Thursday, August 8, 2019

open windows

“You must know that if there are ruts,
you must jump your wheels out of them,
and if there is no language in which to reach
your audience, you must invent one.”

~ Austin Marsden Farrer, from Called to be Saints.


Pencil journals are for my flow of ideas, and the more pocketable, the better. The smallest Moleskine notebooks are very useful for this. I've been using their Boston themed journals, adding my own mementos to make these like scrapbooks.


My daily journals must be free of lines- completely blank. My mother taught me how to write before I learned in school; no guidelines or grids, thank you very much! My taste for fountain pens is thanks to my father. There are many good pens out there- such as Waterman, Dupont, Diplomat, and Cross, but for me there's nothing quite as smooth and solid as a Caran d'Ache.
Many good inks, too- such as Pelikan, Mont Blanc, Monteverde, Diamine, and- yes- Caran d'Ache.

Ballpoints are great for writing aboard jostling buses and trains, when I have to lean more into the notebooks. Waterman and Diplomat make nice ballpoints, but for many years Ballograf has been tops for me. The designer of these invented the push-button pen, and he also designed the pens used by astronauts in space. They are made in Sweden, and I bought the set in this photo in Norway. I use the .5 mechanical pencil for marginal notes.


As surely as I am my father's son, I love a good, dependable portable typewriter that can be taken anywhere. Nothing fits the bill quite like an Olympia. Durable and precise. I made the typecast pages above on a cursive-writing Olympia SM9. I do a lot of my writing on disc-bind paper, which snaps into Levenger binders. I've found this to be a great way to journal, and these items are easy to travel with. In the photo below, which I took in the Boston Public Library courtyard, you can see one of the Levenger binders decorated with a pencil motif!


A bit of the creative process: Here is the outline I wrote- at the Weston Priory- en route to the essay, "before us." The finished essay followed this sequence. The important thing was to write this down while I had the concept in mind.

The poem, "so they say" was sketched out in my graphite journal. I made many changes, based on how it sounded when I'd read it aloud. These pencil notebooks are ideal for designing my essays and collecting additional thoughts.


Tuesday, July 30, 2019

so they say


Seize your dreams;
they lie before you.
So they say.
If you work hard,
you’ll be successful.
So they say.

From commencement to commencement,
I excitedly heard it preached;
we were ushered through the portals,
to horizons yet unreached.

They said it all through school
and right up to this day.
Grades open the future;
performance lets you stay.
“You can take it to the bank.”
So they said.

What’s been said has not been seen,
we hustle without guarantee.
Tenaciously, quixotically
clutching dreams
founded on sands
of hearsay.


In this day,
with truth and falsehood,
can we say?
masqueraded and juxtaposed,
haven’t we seen?
promises darkened by light of day.
And who’s that they,

If I knew then, what I know now,
exams and commissions wouldn’t matter,
and I would talk even more in class.
Voice and faith are ways to the better.
So I say.

“Do what you love,” and
“Follow your bliss.”
So they say.
But reality says, “Take what there is,”
and what you can find,
amidst these times.
Bliss sounds nice,
but it doesn’t pay,
so I grind
and toil
and search.

Economic growth,
jobs creation;
so they say.
The harvest great, the workers few,
did they say?
The evidence in this abundance
is scarcity and deception.
“We’ll pass the savings on to you,”
so they say.

Office cultures
are now enlightened,
so they say.
Most are buried
in the last century,
so we see.
Hostility seethes in tense détente,
while vertical resists horizontal.
Discourse reduced to monologues;
slick fixtures plopped on shopworn floors,
so we see.


“Keep hope alive,” and “hang in there,”
so they say.
Follow the trends and watch them change,
so we see.
If progress is to be pursued,
it’s an added, unpaid job to do;
through the woeful slowful silted slough,
persevere with conscience true;
because you say.

“Transparency” and “openness,”
so they say.
Dumb it down and settle for less:
No, I say.
Question euphemisms, all.
Smarten up, follow your call;
you must say.

Shake off the dust and guard your soul,
you can say.
Gimmicks, fads, and influencers
will not save.
Take your stock and prove them wrong,
Don’t let them take away your song.
You’ll have fought the fight and kept the faith.
You will say.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

before us

“Therefore, surrounded as we are by such a vast cloud of witnesses,
let us fling aside every encumbrance and the sin that so readily entangles our feet.
And let us run with patient endurance
the race that lies before us.”

