and past, while insisting upon straining forward.