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.

Saturday, May 9, 2020


“Longing to be spirit alive...

Though exalted our hopes
no less real shall they be;
in compassion faithfulness thrives.”

~ Spirit of God, by the Monks of Weston Priory

The grey-and-black satchel that I take with me to work every day has been at the foot of my desk at home for eight weeks. The flap stays folded open. It’s been grounded, as I’ve been fulfilling my work duties from home for two months and counting. During the weekend of the 14th and 15th of March, I had removed my journals, calendar, and pencil case as I would on any weekend. My satchel hasn’t been used since; it simply leans at the ready, its contents unchanged since its last time slung over my shoulder. I haven’t had the heart to unpack anything from it, but recently thumbed through the unfinished lesson plans, February newsletters, and forms related to travels that had to be cancelled. There are serial articles for lunch-hour reading, customer cards from a number of cafés and eateries, a pencil sharpener, my Charlie Card for the Boston transit system, a comb, and spare camera batteries. All dormant. As with my car that has a full tank of gas and a nice new inspection sticker, that satchel-shaped time capsule is still ready to be used- once there’s a place to go.

Certainly these recent weeks have been consumed with stabilization efforts in the wake of societal whiplash and enforced lockdown. I’d glance over at the open satchel with much the same disengaged attention with which I’ve been regarding the casualty numbers in the news. Yes, it’s there and this is so, but if I look too closely it’s going to be more difficult to deal with things that are immediately at hand. I believe many are stuffing their absorbed trauma. The urgency in the context of my responsibilities are matters of safety, health, continuing to work, meeting expenses, and finding ways to stay even-keeled. At the same time, I’ll admit to noticing things like my trusty satchel, my camera that has film in it, and the forms I was supposed to bring with me to the Bodleian Library for my return sojourn in Oxford. Everything has to wait. Waiting and endurance constitute the half-filled glass to counteract the void of maybe-never. Listening to widespread fears and frustrations, while combating those of my own, rotates around a core of longing. While we sense everything to be out of control, we long for the confidence to fairly expect the near future. Many are longing for people and places that cannot be visited. It is a longing for all that is gone from reach. In deprivation, pronouncedly noticing what is missing is itself a distraction that my instincts reflexively and defensively distract in order to keep going.

Living in lockdown is an exile, but in familiar confines. It is a purgatory of undetermined duration, but many of us prefer the idealism of assuring one another of see you later. Willing a finitude upon this indefinite crisis complements my intact satchel, loaded camera, and studies. My mother sent me a text message saying, “we will get through this,” and I am basing all my efforts upon this insistence. My apartment is a safe and sound sailboat on an ocean of polluted currents, and when I must moor myself to run errands I vigilantly disinfect upon returning aboard. I am quite far from a stereotypic germophobe, but all wise counsel informs me to take nothing for granted. Shortly before the lockdown began, a neighbor brought me homemade face masks, which get daily use. I have my “dirty shoes,” which stay outside in the hall, and “dirty gloves,” that are also part of my armor- especially for the weekly grocery errand, albeit stealthily done at 7am. A lot of spent energy, amidst a lot of wasted time.

Above: the dirty gloves and the dirty shoes, out in the hallway.

Sudden desolation has caught many by surprise. When the plague was called a “novel virus,” there seemed to be a media-promoted novelty in reporting how many households were beginning to operate in bunkered isolation. Whatever was novel wore off, as we’ve all seen spectacles of hoarding, profiteering, and inhumane cruelties. But there are also parallel threads of compassion in our midst. Among social, cultural, political, and even workplace dynamics, the present is an exaggerated version of life before March 2020. While the mean-spiritedness is cranked-up, displays of goodness are intensified. Ineptitudes have become severely hazardous, and kind gestures have become lifelines. Right before our eyes.

Amidst the present culture of extremes, there are understandable obsessions with reaching across time. Looking forward, or wishing to do so, is an affirmative in favor of life beyond this purgatory. But then there are the prognostications that I’ve learned to identify in the news: “at this rate, there could be,” “ a possible trajectory,” “if this happens, then that could happen,” “we could be seeing,” -all of which I’ve trained myself to detect. Yes, there are messages about the present, about what to be prudently aware of now, but resisting scattered predictions has become necessary. And then there’s the reaching back. Memory is a source of consolation for many. I witness this as I continue working as a professional archivist, I notice this in popular media, and I find myself doing the same with my own remembrances. Sports radio stations are playing vintage broadcasts of championship games. Past events are re-broadcast. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that combines fondness that is often tinged with sadness about the past.

