Sunday, May 28, 2023

en plein air

“Adopt the pace of nature.
Her secret is patience.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

With an extremely rare weekday off, I chose to stay in town and write outdoors. Not only that, I decided to write on the Eastern Promenade- a writing perch I’ve enjoyed for many years, long before having to move from my home in a suddenly-gentrified West End building. Indeed, last autumn- until it got too cold- I walked to the “Prom” as often as possible, getting away from the puny apartment, just to be able to look upward. Going outdoors to write allows me to transcend “addresses,” and their confinement. People travel to Portland from great distances, to be able to perch along Casco Bay. The scenery continues to be inspiring to me, just as it was for me last month in the Berkshires. Getting out gets me away from oppressive and bland spaces, as well as from the static recirculating air of the workplace. “Retreat” needn’t mean extensive travels; it’s really about stepping back and away from structure and demands. I could be from anywhere and come here to write, at the same time as being from here (which I am) and forget about annoying confines. The outdoors also provide an escape from alienation. Open, and accessible spaces strike a needed contrast from offices, phones, and lit screens- allowing me to listen to my thoughts and make some notes. Skies provide a taste of ceilinglessness (and how cooperative that my typewriter doesn’t redden or rewrite my made-up words).

Writing at the Eastern Prom, which includes a busy playground, brings to mind the day camps that were lights to my adolescent summers in New York City. Asphalt jungle childhoods comprise scarce amounts of trees and clean grassy spaces for playing and perching. There was always a lot of broken glass to sidestep, along with other detritus I stopped seeing after moving here to Maine to begin college. No doubt, the air was a comparison I could immediately make, and since then has always been rolled into what I’ve come to know as “the outdoors.” But humble as it was, day camp gave me a taste of things easily taken for granted in northern New England. In the city, the change of context brought kids like me on long yellow school buses out to the lush and landscaped parks of Queens- namely Forest Park, and for a number of years Kissena Park. Hardly any of the other kids were from my neighborhood: the blighted and dangerous projects in Corona; they were from just about everywhere else. But we were all together, frolicking outside, jumping through sprinklers, and fanatically playing baseball every single day. We were easy to please, once we had time and space. Perhaps some of us retain those traits. There was no structure and no technology- even for the camp counselors that watched over us, also serving as our umpires through all those raucous ball games.

From my high school years:
Above: Greenway Terrace, Forest Hills, New York City
Below: High School of Art & Design cafeteria, as we all wondered what was really in those sandwiches.

I’m one of those adults that can still think very much as I did when I was ten. The ache to have time and space to muse, around those fettered and adversarial school days, resembles the ache to have time and space to muse between job tasks and inane meetings. Free time becomes increasingly costly. For most of us, liberation is rare and at best incremental. Reflecting back, childhood redemption arrived in an unwitting combination when I was 13. My year began as I completed rigorous and intense religious studies, thus declared an adult at that rather young age. In my naive determination, I survived my final year in what happened to be New York City’s most overcrowded public school, which went by the heartwarming name of I.S. 61. Its schoolyard was surrounded by housing projects and scrapyards. The city was a good 2 decades away from gentrifying, and my daily walks to school were imperiled by gangs and packs of feral dogs. Almost all the threatening and thrashing ended for me with the post-middle-school summer at a healthy summer camp in the mountains of Upstate New York, followed by my parents’ purchase of a house in a strikingly beautiful and safe neighborhood- still right in the city. And finally, still at age 13, I began my sojourn of secondary education at the High School of Art and Design, on the tony east side of Midtown Manhattan. A whole lot in a short year. My father gave me my first bicycle, enabling me to run a lot of errands, including grocery shopping. I explored all the streets of Forest Hills and contiguous neighborhoods, also toting my first camera- which had been a 13th birthday gift.

My Rudge-Whitworth bicycle, which I purchased used for $20 to replace the new bicycle robbed from me by muggers.
Above: Photo I took in 1981, in New York City.
Below: Photo I took (I still have the Rudge) recently at Acadia National Park, Maine.

The bicycle symbolized freedom and an enduring sense of self-propulsion. I would joke about drinking a glass of milk, then bicycling the length of Queens Boulevard and over the 59th Street Bridge en route to a library I frequented on East 38th Street. All on one glass of milk, as I’d say. One afternoon, while bicycling with a neighbor through Flushing Meadow Park, I was accosted and mugged at knifepoint, forced off my shining new bicycle. I still remember this well, and can recall the sheer powerlessness of that event. At my summer job in a supermarket, I saved my earnings to buy another bicycle- a used one that I defiantly considered to be too ugly to draw any thug’s attention. I still have it today, driving it throughout the Portland area, including all the carriage roads in Acadia National Park. Self-sufficiency continues to be its own brand of liberation. Alas, and as I’ve learned, childish and childlike are really two different traits. At best, that early spirit endures by adaptation. As well, self-sufficiency shows its hard limits, particularly in the powerlessness of housing searches, employment scavenging, and economics. Recalling Saint Augustine, “I do not know what I do not know,” and thus I want to know what I don’t know. If there’s any way to improve things, it must begin with avoiding prior mistakes.

Outdoors on the 2nd floor terrace at the Boston Athenaeum.

