Wednesday, February 19, 2020

practical sentiments




“Be practical as well as generous in your ideals.
Keep your eyes on the stars,
but remember to keep your feet on the ground.”


~ Theodore Roosevelt,
from a 1904 speech to the Groton School (Massachusetts)

Teaching has been a professional pursuit of mine, since the age of 22. Beginning at the college level, I was nearly the same age as my students. That didn’t seem to matter, as I already had requisite experience to draw upon, and the vital ingredients that continue to serve very well: energy and preparedness. Just as during my very first semester of teaching, last week and this week have seen the benefits from exponentially more hours of preparation than the actual in-class hours. And that’s just fine; better to have and not want, than to want and not have. During that first year, I had to submit each and every lesson plan for review. Now, a synopsis that speaks for the year suffices. There are many other distinctions as well- not the least of which is that I have many more adventures to recount about the topics, the teaching of the topics, and- very importantly- my continued learning of the topics.



To teach well, one must always be learning well. Being ready with the materials and scholarly sources for my own studies is similar to being prepared for their instruction. I, too, am a student. My teaching philosophy, whether for teaching art, history, philosophy, writing, or archival sciences, can be summed up into three words: We Learn Together. My respect for people around me, the informational resources, and the learning process- is in three integral parts of one entirety. I don’t measure success by clever statements or numbers, but instead whether the people I mentor proceed to mentor themselves and others. My own student experience is that when I’ve been inspired and have enjoyed the aspects of learning, I’ve continued on. Graduations are not so much ends, but beginnings and means to apply toward the greater efforts of following our passions. Transcending the “required cores,” we can freely choose the subjects and motifs for our own appetites.



My old habit of setting up classroom spaces with a lot of time to spare, parallels how I prepare dinners for guests. All needed ingredients have been procured early on, with some things cooked in advance, and there are extra things on hand. The table is set with the essentials for my guests. Placing paper and printed handouts in my classrooms is just like setting down linens and flatware at my dining table. The wish for the food to be tasty is the same as for scholars to enjoy the experience of learning. We savour with our taste buds as well as we do with our minds. Our educational experiences have unique histories. You surely recall the first thing you ever learned how to cook, or the times you learned to bicycle or swim. When my mother taught me how to make an omelette, she said to me, “every Frenchman should be able to make an omelette.” That was when I was about 13. Many years later, she taught me how to bake bread from scratch, during a blizzard that cancelled my flight. The memory of billowing snow remains with me, when I drizzle flour onto my wooden bread board, even now.



Two weeks ago, I taught one of my calligraphy workshops to a capacity class group. It amazes me that people of all ages want to learn how to letter with a dip pen. Just as with bookbinding, if people want to learn, I’m happy to oblige. Workshop-teaching on an as-needed basis means the tools may be dormant for weeks or months at a stretch. For this recent occasion, hearing about the enrollment, I needed to purchase more supplies. To figure out what I already had meant that it was necessary to bring out materials I’ve had since my school days. Collecting and divvying-out what I needed for the group this month took me back to those heady years of art college, back even further to New York’s High School of Art & Design, and further back still to when my mother taught me calligraphy using the Speedball penpoints my father gave me when I was about 10 years old.



My tool box, called an Art Bin, houses more than the instruments of the craft; it also has an effective way of holding the aromas of the materials. The smells take me right back to the enormous art supply emporium Pearl Paint, which was on SoHo’s Canal Street. That street in the 1980s was a wide thoroughfare of urban confetti and cacophony. I loved it. One of my teachers at Art & Design, Henry Garrison, taught me his mantra about calligraphy: He had me watch how he’d ink a pen and follow through with his perfect flourishes, accompanied by his vocal overtone, “think D, write D; think E, write E,” et cetera. Two weeks ago, using the latest digital overhead camera-projector and screen, I taught this to my class, focusing mind upon a letter form, while writing the letter on parchment paper. Our crafts not only jog our memories, they can also compress time, Suddenly I was Henry Garrison to my calligraphy students, and the philosophy student I was, back at University of Massachusetts-Boston is alongside the philosophy students I taught last week, here in Maine. There is inestimable value to “knowing where you came from.”