Nostalgia can also reach the depths of grief. Again, I see it, hear it, and experience it myself. While organizing some local history and providing some healthy distraction for my library patrons, I wrote an article about hometown hockey. Careful to get the archival photos accurately captioned and aligning names and dates, I thought I’d add some appropriate audio. The old Stompin’ Tom Connors song about the “good ol’ hockey game” came to mind, and I added the footage-illustrated video. Proofreading the essay, I re-watched the video and listened to the familiar song that I’ve heard countless times at hockey arenas. Well, this time the sights and sounds filled my eyes with tears. That was unexpected, and I needed to just dig back into the work, being “on the clock.” Apparently, I had to reckon with a few more shocks. A few days later, continuing to work on the major digital archives project I created, but now logged in from my dining table, I assembled scans I made of negatives shot in the early 1940s. The pictures showed Christmas shoppers on Congress Street (Portland’s major thoroughfare). For the archival descriptive notes I identified the stores and coördinates, recognizing the buildings that still exist. But the moments frozen by the photographer back in 1941 captured the bustling sidewalks, the chatting pedestrians, the seasonal weather, and even the trolley cars. Prepping the scans, I was swept into these compelling images. Even though I’ve been curating these pictures daily for a decade, these images suddenly looked different to me. There were the gestures, the time of year, how close everyone was on those walkways, and that I know these corners and streets from my own times. I needed to stand away and walk around my apartment, finding this strangely overwhelming. Then I dug back into the work. My employers need statistics, which means I need to continue being productive. I am certain this state of purgatory has affected my sense of time; perhaps yours, too.

Below 3 images: Holiday shoppers on busy Congress Street:
Portland, Maine in 1941.

In this imposed immobility, I am consciously grateful for the travels I’ve been able to make through the years. Thus far, says the optimist within. Surviving this crucible means there will continue to be pilgrimages and more opportunities. But first to live to see that other end of this trial, to emerge from the danger of exile. And while dreaming ahead, my lurking hope is that time isn’t being wasted. My gratitude extends these days to the small personal library I’ve assembled over the years, as well as the reams of notes I’ve made through dozens of research sojourns. All the quotations, annotations, and references are now transcribed and searchable- built for present and future uses. Much of this resourcing has been to help me as a teacher; my repository of scholarly notes has become a ready archive of inspiration. Years of savouring the discoveries I’ve made in the manuscript rooms and rare books libraries of my travels, I’ve somehow created my own version of “strategic reserves” which are feeding me now.

My own scratch-built annotated index to Saint Augustine’s Civitate Dei, helps me continue mining gems out of that great work. In book 11, chapter 27, the great philosopher of Thagaste (north Africa) wrote that we desire much more than to merely exist, but to comprehend. Augustine said that human beings would sooner choose sanity even if it makes us sad, than insanity even if it makes us glad. He asserted that we are repulsed at the prospect of annihilation, even during times of misfortune. Then he broadened his observations to include all living beings- that all creation really does long to live:

“Why, even irrational animals, with no mind to make such reflections, moving to avoid destruction, can, in some sense, be said to guard their own existence from the greatest serpents to the tiniest worms, show in every movement they can make that they long to live and escape destruction. Even trees and plants move to guarantee sustenance. They attach their roots deep into the earth in order to thrust forth their branches safe into the air... seeking the place where they can best exist in accordance with their nature.”

With those trees and plants, I am attaching my roots and reaching upward, stretching for the life of the Civitate Dei. As yet, it is uncertain as to how this time will alter my composition. In their liminality my satchel, tools, and car stand by, intact, for good reason. I’m finding out one can sow and construct during the purgatory of confinement and impairment. We cannot fully know the mystery of our own cultivation. The inward journey becomes the principal pilgrim road.

Same window view: April 2020 above; May 2020 below.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

beauty for ashes

“Let us therefore see, o human soul,
whether present time can be long;
for to you it is given to perceive
and to measure periods of time.”

~ St-Augustin, Confessions, book 11, ch. 15.