How much of a factor are our interpretations that are based upon our subjective perceptions? Obviously, something entirely subjective is my taste for perching outside to write and read in 40-degree temperatures, which I find perfectly comfortable. Then there’s the fascinating aspect of how syntax plays a role in how we view and depict our discoveries. For example, traveling to a location with a variety of cameras allows me to photograph similar motifs with different formats. The images will look distinct from one another, based upon the tools I’m using. Same with writing: pencils, pens of varied construct, typewriters, and computers will each lead to results reflecting the tools’ influences. Within this is the example of journaling with a dip pen, requiring many regular pauses to re-ink the pen, while the mind continues its train of thought. Those pauses surely reflect what is written. I’ll often switch writing instruments, when I notice aridity in my words. Varying the vantage point is also as effective with writing as it is in photography. Getting outside amidst the swirl of nature permits for an appreciation of Emerson’s description about the patient paces of nature. Light, skies, and horizons will surely affect how I interpret what I see, and how I interpret my thoughts. In a similar sense, I write during my mid-day breaks inside the Archives stacks, as well as aboard lurching city buses. What I notice and the ensuing words are affected by their situations of notation.

When I’m not on the job, and I turn away from doomscrolling online searches for apartments and employment, while the blaring and trampling from upstairs disturbs the peace, I know to go outside. Beneath the skies, there are no upstairs. Life gets to return to looking open-ended as it did when my friends and I would lie on our backs in green and sunny Kissena Park, just talking and looking up at airplanes going to and from LaGuardia. The paces of nature are surely not those of such humans as those among us who use the expression, hurry-up-and-wait. Coaxing the inertia out of the wheels of progress is exhausting. During the thick of childhood, time slogged like a schoolday. It felt endless. In retrospect, that was a brief period of time- its space on my timeline diminishes as the adventure continues. Looking back exclaims the necessity of looking ahead. My decades of tireless efforts have yet to pave ways to my profoundest wishes, to exercising and really seeing my best abilities coming to fruition. How close is success? Is it completely out of reach? I’m daring to believe it isn’t, notwithstanding my scarce resources and lack of influence or allies. Echoing Saint Anselm’s prayer in the Proslogion, “I have still to do that for which I was made.” Yet, the stuff of eternity does not include accolades or material. The moment and all subsequent time stands for me to redeem. Knowing how to redeem liminal time is a daily and constant challenge. Having little more than faith and gumption, I’m left to heeldigging trust, insisting upon finding the sacred in the ordinary. Such thin rations need the light and rain of the outdoors, for the vines of latent presence to proliferate and provide.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

misericordias domini

“A soul should be faithful to prayer despite torments,
dryness, and temptations; because oftentimes the realization
of God’s great plans depends mainly on such prayer.
If we do not persevere in such prayer,
we frustrate what the Lord wanted to do through us
or within us. Let every soul remember these words:
‘And being in anguish, He prayed more fervently’”

~ Saint Faustina, Diary, 872
[with reference to Luke 22:44).


During the recent three years, my hopes for returning to Stockbridge and the surrounding region in the Berkshires never left my thoughts. As it has become less of a health risk to congregate and travel in this present time of late-pandemic, there are more possibilities for roving and visiting. If we’re really out of the covid depths, how shall we consider the past several years? Writing in the first-person, I never stopped working or meeting expenses, soldiering on as what I call one of the working wounded. The effects of last year’s housing loss continue and things remain unresolved, having humble resources in an incurably gentrified part of the country. When I hurried out on the road two years ago to visit with my father in his final days- and then returning after his funeral- I drove through the Berkshires. There was no time to stop there, neither were there opportunities to lodge amidst all the pandemic protocols. The circumstances were anything but leisurely. My years of memories of southern Berkshire County and the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, continued to provide inspiration. Along with physical health adversities and general economic hardships, the covid era has been marked by what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services acknowledges as a national epidemic of loneliness and isolation. I’ve fallen back on every useful self-care strategy I’ve cultivated, even dating back to my childhood years. It’s of critical importance not to mind one’s own company and stay constructively balanced, especially at work.


Though I cannot claim to be an expert at self-discipline and motivation, at least I know to persevere. And I’m sure to write about it. When Le Cirque des Élephants upstairs starts pounding away and blaring me out of my thoughts, I grab my books, writing, and a chair- and flee outside. During rain and snow, I perch in the building’s entrance, bundled up, writing, and reading. It all merges with my devotions. When I think of Stockbridge, I always recall the Divine Mercy Chaplet, its austere eloquence and thoughtfulness of the needs of others. Others can also mean those who inconsiderately stomp on their neighbors. Everyone needs a prayer. The revered Chaplet as recorded by Saint Faustina in wartime Poland was taught to me by a colleague- Sister Sylvia Comer- about eighteen years ago. The devotion never left me, and it only intensified during quarantining, lockdowns, and coffee-breaks while working in isolation. Meditate upon the Passion, and pray for mercy to strengthen others and for oneself. Be mercy for others, especially when generosity and consolation are painfully elusive. San Juan de la Cruz, in 16th century Spain, famously taught “impart compassion where you do not find it, and then you will discover compassion.” Customarily, as observed by the Marian community in Stockbridge, the Chaplet is observed at 3pm, referred to as the hour of Divine Mercy. In recent years, my insomnia awakens me at 3am most every night, becoming my additional hour of Divine Mercy. It is included by many, and I do the same, as integral with the liturgy of the hours. About 2 ½ years ago, when the intensity of quarantining made it so I could hear a pin drop downtown, those portions of daily psalmody helped provide lifegiving structure.