Encouraging teen students with their fledgling calligraphy skills, I tell them about a job I had as high school sophomore, making hand-lettered menus for the tony Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue. Yes, they used handmade menus for their dining guests. I’d take their lists of entrées and other delicacies home, showing the courses to my mother before I rendered the fancy names in Chancery italics. Such curiosities, but they paid me! I was just a willing art student, behind the scenes. Thinking of it now, calligraphy has wound its way into every job I’ve ever had, from poster-making to decorative signs in libraries, to place cards, invitations, and certificates- along with teaching the craft itself. As with photography, these skills have gone everywhere with me, always somehow finding outlets and uses. As time passes, the stories grow with the projects and their respective scenarios.



I like to regale my elder students about how the most accomplished Asian calligraphers tend to be upwards of eighty years old. These artisans have the cultivated disciplines of poise and finely-tuned tension. Theirs is an art that comprises meditation and dexterity. Pointing this out also provides encouragement- to all ages. In a sweet sort of reciprocity, I have an Archives volunteer at my workplace, a retiree originally from Harbin, China. When he sees me journaling during my lunch breaks, he points to my notebook and exclaims, “that is so good for your brain!” In his professional employed life, he was a neurobiologist, and that inspires him to explain to me why journaling is so good for the mind’s health. You can be sure I repeated that to my writing class.






Monday, December 30, 2019

expectation




"My library is an archive of longings.”

~ Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.

At the beginning of this month, perhaps to parallel the start of winter, a number of wire news services published an article* about disruptive discontent. A study based upon the responses of two thousand survey participants reported that nearly three-quarters of this group sleep poorly and awaken unhappily. Referring to “morning madness” and a general sense of irritation among respondents, a third of the surveyed group cited anxiety and stress disturbing both sleep and awakening. Indeed, the article caught my attention, as I’ve been an insomnia combatant for over a dozen years. Had I been surveyed, my responses would’ve looked similar to those of the article. Having become so accustomed to fractured nights of semi-sleep, portions of these silent hours are offset by journal writing, radio listening, and reading. Penciling ideas on notepads. Not necessarily solutions, but accompaniment.



So many thoughts to assuage. The canvasses elasticize between present, past, and the unknown future, projects and words, stability in the tentative, should’ve and could’ve, then and when. Just what a mind needs to relax! Walking around my darkened apartment, the clatter silences as I look at the books and papers on my desk- the open satchel at ease. The still-life calms, as my thoughts are diverted by the quieted tethers and tools. What is normally animate has become inanimate. There is scant ambient light and no traffic noise, in the liminal between night and morning.



Through the window, it is good to see the nearly motionless outside world. Thoughts turn to expectations. Do you ask yourself about what you’re expecting? I’ve always expected great things: dreams, fruition, breakthroughs, open doors. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve wished to live up to my potential, putting all I’ve learned to real use. It’s a longlived emotion that has haunted me all through the years of schooling and employment, toiling in the concealment of stockrooms, basements, warehouses, darkrooms, and clenched stacks. Beyond thirsting for natural light, fresh air, and artistic freedom is a wish for opportunities to fully apply my skills for the greater purpose that other souls can be inspired. Hopes, attempts, and denials seem to repeat a leapfrog-playing pattern. But there remains the not-yet, a spirit solid enough to support ideals and ambitions. Even now.




In Citadelle, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry observed, “Nothing have you to hope for if yours is the misfortune of being blind to that light which emanates not from things but from the meaning of things.” How things look and how things are- can be at contrasting ends. Blended in with clear-eyed expectations is an accompanying awareness of mirages. It is very easy to be fooled, a narrow margin dividing notions and facts. Social media certainly enhances the challenge to make these distinctions. About the first ten times I’d seen commercial articles, decorated with tropical seascapes, about “following your bliss,” my reactions were those of sarcastically looking on as an outsider and an unlucky have-not. These sorts of proliferating short pieces look like they emanate from people who can afford to blithely walk away from disappointing jobs. What about the rest of us that have to bite the metaphorical bullet? From a perspective that resists both cynicism and irresponsibility, I try to keep common sense in mind. Comprehension and aspiration are both highly complex dynamics. Turning away from self-defeat, and reaching for transcendence, Quaker author Rufus Jones wrote:

Every case of sense-perception is a case of self-transcendence. If we could not leap forward and grasp an object from beyond us, and know it as beyond us, all our experience would be doomed to be shut up in an inner subjective mirage. We could never have dealings and commerce with a real world beyond our inward seemings. We should forever remain victims of the ‘egocentric predicament.’ In a trembling flash, when we perceive things, we manage to leap beyond ourselves and know a reality that is not of us, but of a world beyond us. Nobody knows how we do it. It is another mystery- like sweetness and redness- but it is none the less a fact. The moment we know anything whatsoever we prove to be self-transcendent beings.
(Pathways to the Reality of God)