It would be a dishonesty, as an observing writer, not to make note of the pervasive misery of these times. With general society in shutdown mode, just about every remaining informational outlet is broadcasting more than enough to paralyze the most stalwart of souls. Admittedly, the urgency is quite real. But the jackhammering of repetition is excessive; and it has caused me to limit my exposure to news media down to a few minutes at both ends of the day- radio only. I’m guessing many of you have had to figure something similar into your fortress mentalities. In the midst of a multi-layered morass made of terrors, boredom, despair, and closed doors, I am insistent upon forcing my sights on open horizons. Being irrationally hopeful is a reasonable perspective. So is the persistence of seeing beyond this present tribulation. Through foraging and sifting directives and warnings, I found something positive within the see-you-laters of businesses. Evidently there are others out there who look to better things, without the finality of adieu (farewell), but instead with the temporal au revoir (see you again).

A local pub that features typewriters and writing events
bids customers stay safe and literate, until we meet again.

The human soul wants to aspire. We are naturally driven to find our own ways through labyrinthine confines, much as the involuntary need to breathe. This often manifests as a navigator’s spirit, tirelessly looking for ways out of shadows and death, to light and life. It comes naturally to want to know why and to want to know how. The primal need to trust is pronouncedly showing itself now, even while overshadowed by panic and self-centeredness. Many are still trying to find ways to reach out to one another, and beneath this we can see how trust and hope are drawn from a mysterious presence. It is a thirst- an ache for emergence from unacceptable oppression, toward a cherishing of life, precarious as we surely recognize it to be.

This past week, I’ve been remembering some words of Brother Roger of Taizé, a brilliant person I met with several times and from whom I’d learned some vital perspectives. His essays included memoir-like accounts of the Taizé monastery’s large public events that gathered thousands from every continent for the cause of Christian fellowship, in order for participants to return home energized for service and community involvement. These gatherings are called stages of a pilgrimage of trust, and the experiences are profoundly life-giving and positive. Writing about one such gathering, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Milan (Italy), Brother Roger described how pilgrims impressively made the effort to...

“...cross various human and geographical boundaries. They come to fix their gaze, not on what divides them but on what unites them; not to reinforce their pessimism, but to perceive signs of hope.”
(Meditations in Milan, 1998)

As much as there is an abiding human survival instinct, we are seeing significant transcendent creative energy in this crisis. A few examples include people volunteering to deliver food, sewing safety masks, giving online musical recitals from their apartments, teaching downloadable workshops, raising money for charity, writing letters, and many other respectful acts. Such spirit tells us about more than simply wanting to survive; by and large, this shows how indefatigable we can be. A great many share the desire to redeem the time we have- over and above the wish to work. Meaningful work is a supernal vocation. Keeping a constant sense of resolve and purpose is as vital as it is motivating on a daily basis.

“I am a songbird perched in thorns,” wrote Angelo Roncalli (also known as Pope John 23rd). I discovered that poignant quote, reading his memoir, during one of my all-too-many underemployed positions. Those words remain with me to this day. It is the voice of the burdened yet aspiring soul who hungers to thrive. It is like King David in the 55th Psalm, who wrote, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove to fly away!" The quest to find light in the shadows is identical to that of meaningful work and of fittingly redeeming the time. In these extremely uneasy recent weeks, not knowing what to expect, something I found that I could do was to make note of hopeful signs. Walking to essential services, such as the post office and grocery store, I’ve been carrying my camera with me, looking for hints of spring. Even the simple awareness of signs that indicate new life is a grace in itself.

Doing remote work forces a compromise within a compromise; scrambling to stay productive amidst a lockdown is yet another pressure that has become necessary to absorb and try to thrive against. And all the more, making note of hopeful signs- of oases in this desert- is more critical than ever. Along with singing one’s best tunes while perched in thorns is to give beauty for ashes. The ancient expression, used by Isaiah, has to do with God giving us beauty in exchange for the ashes of our sufferings. Just as the John 23rd quote, I’ve often appropriated the giving out of beauty for the ashes of my lot to talk about various work situations. It’s like the folktale expression, “spinning straw into gold.” It takes a lot of persistent creative energy to do that, in season and out of season. And for survival’s sake.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

ties that bind

“We share our mutual woes;
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.”

~ John Fawcett (18th C.), Blest be the Tie that Binds.