Conversely, when I think of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the environs of Stockbridge come to mind. The westernmost area of Massachusetts is contiguous to the higher elevations of southern Vermont and eastern New York State. The waterways and woods resemble parts of my home state of Maine, though without the coast that I see every day. Nonetheless, it is New England, complete with the unmarked, winding roads and very small towns. The site of the Shrine, Eden Hill, was the destination for the emigrating Polish religious community in 1943, and continues today as the much larger congregation of the Marian order who nurture the legacy of Saint Faustina. Her diary has been preserved and kept in print by the Marians. The community welcomes one and all, daily- including pilgrims such as myself. I’ve traveled there many times, always grateful for the place, prayer, and people as a complete experience of sanctuary.

True to pilgrimage form, some major effort was needed long before taking to the road. My usual marathon-minded durability makes it unnecessary for me to test the understaffed workplace logistics. Requesting days off however, despite my overabundance of earned time, demands resourcefulness and diplomacy. In the general emergence from winter in my midst, I saw an unclaimed week and seized upon it. Getting the time approved, seeing to auto maintenance, and exchanging messages with my destination, the pull of pilgrimage became an imminent journey. I began assembling writing and reading material for the sojourn, and in the cramped hovel those items were visible to me each day- including unpacking the hat I bring with me on all my retreats. It has a seashell sewn to it, which is the badge of pilgrimage. And true to personal form, I continued working as industriously as usual, and with a small Divine Mercy icon at the side of my desk computer.

As road day drew closer, I realized I would be arriving in Stockbridge right on the Feast Day of the Divine Mercy. As providential as it sounds, it just happened that way- though it did inspire me to leave Maine earlier in the morning than planned. The highway travel was smooth, even with showers and mountain fog; after all it was a Sunday morning. Indexing across the car radio dial along the Massachusetts Turnpike, I picked up a broadcast with interviews of various Marian friars talking about the liturgical holiday, Saint Faustina, and welcoming listeners to the Shrine. As I typically do, I glanced at the radio and said, “on my way.’ It was a good thing I had found that station, as I began to see single-file traffic after exiting the highway in Lee, extending all the way to Stockbridge. Impressively, drivers were civilized and patient. I wondered, “Are these all pilgrims, too?” The radio station began broadcasting the outdoor church service from the Shrine, and finding a parking space in the thick of the village, I proceeded to ascend the steep hill, hearing the singing choir’s music, my steps parallel to fellow sturdy walkers. I later heard that at least 12,000 pilgrims were in attendance that day, surprising the resident community and all present. How wonderful to arrive in such festive contrast to the misery I managed to interrupt back in Maine.

Descending the Hill later, the village center in Stockbridge was replete with visitors, albeit too early for tourism season. Many café patrons and pedestrians were recognizably clergy and members of religious orders. The stately Red Lion Inn offered special rates for the week, and very thankfully I was able to lodge there, close to the Shrine. The 250-year-old Inn was in early-spring maintenance mode and thus uncrowded and very comfortably peaceful. The full-width front porch made for an added place of retreat for me, between Eden Hill, nearby hiking trails, and the village. My room in the Red Lion consolingly reminded me of my old place which I miss very much. I especially savoured the high ceilings and the Inn’s muffled ambience, reminding me of better days. Integral to the pilgrimage was the pleasant company of fellow guests, trading stories and insights. I made numerous notes, wrote letters to friends, enjoyed time to read, and visited with the resident cats.

above and below: Jack and Jane

the Housatonic River, in the Berkshires

At the Shrine’s book store, I asked for a volume of Saint Faustina’s words, “small enough for bus commuting.” The little book has since joined my twice-daily trek and coffee breaks. Throughout my week in Stockbridge, I was sure to be in attendance for Mass followed by the 3pm Divine Mercy Chaplet. There are many to be commemorated, especially Dad and Sister Sylvia. The days were calm and salubrious, replenishing me for me return to the world of struggle and uncertainty. I’ve learned over the years that pilgrimage not only comprises the return travel, but also proceeds on with every day and every task. It is essential to keep these in mind, with all the beautiful things I saw and heard- along with remembering the mountain air, as the pursuits of betterment and stability must continue.


Saint Bonaventure wrote about the soul’s itinerary en route to God, and referred to how our pilgrimage is “kindled by the desire for the heavenly country.” The difficult road ahead is fueled by nourishing experiences and contemplation. The painful absence of respite in these recent years has been profoundly felt, and I must find ways to keep well- even while searching for a healthy place to live, and for better work. Writing of life’s itinerary, Saint Bonaventure added, “the route is illuminative and the pilgrimage is adhered to by love of the destination; philosophy is to be engaged in the understanding of the stages by which progress may be made along the route.” Ascension is made in progressive steps as on an upward ladder, and his words accompanied me in the Berkshires as they do on my daily city streets and transactions.