~ Hebrews 12:1

the indefinite temporal

Most of us, perhaps all of us, are creatures of habit. We like what we like, and we are consoled by what consoles us. There are several ways to specifically define our own creature comforts: one is to notice our preferences during times of leisure, another is to notice our reactions to distress, yet another includes what we’ll do to comfort another person. All are drawn from our experiences - at any age- of what has set us at ease. As workplace oppression presses, artistic pursuits and the worlds of imagination and scholarship can be medicinal sources. The wilderness ahead is as trackless as it was for me a year ago, five years ago, or ten years ago. In the grand scheme of things, this is nothing particularly new. Even as a high school student, I used to say that independence comes at a price. Well into adulthood, the basics of life continue in their uncertainty. The indefinite temporal forces an acute awareness and practice of spiritual consolations. The voyage can be desolate and undefended- granted there is occasional cheer and respite- yet throughout is the imperative to keep focused. For many years, I’ve admired the Greek title parakletos, referring to the Spirit of God, which translates to the advocate, the at one’s side, the consoler. This, in itself, is a poignant point of contemplation.

Icon of Saint Benedict, Weston Priory, Vermont.

the saints that have gone before us

Sources of consolation can also be as earthily human as we are. I believe each of us emulate those we hold in highest esteem, those who’ve set examples we comprehend as worth following. We couldn’t imagine perceiving without them. Such individuals surface throughout our lives. These are the saintly souls that have gone before us. And if we know them during our own lifetimes, they are presently before us. It may be the exception to the rule to not have a personal roster of saints and role-models that influence and encourage from their respective experiences and words. Our predecessor saints, upon our reflection, continue attending to us. I notice countless occasions at which perspectives and even the words I’ve learned come out of me. Often it’s the voice of common sense, particularly amidst situations that do not make sense. Hardly a day passes without my issuing forth my father’s “what do you mean by that?”- or “what’s the point?” To go with that are the conciliatory monastic words of “let’s find a way,” with the gems gentle, patient, and humble. Of the spiritual mind, Austin Farrer observed that it is...

“...incapable of proving faith in seventy years of imperfection, adds the years of others to its own and extends experiment by proxy. We live and feel through the friends we know, or through the saints and apostles we read. And now the balance swings the other way. Instead of valuing what we have received as a prescription for the experiments we may make, we begin to value our own experiences as clues to a labyrinth of spiritual history.”

As in the Johannine letters, that which we have seen and held lives within us as strongly as we can manifest such divine gifts. Our best learning really does provide clues to labyrinthine roads. One of my mentoring historic saints, San Juan de la Cruz, reminded his readers that “The light in this dark night is that which burns in the soul.” Among the 20th century minds long established in my pantheon of saints, Thomas Merton, saw many sides of contemporary life. He warned of the dangers of defining ourselves with our careers, obsessively looking in mirrors for reassurance. Activities that were meant to exalt, wind up reproaching and condemning us, Merton wrote in No Man is an Island. “The less he is able to bethe more he has to do. He becomes his own slave driver- a shadow whipping a shadow to death.” He added, “we must stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to be in God.” Merton was surely not advocating misery, but quite the opposite. Seeking peace within ourselves, we learn to commune with ourselves so that we can communicate with others and support their wellbeing: “We cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves.” The accompanying wisdom of saints provides a guiding cloud by day, and light by night.

saints, heroes, and tangibles

Shrine of Saint Joseph the Worker, Lowell, Massachusetts.

Surely less austere and subtle- but surely evident in popular culture are the crossroads of patron saints and personal identity. The traditional idea of a patron saint relates to personally identifying with an exemplary historic personage. The devoted becomes something of a student of their chosen patron saint, following through by learning about that person’s life and observing the saint’s feast day- which may be their date of birth, or decease, or an anniversary of remark. The “popular” part enters the equation with our reasons for attaching to a patron saint: perhaps a trait, a surmounted adversity, something the saint was known for having accomplished, or a national saint. Saint Francis of Assisi is admired for his respectful attitude toward animals; students in France celebrate Charlemagne, who is believed to be the founder of public education. Saint Joseph is regarded as patron saint of Canada, among other countries, virtues, and workers. The converging of popular ideas and these historic mortals manifest in ways that can reflect our human gestures and aspirations more than anything else. We naturally ask for help; spiritual life brings us to be grateful for favors granted.