Another conundrum is the relationship between potential and fortune. Is one needed for the other? Can they exist independently of one another? I’m inclined to believe the latter: potential can be driven on the steel wheels of will. Good fortune is welcome, we can do plenty to draw it, but waiting around too long wastes precious time. Everyone has the potential to add positive significance to their places and times- perhaps beyond these contexts. I’ve always admired “unsung heroes” as I’ve made note of them in many spheres. They’re the ones who are consistently present, performing their good works away from spotlights and newsfeeds- or as it’s said in sports: doing the little things that contribute and make a difference. At hockey games, I like watching what’s going on at the defensive end- where the puck isn’t; this teaches me a lot about how the players work together in the flow of regulation time. I admire the ability of turning missed opportunities into fuel, and instances of tireless daring in order to realize potential.




At this season, the month of Advent leads to the threshold of a new year. Lighting is needed earlier in the day. The anticipation in Advent’s shadowed steps is essentially an expectation. I still expect great things- even in the night watches of wakeful insomnia. The turn toward lengthened days begins during the longest nights. Years ago, when I made my living in the complete darkness of color-printing photo studios, I had a wise, older friend who managed the film department. A true artisan. To this day, I’m thankful for all our long talks in the damp, lightless film-developing room. From twenty feet away, with the benefit of the slight echo, his voice sounded three feet away. Above the sounds of the E-6 processor, he would say, “Don’t forget that God’s hand is always opening to you, always opening for you. You’re meant for way better than this.” My coworker had a terminal illness and passed away, much too young. His words and wit live on with me. They are filed with care, in my spiritual archives, with the treasures poised for future use. The past, admittedly, needn’t determine the future, but it can provide a useful repository of references. I fully expect to tap into the best of all that has been cultivated. It would be, in itself, a living gratitude for the gifts received and knowledge retained. More than an expectation, a goal.








*Article here.


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

advent trails




"As we watched at dead of night,
Lo, we saw a wondrous light:
Angels singing 'Peace On Earth'
Told us of the Saviour's birth.

See, amid the winter's snow,
Born for us on Earth below,
See, the tender Lamb appears,
Promised from eternal years."


~ Edward Caswall, See, Amid the Winter's Snow





Monday, December 2, 2019

compass




“...when fears shall be in the way and nature faints,
when all the interest that has been given to life
by what was of the world shall be exhausted,
what then can we bring out of the stores of this life
that shall be adequate for our necessities?”


~ Edmund Quincy Sewall, On Spirituality of Character.


dark glass

Milder months widened sights to lengthened days and warmth. Aromatic trees and sunlight provided spaces for musing and ambitious tries at setting dreams forth. Many pounds of bread have been cast upon many waters, with highest hopes. Aspiring and casting has persisted through darkest cold, over and again. But time passes as it slips away. Following suit, resources run thin. As the ground of being erodes, physical supplies of inspiration are increasingly expensive, hoarded in abundance by fewer and fewer. For a worker of modest means, tenuous housing and employment, it is difficult to gauge the extent of existing rations. How far along on this voyage? How close the destination? No amount of striving and straining suffice, as I can will myself to only so much achievement. “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” the ancient Apostle Paul famously observed; in this life, “now I know only in part.” I may never know real and satisfying success, but I know the value of rigid hope. “When will I?” becomes “will I ever?”- as the challenge intensifies, racing against time. Yet there remains this moment, as I write these very words. Potential is meant to be realized. It is as vital to be ready as it is to be willing.



Ready and willing. One can be ready, but unwilling- without the drive to carry plans out to completion. And one can be willing, but unready- unprepared to take best advantage of opportunities. But how to be both, and where to look? Not finding helpful support, I’ve had to be my own compass. Indeed, I know the direction of my pilgrimage destination, however not having the material wealth to assure stability, it’s been necessary to find inventive ways to build my own spiritual and mental reserves.