studying the Itinerarium of Saint Bonaventure

During my week at the Shrine, following the afternoon’s liturgy, one of the Marian friars gave all of us in attendance his blessing. He also blessed the devotional articles of all in attendance, such as icons and rosaries. Then, in a well-placed teachable moment, he said to us, “don’t just go home and put these things away in a drawer: bless others! Think of the many people who wish they could be here, and also those who don’t want to be here.” Another officiant earlier in the week preached about exemplifying the meaning of these prayers. Indeed, the work I do with the public and as an educator permit for many opportunities to apply merciful perspectives and ways of communication, albeit in a merciless world. It is unbearable to countenance thoughts of being a lamp concealed under a barrel, after years of consistently intense hard work and persistent defeat. I know enough to remind myself that few are fortunate enough to realize their potential, and many have it far worse. Saint Faustina surely could not have known- and would not have wanted to know- the reach of her words and her example of resilient faith. Among the assorted prayers in her journals is one of gratitude for her ability to love God by whom she need not lower her ideals. She elaborated:

“Although the path is very thorny, I do not fear to go ahead. Even if a hailstorm of persecutions covers me; even if my friends forsake me, even if all things conspire against me, and the horizon grows dark; even if a raging storm breaks out, and I feel I am quite alone and must brave it all; still, fully at peace, I will trust in Your mercy, O my God, and my hope will not be disappointed.”

Thursday, April 13, 2023

lenten lands

“By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion...
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?”

~ Psalm 137

indefinite lent

As with any season of commemoration, Lent is equal parts remembrance and lived practice which points ahead. Both aspects, as they may be internalized, envelop our own references. For example, an observer of this season, which by definition concludes on Easter may be compelled to inhabit the time of year, may be compelled to inhabit the time of year and match their daily lives’ paces with the forty days whose start is Ash Wednesday. Speaking from my continuum, last year during Lent my landlords of many years notified all of us in the building to be ready to leave due to an impending sale. It’s been a protracted season of purgation and penitence ever since. In Lenten fashion, the season is one of mournful anticipation and persistent reach. Unable to find a sliver of mercy in my own hometown through four months of nonstop, full-bore searching and personal campaigning, the desperation move I had to make was to a cramped, remote, and oppressively loud hovel. Neither peace, nor comfort, nor space to unpack. Life by the Babylonian waters now slogs through its eighth month. Alongside the Psalmist, how do I sing the Lord’s song in an unwelcoming place? Applying the self-talk I wrote about earlier this year, there is a lifeline in my insisting that the current and painful exile is finite. This is transitional and something has got to give, considering all this unwavering effort. Yet at the same time, I’m careful not to presume to be owed anything. My intention is to press on.

spring takes shape

“Hell is the place of unsatisfied cravings,” Warren Weirsbe astutely observed in one of his broadcasts. I am intimately aware of this, vigilantly navigating a wilderness replete with roadblocks. En route to crosstown errands and to work, it is impossible not to notice the juxtaposition of elite waterfront construction and desperate homelessness along sidewalks and highway ramps. Both extremes of the housing scale are in vividly plain sight. The work I do requires extemporaneously helping the public, joining together learning and people; that means maintaining grounded and positive perspectives. And to be sure, genuineness and compassion must go together. After all, I must practice what I preach, implementing this for myself, too. Daylight extends, and I’m better able to run away from the invasive and shellshocking racket from immediately above those oppressively low ceilings. The best way out I can imagine is by perseverance, physically and spiritually, despite not having results in view. The present imperative is to hoist my spirits into spring. Last weekend, while Le Cirque des Éléphants upstairs was at full blast, with chair and journal out on the sidewalk, my exasperated stare probed the skies. Then I noticed sparrows collecting twigs, flying off with them, up toward their burgeoning abodes. Creatures such as these- including humans- have yearning instincts aimed toward survival. I’m reading the signs and taking notes.

expectations and exodus season

There is an Eastertide because there is a Passover season. Few really understand this. The chronology of purging and displacement must give way to resurrection and new promise, biblically and personally. Perhaps your own penitential season has also run off the calendar; you’re far from alone. Exodus is a search and an offer away. There’s nothing passive about it, to be sure. Easier said than done. How near I am to significant discovery cannot be forecasted. But while all my efforts, strength, soul, and savvy are pointed toward tangible improvements, I’m toiling away and keeping watch. At work, tenuous and temporary as it’s always felt, my industrious engagement unquestionably continues, as well as refining my innovations. During this pandemic era, many workers have had to compromise dreams, possessions- even homes and jobs. At times it takes twisting both arms to try counting blessings. An effective distraction (and a useful one, too) has been to help others succeed at their projects. A praying person intercedes for those in need. Turning within is necessary, but there are dangers: there are haunting reams of denied dreams, rejected applications, and elusive housing opportunities. At least I know enough to persevere in forward directions and dare to expect improvement. Every day, heaven help me. Too many evenings, after long workdays, returning to the compartment sends me back outside again to escape the building’s noise. Lengthened daylight provides expansive visibility, and the higher temperatures allow me to perch in the open air for longer periods of time. Pedestrians are more apt to stop and chat. By being seen, a friendly cat- who happens to be my favorite neighbor- can easily find me and ask for treats. Albeit on a shoestring, how about being hopeful just for its own sake? This is also the season of Divine Mercy.

Sunday, March 26, 2023


“Naturally, we desire knowledge, happiness, and peace;
knowledge, since we see our thoughts curiously investigating
the sources of things: happiness, since each person
and indeed each animal acts with a view to procuring good
or avoiding evil: peace since the pursuit of knowledge
or that of happiness are not followed simply for
the sake of the pursuit but in order that the desire
in which it is born may be appeased by calm and repose.”