Remembering Thomas Merton’s words, how much of our selves are we pursuing? How do we express our allegiances and affinities? We all tend to need tangibles, looking for the sense of things, for hopefulness, for paths in the wilderness. Do we represent those we admire, or are they representing us? Perhaps it’s both, in varying degrees. Who identifies whom? Often the exhilaration of festivities- or the severity of solemnities- can subvert the questions. I diverted from my studies last fall, with a few lively strolls through Boston’s North End during the Feast of San Gennaro. Among the pleasant diversions are musical events and savoury Italian cuisine, centered around celebrating the patron saint of Naples. For the occasion, Hanover Street becomes a pedestrian mall, lined with dining tables and vendors. At the heart of the event is Saint Leonard’s Church, and a nearby year-round landmark on Battery Street called All Saints Way also draws enhanced attention. Being a reverent observer, I enjoyed colors, sounds, and impromptu sidewalk chats, with the prayerful silence inside Saint Leonard’s. From the muffled Baroque sanctuary, I could hear the outdoor animated festivities. Celebrations like this are replete with visual language and reminders of those before us.

All Saints Way, in the North End of Boston.

Above: Feast of San Gennaro.
Below: Saint Leonard's Church.

On one of my many visits to the Saint Anthony shrine in downtown Boston, a greeter gave me a holy card. A small, humble, printed treasure, picturing the decorated statue on Arch Street, there are some good and calming words printed on the verso side. It is a miniature reminder of the nearness of holiness that I keep with me at work. It is also something of an icon, representing how iconographic we are. Long before I’d ever seen a holy card, I knew plenty from my childhood about sports cards. The photos of athletes are backed with their respective statistics. They are collected and revered as objects by many, even at auction houses. The subjects of the cards have numerous fans who celebrate their heroes’ accomplishments. Sports genres honor their achievers and eras. There are halls of fame; the one for hockey, in Canada, has the less-subtle title of Le Temple de la Renommée. Athletes themselves often like to wear the same uniform numbers as their personal heroes- in some ways their patron saints. In reverence, Jackie Robinson’s number 42 is not worn by any major league baseball player. In other genres, buildings, campuses, and various locations often bear the names of saints, of benefactors, and the sundry famous. There’s always a reason and story for each person of note. And many of these individuals, with their imperfections, were endearingly normal people albeit of extraordinary achievement.

Shrine of Saint Anthony, Arch Street, Boston.

Indeed, there are many more examples of how we enshrine- whether globally or within our own hearts. But the degree of influence and personal proximity will be different for as many souls as encounter such things as landmarks. For this instance, let’s imagine the individual soul as a walking repository: an individual person to be sure; unique and unlike anyone else- but there are influences, sources, and mentors that make us who we are. They’ve preceded us: our saints that we have ever before us. Lives providing noble examples, as the lines of our roads give way to occasion. The way is not always a clearly-marked road with dividers, lanes, lighting, and directional signs. Amidst the wilderness immediately ahead and at all sides, I have little more than instincts and the words of saints for my navigational senses. In these scarce and oppressive times, it becomes necessary to lean heavily into the words and legacies of those who have been mentoring me- both in my lifetime and through their words handed down to me in written observations.

taught from within

Those souls most treasured are individuals that have taught me the most compassionately. That latter trait is decisive, as I’ve surely learned enduring lessons though hardships, and too many unkind situations and people. But to offset oppressions and bullying are all the lifegiving examples I’ve seen before me, and those that lived before my time. Before my eyes and ears have been family members, friends, mentors, and colleagues. Before my era are the subtle role models that have been teaching me from within, through my studies and travels. Sometimes my first impressions are through biographical writing, most other times the initial acquaintances are through their own written works or by trusted recommendations. Among the great benefits of studying physical books in well-stocked libraries are editorial and bibliographic notes. The way to find is to seek, and one of the best ways to seek new influences is to browse for the serendipitous. Another is to pinpoint specific sources by reading general treatments.

During a highly unusual weekday off from work, this past May, I made the opportunity to read in the Boston Athenaeum’s inner sanctum, the Vershbow Room. With time for just one item, I chose a 17th century imprint containing selections of Saint Anselm. The saint of the 11th century came to mind as I’d gotten tastes of his thought and work through studies of philosophical surveys by Paul Vignaux, and by D.J.B. Hawkins. The Athenaeum has just one tome of Anselm in English, albeit in the 1600s vernacular, and the delicate volume can only be viewed in the pencils-only room. Due to what I’d been reading through the winter, I expected speculative philosophy- perhaps some more of the Neoplatonist texts of my familiarity. Well, what I found was something more personal and quite captivating.