Looking at my intensely-labored worklife of many years, I’ve only recently realized some discouraging truths. Because I’d joined the workforce very young, and then also had to change careers at a young age, I thought my few experiences were holding back my progress to better employment. After a very prosperous time in graduate school, from scratch I built a consistently solid history of successful projects, both shoulders to the wheel. Building anything meaningful takes time. In the process, countless friendships developed along with all the work- both professionally and by volunteering. A great many stories, to be sure, filling dozens of journals. What I’ve seen is that attributes such as achievement, track record, attitude, communication, and presentation are exponentially less valuable to the search than whether or not search committee members know you or have some personal interest. The disillusionment is dizzying, witnessing the “Peter Principle” theory manifest in so many places. What the rejections don’t do, is diminish my ambitions and my appetite for excellence- yet there is no assurance of success, despite having an accurate compass.

Last month, I found myself turning the documentation I’ve made during various professional projects into a personal archival resource. Indeed, I’ve always remained a photographer at heart. An extensive application process required a seven-part dossier which took three weeks for me to assemble, edit, and refine. As my fortunes would have it, I was rejected in a suspiciously rapid four business days- uncharacteristic for that institution. Their door was likely never open to begin with. But the disappointment aside, my construction of an electronic archive of nearly twenty productive years led me to think about inner resources. Obviously, there are the kinds of physical resources we can procure for ourselves as we are able. We purchase our necessities, from housing to food to clothing to things related to transportation, recreation, and so forth.


storehouse



For this context, I’m thinking about a soul’s storehouse of resources. These are absorbed through our experiences, both outside of our influences and by our own intentions. Within these experiences are reactions to circumstances and thoughts. The action of seeking the respite of refuge is a mixture of material and spirit. For example, the Boston Athenaeum is a well-stocked library and a beautiful environment. I can barely afford the membership fee, but I keep it going as I can; the resources are profoundly valuable to me. While I regroup and try to find nourishment, I’m also gleaning insights, thinking of what I need to be able to return to the chaotic fray better equipped and stronger. The quotation, above, by Edmund Sewall is something I discovered in the manuscript room at the Athenaeum, while poring over this and several related works.



The source material I absorb becomes part of the guiding and assuring repertoire within. These vital syntheses essentially provide direction from a nonmaterial center. Admittedly I have not completed my accomplishment of this art, but I have a few methods based upon my practical experience. There is no shortcut, and there is a lot of writing involved. Study and the gathering of knowledge, reflection, and a contemplative mindset; silence, observation, practice, and a sense of setting oneself apart. These are all factors, and by the latter, I mean being able to step away from the pack- from detrimental sameness. It’s the lonelier road, but necessary for the distinguishing of reflective impressions from the fads and formulae. By so doing, it is possible to develop one’s own language, imagery, and ideas.


compass



A standard, portable compass is a physical, directional instrument. The guiding needle points to “magnetic north,” and by orienting the dial to match the needle, navigators can determine their bearings. Giving some consideration to the metaphor, I’ve been carrying a compass through my mundane errands, and to my closed-in, windowless workplace. I’m able to figure out where east-to-the-ocean is, or northeast-to-Acadia. I looked at an opaque office wall and said, "that’s north." A friend of mine who builds houses saw me studying a map with a flat compass. He talked about “project north,” which is a construction term used for workable approximation. Of course, I appreciate all such terminology, imagining personal application.



Oriented toward a north point beyond myself, adversities cause me to scramble for direction. In these times that are long established as “post truth,” an especially strong sense of discernment is needed to hold direction. Alongside the scholarly pursuits and the moorings of spiritual maturity, the critical sensor remains the tuned interior compass. Indeed, integral to the pursuit is continued cultivation of inner resources. That is an everyday nurture, and there can still be more missed crossroads- surely reminders of imperfection. Further still, the need to continue this formation intensifies with the rejections, setbacks, and desolation. More than an inner compass is needed, but in addition an inner generator. I’ve got to keep generating my own power and light- for myself and for the support of others. Hatching up ways to do so happens with fits and starts.