~ Etienne Gilson, The Philosophy of Saint Bonaventure, p.87


During difficult winter months, more energy than usual is needed for the basics. Getting from place to place is impaired by weather conditions, and overcoming such variables requires added time for car excavation, window-scraping, and idling the engine. Indeed, all symbolic to this writer. Trying to find hope amidst instability and unease tests all systems. It’s been taking a real stretch of the imagination to stay creative, ambitious, and sharp. There’s plenty to dull the senses and wits, in this present situation. Often, while I’m defrosting my windshield, I stare beyond treelines and rooftops- much as my aspirations set sights beyond the bland anguish of this winter in the East End. Where are the sources of cheer? Certainly not in the news. As much as I want to know the currents, I’ll wade in just enough, avoiding the misery of immersion. Without more than a pertinent acknowledgment, as I want to focus these words upon pursuits that raise my sense of vision, I’ll mention how my housing displacement (and continuing search for a place to live) prompts me to monitor economic news. Well, upon the ground of living in a perpetually depressed and intensely stratified region, the term recession is hardly distant; it’s been here a painfully long time. Atop years of toiling and producing in educational nonprofits, last year shoved me to this present brink. When articles ask readers to compare now with 12 months ago, I needn’t look far to recall living in 40% more space at 30% less rent in a beautiful place that was in a better neighborhood. Alas, it was sold and everyone had to leave. I know to avoid dwelling upon this much further, as trauma runs its course. This type of thing has been happening all over this city. I’m daring for something even better, while as yet unaware of its location.


Survival is more than necessary in order to settle here-and-now responsibilities; it’s also the way to steer toward better horizons. Having to keep on working and contending with expenses, while making an emergency relocation, served to maintain focus. Fear, however, does little to nurture creative energy. Threatening, litigious language abounds- reminding me of how meanness can trickle all the way down to simple transactions and what could otherwise be good-faith agreements. Once more, it is vital to keep finding ways to be motivated by a vision of goodness, over and above the baser goading by impersonal threat. Some of us, even now, continue in our idealism. My previous landlord, may he rest in peace, was a dentist whose office was below my apartment. He was born in that building and my predecessor in “apartment 2" was his mother. When he handed the keys to my twenty year old self, he said to me: “We have one rule in this building; it’s the Golden Rule. You know what that is, right?” I quoted it to him, “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you,” to which he responded, “that’s right, you know it,” patting my shoulder. That’s all that was needed, and in so many ways it’s the most essential of ethical rules.

A less-ancient saying goes as follows: “Everything is a teachable moment, if we’re willing to be taught.” Though it’s been a strain, dear readers, I’ve been wrenching myself through daily uncertainties, discomfort, and desolation at all hands to learn what I can in this. Revealing how relative these things can be, several months ago during a mid-workday cancellation my director told me I could go home any time I wanted. I replied that I preferred being at work. “The Compartment” is no home to me, and I described that to him. We had a good and relaxed conversation in the empty hallway, and I gratefully kept on working. Better things are surely ahead, and each day is a day closer. Even my mustard seed’s worth of faith is enough to convince me of that. Keep the pursuits in mind. I’m in this life to create, to inspire, to foster the Golden Rule. And that’s just for starters, just like persevering in my work and sanctifying each task and interaction.


As severely as the city of Portland has hollowed itself with its gentrification, I still manage to bump into friends on the streets. “Whatcha reading?” a fellow West End refugee asked, stopping to greet me at my spartan bus stop. Closing my book, I held it up, and my friend said “Philosophy. That’s heavy.” I defended my vice by saying, “Saint Bonaventure; he’s keeping me from jumping off the bridge.” There must be pursuits to raise sights and spirits. Creative projects are just about impossible in cramped and oppressive living quarters, not to mention the daily and nightly stomping and sound system racket penetrating ceilings and walls. But... during my coffee break in the middle of my 8-hour workdays I can scribble a few notes, and late at night when the stampeding herds cease I can steal a few more moments to write and read more philosophy. I’ve invested in a strange “white-noise” machine that has a setting that imitates the sounds of rainstorms. And this returns me to those windchilled bus stops. Just for now, I persist in my insistence. On better days, the wincing and cringing become pointers to remind me of the progress of time. This is surely transitional. I’m wagering my life on it, and my philosopher saints will ride shotgun with me.

Such pursuits as the arts and philosophical studies may appear as goals, but these are indeed means. Bonaventure’s responses to the Sentences of Peter Lombard include the observation that we will not find our fulfilling achievements in the finite. “Our desire tends beyond each finite goodness toward and beyond another finite goodness.” In his enduring Itinerarium, Bonaventure wrote, “To follow the way of the soul towards God means to strive with all one’s strength to live a human life as close as possible to that of the blessed in Heaven.” Reflecting upon Bonaventure, Etienne Gilson wrote of the itinerary’s road as illuminative, and the pilgrimage is adhered to by love of the destination. A brilliant member of my staff whom I mourned last year liked to say, the saints are always teaching us. And I like quoting how she used to tell me this, Elaine surely being among those saints. Submerged in an undefined and intensely anxious time of instability and discomfort, such means as writing, the study and teaching of philosophy, spiritual devotions, and productivity on the job serve to maintain my sanity. I meant what I’d said to my friend at the bus stop. The itinerary trims the undivided highway margin between humiliation and humility. The latter is necessary for the exploration of philosophical truths, admitting that reason alone cannot achieve its object unaided, submitting to the Light which irradiates and moves the conscience.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

accidental and transitory

“At the very moment when everything seems to be collapsing
before our eyes, we realize that quite the opposite is true,
‘because you, Lord are my strength.’
If God is dwelling in your soul, everything else,
no matter how important it may seem,
is accidental and transitory,
whereas we, in God, stand permanent and firm.”