Considering the author’s time and the context of his writing, the stern and austere words were not surprising to read. Some of the tone of reformist writings 600 years later are detectable in the ways Anselm laments, “I cannot look upon my past life without horror.” He addresses his own self, as an observer, with: “Open thine eyes, my Soul, and let them overflow with tears of godly sorrow. Force yourself to see and hear the danger of thy Condition.” But as much as Anselm is unlike the puritanical authors of a half-millennium later, these writings were also unlike what I’d been reading thus far in his philosophical texts. Turning the fragile leaves of the book, I found an inviting tenderness. Anselm rhetorically asks, “Who will be my Defence? Is there not one, who is call’d the Angel of the Covenant?’ Then he speaks to the reader- to me- and implores:

“Look up, and sink not in despair.”

Right about there, I found my study submerging beneath the mere reading of words. As it often happens when I discover such sources, I became aware of the guidance before me. Continuing on, as I only had an afternoon in the rare books room that day, the book proceeded into Anselm’s Incentive to Holy Love. This turns out to be a set of meditations that Anselm based upon the Passion, which is also known as “the way of the cross.” I took many notes for my future reference, as the writing was intimately compelling. Though he tracks through the narrative, as with Saint Augustine, the fascinating “teachable moments” are in the tangential reflections and prayers. Anselm pauses along the way, with this:

“I, who invoke thee here as my Pilot, to conduct me through this rough and hazardous Sea of Life, may, by thy guidance be preserved from making Shipwreck of Faith and a good Conscience, and at length be safe landed at the Haven of eternal Rest.”

As with any effective instructor, the teaching is patient, respectful, and challenging. After completing my reading and signing out of the secure room, I went out to the Athenaeum’s terrace for a bit of transitional air. The words of Saint Anselm were so prominently in my thoughts, I could simply stand and look down toward the Granary Yard and Tremont Street- and then up toward the skyline. The saintly, brilliant minds that have gone before me, are ever before us, went my thoughts. The words, books, and their various manifestations await. Such guiding consolations are as directing clouds by day, and lights in the night.

Friday, May 3, 2019

le sacre du printemps

“I am reminded of spring by the quality of the air...
It is a natural resurrection, an experience of immortality.”

~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 24 February 1852.

Perhaps we have yet something else in common: a sensitivity for the signs in our midst. In this context, such signs are far less subtle than the posted arrows and titles we see along roads. Though we could also think of these as directional, the sorts of signs we can only sense are untitled- at least initially. At this time of the year, the seasonal transition is tangible in the elements. The span of daylight lengthens, temperatures increase their margins above freezing, and there are noticeable changes in the landscape. Such signs tell us to look ahead.

Above: A melting stream, near Portland, Maine
Below: Beacon Street, Boston

Beacon Hill, Boston

In this part of the world, the early stages of Spring have been unusually protracted. Northern New England, now in May, still has frost at night. With natural signs so slow to take shape, it’s certainly easier to savour the transition. My corner of Maine is damp and chilled. But I happen to enjoy this very much. Rather than bothered by cold, this January-born Portland Mainer wilts when the temps exceed 70° (roughly 21° C), and I find it easier defending myself against snowflakes than against bugs. Indeed, I’ve surely learned to appreciate the big picture’s many facets, and to see the differences in the ways seasons manifest. For the observing writer and photographer, there is much to notice- both the subtle and the grand.

Above: Spring in the West End, Portland
Below: Meanwhile 120 miles away in Back Bay, Boston

Thoreau, living along Walden Pond, about 110 miles southwest of Portland, wrote beautifully about the reminders of spring air. 40° in early May is quite distinct from a 40° oddity in December. There is an inviting quality to the Spring rendition of that air. One obvious difference is how the temps abruptly drop as the sun sets in winter; warmer evenings are evidence of Spring’s arrival. The air also has the aromas of awakened strata. To better appreciate these low-forties, I’ve already put coats and jackets away. My experience of Spring air is an immersion, reminding me of freshwater swimming. I remember a sweltering summer day, during which I’d been driving through Grafton Notch, in western Maine. Stopping to hike to a swimming hole I’d heard about, I found the location- at the base of a waterfall. It was a very hot day, and that mountain water was very cold- but I jumped into something as startling as it was invigorating. After a short time of surmounting the shock, I got used to the water and thoroughly enjoyed it. A good saunter through cold Spring air is a similar kind of soak to be savoured.

Above: Portland, Maine catching up
Below: Spring wonderment in the Boston Public Garden

Associating the wafts of Spring with resurrection, as Thoreau observed, is especially meaningful after the dark winter months. A community that is very close to the elements of New England wilderness is that of the Benedictine monks of Weston Priory, Vermont. Among their lyrics is the refrain, “new life, new creation; alive our sense of wonder.” It is easy for me to call these words to mind, given a chance to leave the beaten track of commuting, and to simply observe the melting streams, the changing tides, and even to slow my paces along downtown Boston streets. I can fairly well predict that with this extended liminal neither-nor season, the forties will immediately become seventies- as it happens in these climes. All the more reason to hold some written thoughts.