While I’d been amidst a fairly usual chaotic swirl blending together employment commitments, teaching projects, studying, writing, and travel planning- all of these things came to a sudden halt. The waves of pandemic from afar have found their ways to places like Maine; it’s everywhere, and everything has had to change. Because this crisis is completely global- leaving politics aside- each one of us has a unique perspective. Obviously, the larger numbers and compounded tragedies are in densely-populated places, yet the symptoms are the same in every place. The coronavirus manifested in Maine from scattered cases to increased numbers in the more populated southern counties. Watching what was happening in the Boston area, 120 miles south of Portland, we could all see how serious this is, with the closures and lockdowns taking effect almost pre-emptively. Only 2½ weeks ago, people were out and about, doing business, though wary of what might lie ahead. By the 16th of March, the shuttering of most businesses and places of community began taking effect in this region.

Above: Boston: The day after I took this photo, business closures began.

Below: Letter-writing.

These words are being written during the citywide shelter-in-place order. Downtown Portland has been eerily desolate and silent for nearly 2 weeks. The absence of air traffic is reminiscent of the days after September 11, 2001. The completely silent streets remind me of the hush of a snow blizzard, but without the windrattled windows and the muffled grind of snowplows. It’s also warm outside. Our parlance now comprises expressions such as social distancing, self-isolation, quarantining, and bunkering. The airport word, curbside, now refers to food services. Churches use the term ungathered worship. Many of us have become proficient with teleconferencing. Employment has become frighteningly tenuous, and my workdays have been by remote access for 2 weeks. As with 9/11, it is a time to take stock of what remains intact and find what is good- basic as it may be. But this is unlike 9/11, as the end of this protracted crucible is not in sight.

Along with all the new terminology and habits generated by these times, there are our own words. Many of you may be hearing words like strange, weird, bizarre, surreal, and unprecedented as much as I am hearing them. And maybe you’re not audibly hearing the words, but reading them instead through social media which has notably intensified. Each one of us has a story. As an instructor of writing and philosophy, as well as a full-time archivist, I’ve been encouraging those I know and mentor to write their perspectives. I’m doing this, too, while trying to figure out my compromised daily routines. Our personal narratives are serving us now as stabilizing forces, and ways to make sense of the present. These journal entries are also pointed toward the future: it’s where we can dream ahead and create a documentary record for later reference. And certainly, in our writing we can remember. I’ve written about life before 3 weeks ago, missing my favorite people, libraries, cafés, diners, events, and the many other places of social gathering.

Before I could assemble coherent thoughts in my journal, and while figuring out how to continue my job from my dining table, I thought of my friends and letter-writing. To my friends on a social media outlet, a simple offer of writing them real paper postal letters generated dozens of responses. I’ve answered each request with a personal letter. Receiving a letter at one’s door, manually and personally written, is a kind of permissible visit in these alienating times. Before all the “nonessential” stores closed, I bought a stack of post cards and stickers to add to the letters. While trying to find an efficient work routine, each day begins with my 5 minute walk to the neighborhood post office to drop off the letters written the night before. The postmaster has become a good friend, and our morning chats, from at least 6 feet away, have provided comic relief for the both of us. He doesn’t see many people, either. The letters have gone to a variety of states and countries, and in 2 weeks I’ve written more than 40 personal letters. With journal writing, I’m encouraging my friends to reach out with writing as well. “Letters mingle souls,” John Donne famously said, “for thus friends absent speak.”

Postcard cheers from Maine,
complete with lighthouses, pines, and a big potato.

...and the ubiquitous Maine lobster:

Along with acclimating to this desolate new reality, with its lexicon of expressions unknown a month ago, intense emotions are also absorbed. Those of us healthy enough to function through this must live against stresses such as anxiety, fear, uncertainty about the future, and what amounts to heavy sadness. It is of paramount importance to keep in mind the nurturing ties that bind us with our loved ones. And then there are the casualties of this terrible plague, their families and friends. To stay the course, we are finding the distractions that keep us going- perhaps a 60-foot distance away from network news. My friends tell me about the movies and serials they are watching. Musicians are offering online shows. One of my longtime healthy diversions continues to be the study of philosophy. I learn and am transported. This is a test of faith that calls upon all spiritual reserves. As horizons narrow, I push back by expanding mind and soul. Several friends have asked me to keep writing essays. That is something I’ve always loved doing, though in these times it takes an extra push to carry on.