~ Josemaría Escrivá, Friends of God, 92


Until at least this past decade- with refinements in wireless communications- those who appeared to talk to themselves were generally regarded with suspicion. Urban streets being arenas of assessment, stereotypic self-talkers tended to be written off as rumpled shufflers conversing with the air. Now, stereotypic bluetoothers tend to obliviously stride around, conversing with the air- except for the occasional crackling voice in response. For an observing pedestrian, I’ve gotten used to seeing individuals sauntering around to their own speaking voices. Negatively, the loud talkers in public spaces are intrusive. Positively, I get a great excuse to keep on talking to myself as I might while driving or working. Journaling gives me space to preserve ideas and experiences, as well as making sense of observations and ideas in writing. Speaking to my thoughts while in transit or at work also helps me distill observations and decisions. Thematically, my self-talk and most of my journaling -and photography- are parallel strands along the same streams of absorption, reflection, and creativity. These are extensions of consciousness. But like expression and the life of thought, self-talk wields enough influence to determine how we operate within as well as outwardly. Working alone as a self-propelled and consistently accountable one-person department for 36 months and counting, I’ve been my own voice of assurance. That’s a formidable discipline for me, unceasingly working through the depths of pandemic, personal loss, desolation, and gentrifying displacement, while rarely able to dispel my longrunning streams of verbal self-condemnation. Indeed, surviving present hardships only becomes more difficult amidst harsh self-criticism.


Small devotional booklets I've made which also hold my transit pass.

Gesturing with thumb and pointer finger about an eighth-inch apart, I hear myself exclaim, “I’ve got this much margin for error.” Unreasonable as it may sound, there are deepseated reasons beneath this, with a lengthy catalogue of failures, missed opportunities, and comparisons. And yet the hard-driven efforts and persistent hopes continue. Self-talk clashes against the challenge of faith. The equation of oppressive conditions at all hands has forced a necessary straightening out in the form of “Let’s get through this,” and “We’ll get there.” (Oddly enough, I naturally default to the plural- but only interiorly. It reminds me of King David asking his own soul why it was downcast.) In recent months while standing at city bus stops in subzero cold as part of my daily commute, I’ve been reading the wise homilies of Josemariá Escrivá. His essays join my special category of books that seem to have been written for me. I think every reader has their own equivalent bibliography.

A captivating reading, like going out photographing, really gets me out of my own way. Escrivá’s words are notably welcoming. Between the lines of his theological reflections are plenty of his personal anecdotes about his poverty during the Spanish Civil War, and especially his experiences as a university chaplain. As it was for college students in midcentury Spain, present-day individuals struggle with existential angst. It is dangerously easy to believe that what we see is all there is, and that each setback is an unrecoverable blow. But Escrivá asked his listeners and readers to question the perspective that considers denied opportunities to be earth-shattering and perilous. Such things, as he said, should be viewed as “accidental and transitory,” which is to say incidental and temporal. He emphasized keeping in mind an all-essential thirst for the eternal, for the Living God. Escrivá wrote in his essay called Humility, “Why do we become dejected? It is because life on earth does not go the way we had hoped, or because obstacles arise which prevent us from satisfying our personal ambitions.” Of course this speaks to my ill-fitting and uneasy predicament. “Don’t be frightened; don’t fear any harm,” he insisted, “even though the circumstances in which you work are terrible, worse even than those of Daniel in the pit with all those ferocious beasts. God’s hand is as powerful as ever and, if necessary God will work miracles. Be faithful!” Sanctifying the everyday is a theme that manifests throughout his writing.


I wonder how many of us, when we graduate from school- brimming with catharsis and ambition- say, “my life’s goal is to be humble and lowly.” Who does this? Not me. Academic and professional work are pointed toward achievement, success, and prominence. As many of us commendably aim high, many of us are frustratingly brought low. The former is in our nature, the latter makes us chafe. And the rub is in the transcendence of setbacks; not once or twice, but persistently countless times. Indeed, it is humbling to consider standing straight in defeat as a measure of success. With my philosophy students, we regularly take up topics in axiology. In one of our Socratic forums my question to the class about the definition of value became a discussion of how we determine value. It was a great discussion, and a parallel thread about the widespread societal concern called success led to how each person defined stability. Engaging in philosophy, we balanced such concepts as implied in material and moral ideas. As we step back to see the fluidity of the present as incidental and temporal, borrowing from Escrivá, an antidote for dramatic devastation is found in the sanctification of understated tasks.