Above: Seeing through the trees in Portland
Below: Seeing through the trees in Boston

Appropriate to our theme, aperch atop the Printemps department store, Paris.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

familiar places

“In the clefts of the rock
I delight to be.
In the covert of the precipice
You would find me.”

~ Song of Solomon, 2:14

Spring returns in much the same way as it happens when visiting with a former colleague after a long absence. There is as much to recognize and recount, as there is the air of the strange and somewhat out of touch. When chatting with an old friend for the first time in a year, care must be taken not to imply too much mutual understanding so as to sound rude. The oddly unfamiliar will re-familiarize, and the past impressions and inside jokes will return. We adapt and find ways to take the remarkable for granted. As winter becomes spring, temperatures in the forties, iceless sidewalks, and light clothing are suspiciously novel. In a short time today, I drove from sleet into coastal fog, rolling the windows down and savouring the swirl of spring air, I stopped along the road at a coffeehouse I like to frequent.

Journal-writing became something permanent and quite natural for me, just as I began my graduate studies. There were fits and starts through earlier schooling, stiffly answering compulsory assignments. Journaling reached a continuous trail for me, as writing developed into an unprovoked stream of thought processes. Accompanying writing and advanced studies, the effects of environment upon creativity were at once obvious to me. There are times for solitude, and there are times for the buzzing of a bustling café. Writing, as with athletics, is kept buoyant with momentum. Scraps of paper are at the ready, when a running start’s worth of thoughts come to me.

As for the cafés, when there is time, I have favorite places for writing and reading. For many years (until they were gentrified out), I referred to a café in the Old Port district of Portland as The Familiar Perch. Numerous journal entries include “F.P.” to indicate where I was writing. With changes in my home town, as well as travels- and similar currents in the various places of my frequency- there are multiple familiar perches of mine. I also have many favorite outdoor perches, too- especially spots that allow me to look up from my books to ocean views. Kettle Cove, in Cape Elizabeth, is one such familiar perch, beloved to me for at least thirty years. The large and angular crags provide for plenty of seating furniture. Where exactly to perch in places like this depends very much upon tidal movement. If the tide is ascending while I’m writing, I have to pay attention! Inevitably, being aperch in the wafts of words is to be nestled in safe clefts in the weatherbeaten ledges of this world. Indeed, a familiar perch can be anywhere, as long as it is a cherished and consoling place. For a cherished place to be familiar to you, a helpful ingredient is to build a positive history with the place- wherever and whatever it is, be it a destination point or a way-station. Among my familiar perches are favorite parks, hiking trails, libraries, restaurants, and even monasteries. I’ll occasionally visit my homework bench, near the University of Southern Maine; it still suits me just fine. A familiar perch can be a recollection point, somehow holding and rekindling memories for us.

A familiar perch as a consoling place serves as a cleft in the rock, a shelter; a place of pause. At the prospect of uncertain exodus, Moses pleaded with God to be certain of the Divine presence that would protect him and the people under his responsibility. As any person- even the strongest among us- he needed to be solidly convinced; he wanted assurance. God actually replied to Moses, and said, “When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.” The sight would have been overwhelming and devastating for a human, like staring straight into the sun at close proximity. As it is understandably human to doubt, it is equally human to want to be convinced of imminent consolation. It would be good to know that desolations are short-lived, even by human standards. The cleft in the rock reminds us of concealing refuge.

Admittedly far humbler than the grandeur of the ancient Exodus, notebooks can be tiny clefts among shifting mountains and barricading boulders. Journals are my portable hiding places, little tents I can set up, write in, and re-fold as time and duty force me to continue moving. These written words are at once fixtures and fluid, yet safe and ready places for thoughts. While the ubiquitous electronically-lit screens are deterrents to musing, handwriting in small notebooks has an immediate physical sense of context. By this, I mean being clearly aware of place and time while writing, with an inherent patience to await the formulation of thoughts. Journal writing as a cleft in the rock is a cherished and consoling circumstance; it becomes its own consistently familiar perch. If writing is a “place,” then it is a communing encampment that moves with the individual writer. And like the biblical sheltering crevice, the written refuge is both the hiding-place and the conduit of discovery.

Above: Kettle Cove, Maine.
Below: Weston Priory, Vermont.


"graphite today: this place of writing is a portable hideout. it has no address and it moves around. it can be folded and hidden, as needed."