How to stay inspired? How to find humor? I know the sources to tap into, but how to do that better? These concepts are tied to value: personal value, moral value, and the value of a course well run. In addition, the value of daily life. There’s no shortage of opportunities to try savouring the commonplace, complete with my coarse cold sandwiches, tedious routines, boring meetings, and predictable responses. Up against all that, I alter my routes to and from work, among other things. Find the tiny gems in the tedium. Notice the skies, as the seasons change. Taste the maple syrup in the coffee. Don’t miss imagery in reflective surfaces. Sharpen that pencil slow enough to notice the spiraled wood shavings. Ponder the hiddenness of God, and how that challenges the human soul. San Juan de la Cruz observed that Divine wisdom is darkness to the mind.


in measure



For a couple of days in the Boston Athenaeum manuscript room, I studied the fascinating work by Thomas Brooks (17th C.) called The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod. The full title is a paragraph’s worth, and the spirit of the text is a lot more upbeat than a non-reader might assume. Speaking to his times, Brooks assembled as much assurance and inspiration as he could conjure up for his mid-1600s English readers. A notably poetic passage I found begins with Stars shine brightest in the darkest night. I looked up from his ancient pages and toward the vaulted windows facing Beacon Street, with a breath, after his little mercies are great mercies... the higher the mountain, the gladder we shall be when we are got to the top of it. Brooks referred to memory as a potential holy ark, a heavenly storehouse. The archaic words from about 350 years ago told me to hang on; joy comes to those who endure.



The contents of a “heavenly storehouse,” like Sewall’s spiritual provisions, are not resources that can be purchased. Drawing from sculpted inner deposits, intangible necessities can be procured. These include retained and treasured consolations. I like to call upon cherished words of past mentors; these recollections help return the brilliance of those whom I miss very much. They continue to teach me, though my enshrined memories. I call interior reserves “intangibles” because they are nonmaterial rations. Other people can only see these sustaining resources as they are expressed through me, curator of the archives of my soul. The files are carefully conserved and stored for my retrieval and facilitation. There are even finding-aids and inventories. Inner archives are as integral as directional compasses.



Hardly a flawless repository, human as it is. Reaching for inspiration, whether physical or metaphysical, still requires insight and determination. Though I may know what is necessary, my reflexes and grasp can fail, vulnerable as they are. I’ve surely experienced this, namely in the recent several years. Thankfully, my constant journaling provides something of a documental sounding board for me to review and re-read. When things appear to close in, and my journal entries repeat too many of the same troubles and roadblocks, my attention turns to setting attainable goals. The very short-term is as brass-tacks as “the next right thing.” Get through the week. Get through the morning. See if this-and-that can be done, while doing the-other-thing. Be a good trooper, so there’ll be time to journal later. As navigating becomes increasingly treacherous, managing the hazardous depths is best handled in brief distances. For a horizon-gazer like me, maintaining short perspectives is daunting, but often necessary to hold course. Those faraway yonders do exist, even when it’s best not to stare. Save the fine-focus for the moment, with wider angles for basic direction. Stored memory of gratitudes can supply sustenance that strengthens needed night vision. Now to remember to continue.












Saturday, October 19, 2019

silent spaces




“For silence is not God, nor speaking; fasting is not God,
nor eating; solitude is not God, nor company; nor any other pair of opposites.
God is hidden between them and cannot be found by anything your soul does,
but only by the love of your heart.”


~ An Epistle of Discretion in the Stirrings of the Soul. (14th century)


The act of writing is as much tied to syntax as it is connected to context. And yet another factor for reflective writers is the essential attribute of observation. During my overscheduled years in graduate school, and in my overcommitted years since, I’ve made the necessary chore of laundry-doing into writing opportunities. The weekly wash is a constant. I’ve often said to Pam the laundromat proprietor, “death, taxes, and laundry!” And journaling. Though I’ve rarely seen others writing in laundromats, I’ve typically seen readers, crossword puzzlers, students doing homework, those who only appear for loading and unloading machines, and those who simply sit or stand with their thoughts. More recently, and today was no exception, I was the lone journal writer- surrounded by hunched individuals enveloped by their glowing phones.


Although this culture is a decade into the “smart phone” era, I’m still startled to notice that commonplace disjointedness which I refuse to espouse. Comprehension requires a mere conscious acknowledgment. Glancing around the busy laundromat, just like peering around any dining area, park, or train, I saw that everyone was engulfed by their little mirror-like electronic devices. Every last soul but me. Amidst the large room full of brow-knitted hunchbacks, I suddenly thought of the lost trait of looking up. Simply gazing upward, at least to me, is a natural motion: something of an interlude from whatever I might be reading or writing. Staring into space has its own healthful aspect, reminding us of distance, proximity, and context. Consider how cats like to watch life from windowsills, thoughtfully and meditatively. Or, perhaps not. Maybe the spacing-out in itself is a wise gesture from which we can learn.