If we regard the present as provisional, rather than as helplessly irreparable, we can freely admit that everything is subject to improvement. That ubiquitous self-talk (for those among us who care to listen to their own thoughts) is also worth improving. Proofreading the inner script is a form of healthful detachment, essentially an untethering from living as though momentary deficiency is some kind of life sentence. Even if momentary amounts to years, and even if the years are saturated with rejections. Resilience has an upturned chin, an affirmative step, and conscientious manners. Things won’t always be like this, I tell myself, even at this late stage of the game. The pearl of great price is the open door in the wilderness labyrinth of barricaded passages. It is imperative to trust enough to hold with insistent certitude that supplications are not spoken into an unattended void. Prayers are surely not self-talk; whether or not they are granted does not mean they are not heard. Grace must be met with courage, and trials must not have the last word. I’m holding to this, as I navigate this throwaway here-today-forgotten-tomorrow culture. It’s easy to believe the immediate is everything. But it really isn’t, and such tempting mirages must be bypassed and resisted at all turns. There is much for me to learn these days about the fine differences between humility and humiliation. Fulfilling the daily obligations, under miserable living conditions, it consoles me to confidently keep its very temporariness in mind and to interpolate dashes of creativity when possible. And continually telling myself to keep faith, look upwards, and never cease searching for better conditions. No doubt, I daily join my praying voice with all who struggle with housing and employment. Fortitudo et spes.

Friday, February 3, 2023


Meno: What do you mean by saying that we do not learn,
and that what we call learning is only a process of recollection?
Can you teach me how this is?
Socrates: I told you Meno, just now, that you were a rogue;
and now you ask whether I can teach you,
when I am saying that there is no teaching, but only recollection.

~ Plato, Meno.

Going by the numbers on what is commonly called the Western calendar, here comes a new year to be seized upon. I began journaling in 1994, albeit sporadically, and then consistently beginning in 1999. Even back then, I’d reserve an evening leading up to New Years Eve for a “year in review” journal entry. These are great to read back over, and I highly recommend this for those who write their perspectives. As 2000 approached, I wrote a “decade in review,” and have had occasion to do this twice since. Such practices are not meant to handwring and rehash, but I naturally took to preserving reflective summations of time spans, such as years, or weeks at work, or eras at schools and jobs, or lengthy travels. Having taught writing, I’ve created years of lesson plans built around journaling prompts, and encourage writers to make up their own so they can keep going. My favorite prompt materialized as I’d write in an Exchange Street café now long gone: I heard myself say... Coffeehouses, prior to the pandemic, were great places for lively conversations and for reflective writing. When I’d shift from some animated discourse to assembling written thoughts, something always lingered from what I’d heard and what I heard myself say. It’s a way to visit what is really in one’s thoughts. What have you heard yourself say? Living under covid-era restrictions (and now fewer cafés), configurations have changed, but eventually we can catch our spontaneous thoughts and still make note of them. Resolved to emerge from the last year’s housing misery which led to an inhospitable living situation, recently I heard myself say, “I think the only way to not crumple under all this is to see the dynamism in the open-endedness in front of me.” That’s how to start a new year.

I’ve always admired restorers of objects, structures, and historic artifacts. Gratefully, my speed-dial numbers include my typewriter repairer, fountain pen restorer, camera technician, and auto mechanic. These individuals are also esteemed friends. When any of us talk shop, we’ll often note the parallels between their crafts and mine as a bookbinder and conservator. The purposes of our respective restorative work is to keep things in fine operational order. Often when I stitch a set of signatures and add silk bands at the extremities of a spine, I’ll invoke how the owner of Cambridge Typewriter says, “it doesn’t just have to work well, it has to look good!” Tom says this while polishing the parts and cover of a Royal or an Olympia- just as Greg across town used a special chamois to make my sterling silver Bossert & Erhard fountain pen gleam as crisply as it writes. When I use decorated endpaper material to conserve a book, I’ll usually make matching bookmarks and dustjackets out of the excess. Among my workplace colleagues, the maintenance workers take as much interest in what I’m doing as the librarians. Now 24 years in professional practice, I’ve always considered preservation to be the archivist’s operatio Dei. Conscious of that, I’m sure to use the best alkaline, long-fibred materials I can find, so the books and documents will have lengthened lives of utility and integrity. Too many aspects in societies, workplaces, municipalities, and throughout the world are woefully broken. While wishing all along to practice a tangible compassion, some things I can do are to continue preserving the documental record and the written word, and try to be an encouraging ingredient to all those with whom I interact.

As startling as it is to ponder, the covid pandemic era is now at its 3-year mark. If the present time is a latter stage, its duration remains unknown. Social and mental health impacts have yet to be fully evaluated. An immediate shock for many were the sudden disruptions, quarantining requirements, and isolation during the scrambling for immunization. Surely a topic for a later essay. Sufficient for the moment, as a social being and public employee, I had to fall back upon skills cultivated during my years of solitary work. While we were all learning about “supply chains” and shortages not seen in more than a half-century, many turned their efforts toward “do it yourself” work-arounds to such practical matters as producing household cleansers, clothesmaking, and doing more cooking from scratch. A great many of us that had never “worked from home” found ourselves, by necessity, pressing our apartments and computers into service to be able to stay employed. I created a remote version of my service desk by using a corner of my dining table, also purchasing headphones and a refurbished laptop- even repairing books in my kitchen.

As a longtime bookbinder, as well as a bicycle repairer, I could simply use my various sets of tools to remedy basic mechanical and electrical problems. During the 14 months of rotating my work site, between the library and my apartment, I took to carrying tools from one location to the other. In order to stay organized, I separated the materials and flash-drives by their function, helping to always have on hand what was needed. With just about all my commerce done online, along with most everyone, I had to deal with purchases arriving after long spans of time- and damaged. For example, a small toolbox for archival marking tools, hard enough to find, broke in transit. The vendor did not have any others, and kindly reimbursed me. Really wanting to use the box, and taking a good look at it, I replaced the completely broken hinges by melting small holes in the plastic with a bookbinding awl which I heated in a candle flame, and using 2 pairs of needlenose pliers to create rings out of bent-out thick paperclips. My repair worked like a charm, and has been holding up now for 2 ½ years and counting. Like my stitched bindings, the repaired item has more strength than the original structure. I use the box daily, it’s become one of my reminders of these times.

Essential to the repair of an item is understanding how it works. Having to do much more of my living and working as a reluctant shut-in, it invariably became necessary to organize my household. (This proved helpful when the building very sadly had to be emptied of its residents last summer and all of us had to move out.) My usual studies and writing had to be done in and close to home (but at least I had a spacious place to live, at the time). Very thankfully, a supply line was opened to me via the Boston Athenaeum’s mailing and database services. I also continued teaching via Zoom, joining the many who became fluent in the medium.

Amidst these times, I reacquainted with old writing tools, and put them into working order. Pens present their own forms of mechanical puzzles. While rinsing a much-loved Reynolds fountain pen from one of my many sojourns in France, I watched the ring from the nib section roll across the kitchen sink and irretrievably down the drain. As with the toolbox mentioned earlier, a study of the pen showed me how the ring was more than decorative trim- it actually provided the needed margin of space to allow the pen to be tightly capped by pushing the nib section into the mechanism that snaps it closed. I set the disabled pen on my desk, not sure what to do with it. One night, while writing and listening to the radio (a supply-line of culture itself), I stopped to look at the poor old Reynolds and an empty yoghurt cup I used for calligraphy. That curved rim got me thinking, and it occurred to me that perhaps if I could slice the plastic just right, I’d have a replacement part. Using my narrowest bookbinding mat knife, and masking tape to hold the container in place, I sliced thin strips of the plastic. It took a few tries, as I saw how exact the fit had to be, to get the pen to snap closed with the same click as it did before with its former metal ring. After getting the precise breadth and length, I sliced an extremely thin slice of archival plastic tape for the inside of the replacement ring. It worked perfectly, and I was able to use the pen as before- albeit sporting a white yoghurt container ring.

I later found other uses for the strong, yet thin, plastic material to create spacers for altering new refills to fit older pens. Either due to cost savings, or forced obsolescence, inserts for even the higher-end ballpoints are manufacturered shorter now than before. Unlike a fountain pen, a ballpoint is essentially a “handle” that houses an inserted refill combined with its writing-point. The two components, like a textblock and book-cover, need to perfectly fit to be functional- and look right. Using very tiny pieces of the yoghurt cup plastic, I created spacers to customize and “push out” the points as needed for both the writing and the retracting. Getting the right fit was followed by adhering my homemade parts to the backs of the refills, and using a heated sewing pin to create a “breather” for the ink. Again, the repairs have held up to use, and the tools have been in the fine operational order of my preference!

Having field experts as friends makes for great conversations. As well, I can turn to their professional expertise, supporting their enterprises, too. As it became possible to visit with neighbor and longtime friend Pat Daunis at her shop, I brought her my Reynolds pen, and asked about creating a permanent part to replace what I had made. She liked what I’d created, and used it as a reference point. We had a great visit, talking about the crafts of lettering and calligraphy- and I hired her shop to fashion a new pen ring. Daunis jewelry is among the very best and most highly-regarded that is made in Maine. Pat made the new and precise pen ring out of brass. This will surely last for the life of the pen- and I’ll make certain to rinse it over a tray, with the sink drain-stopper in place!

Last week, I visited with another old friend whom I respect very much, and that’s Andy the owner of Classic Camera & Repair of Maine. I’m continuing to work full-time through these extremely difficult times. The slivers of personal time I’m able to find are for reflective writing and photography. I made sure to keep my faithful Rolleiflex unpacked, and have been making new images during snowstorms again. Andy helped me by testing the camera’s shutter, and that occasioned a heartening visit.

Repairs and restoration are expressions of healing. I think of this when I bring books back to life, as well as when I see how fellow craftspeople and mechanics perform their own renditions of this. Of course, the treasures made for written and photo arts are meant to be used en route to new creative ventures. The damage done by the displacement last year, like collateral social ramifications of this pandemic, have yet to be assessed or remedied. I won’t know the extent of this current nightmare, until landing in a peaceful and comfortable living space- away from stomping, blaring, odors, and congested confinement.

Finally and for the moment, I recently stepped away from the fray for the first occasion in a year, with a week in Boston. Soul repair takes much more time than it does to calibrate an instrument or to fabricate components. And iron-willed patience. Between the always-welcoming environment at Beacon Hill Friends House, and inspirational studies at the Boston Athenaeum, I especially savoured the sweet familiarity of beloved communities. Not only could I hear myself thinking, but I sensed myself breathing, being in the presence of many kindred spirits, and in the absence of overhead bombast. Indeed, the idea is to bask amidst the moment, though admittedly it became a distraction to want to load up on peaceful civility for the road ahead. To say the least, I took many notes, aperch in some beautiful places.