When academic research was new to me, in high school, the idea was to pile up the source material; it was an additive process. With databases and boolean search strings, the conundrum became one of paring down to the relevant; it is a subtractive process. In a general sense, having everything to distract us, from every angle (including elevators, gas pumps, and between innings at ball games), the more conscientious among us must know to subtract. Instead of scarcities of amusements, the profounder rarity is reflective time.


Along with the slivers of breathers I carve away from chore-filled weekends- and monthly sojourns at the Boston Athenaeum- about every 4 months I make time for personal retreats. In our obligatory frameworks, nobody instructs us to seek out healthful silence. It is for us to inevitably know to step back into respite... when possible. Earned time off is a rare benefit, and many of us must endure extended gauntlets en route to a prize of time. Increasingly, as I navigate this world, I notice my stealing away to find tranquility away from the chaotic dins of disappointment. As the encroachments intensify, so does the hunger for unfettered quiet. That very appetite, fueled by depletion, sent my steps toward a recent retreat. And for a week in Boston, public transit is the wisest way there. Busses are clenched and jostling- but they have a strict no-cell-phone rule. Trains are roomier and smoother- but passengers are the mercies of the behaviors of other passengers: this has become a woeful risk.



Sure enough, what could’ve been a tranquil mid-day train ride was an excruciating two-hour sandbagging between a couple of phone-yakkers. No amount of glaring or blatantly sticking my fingers in my ears while trying to read was of any use. I wound up listening to music through earbuds, via my netbook, trying my best to drown out the boors. There is a difference between the dulcet hum of passengers and coffeehouse ambience- compared to the shrill paroxysms of “cell phone voice.” Aren’t there enough of us wincing through such boundariless abuses? Amtrak personnel merely shrug, and that has none of the usefulness of creating and enforcing a rule- like the bus company effectively does. And thus our general culture further extends its unbounded adolescence. Many of us witness how self-obsessions supersede common respect for shared public spaces. Sadly, our defenses are relegated to plugging wires into our ears and turning up “neutralizing” sounds, metaphorically painting ourselves into corners. So much for calming respite.



Getting through the two hours intact, I kept in mind that I was on vacation, and would be getting away from the brutish Downeaster passengers. Navigating the streets and Boston’s subways, I found some refreshing civility. The trolley cars are loud, and instead of hollering into their little mirrors, people are swiping and texting instead. It was good to observe other people reading, as well. Moving through the adjustment from work and routines- to leisure and study, it was easier to notice things easily overlooked. While pursuing a week of reflection and quiet, I was pronouncedly reminded of the popular aversion to silence by the many who cannot (or will not) still themselves or detach from their pacifying devices. Sure, I see this every day during my downtown commuting and lunch breaks, but hadn’t really noticed how strange this looks. Before this current decade, it was considered “abnormal” to walk around in public, talking to oneself. Now we’ve all gotten used to the gesturing solo-talkers, contributing to the characters that surround us that make all the world a phone booth. (Remember phone booths?) I’ve learned to identify the white droplet-looking ear inserts, indicating “hands-free” yakking.





The quality of our civilization’s public settings rests very much in the hands of those who use these common spaces. “Sanctioned” quiet spaces, such as private enclosures and religious sites tend to comprise some expectations and rules. But when the common space is public transportation, a dining place, a building, or even a park, it’s really up to the individuals’ consciences to uphold the qualities of these spaces. Recently, and enjoying the continuing mild weather, I sat in a city park to write. Portland has a no-smoking law posted in all parks, yet there were smokers scattered throughout the place. I chose the least downwind part of the park, to avoid the fumes as much as possible. Each gust of ocean air made the park that much more enjoyable. Then, sure enough, a well-groomed man, that I assumed should know better, appeared in the park. He was pacing in circles, never more than ten feet from me, yammering into his glossy phone about schedules, restaurants, and various domestic trifles. He was so loud and obnoxious that other park denizens and I began exchanging disgusted glances. I could hardly think my next line of journaled text; so I began writing about him. Every time he’d walk one of his “laps” of his nervous circles, I’d think I was rid of him, only to hear the circular yelp get louder again... until suddenly and thankfully he pushed off to sully some other unfortunate part of town. Upon the man’s exit, I looked up from my books, and a park bench sitter and I swapped collective sighs. Even the universe celebrated the boor’s departure, as a busker appeared in the park, playing baroque music on a portable piano. The music was twinkling in its mellowness, blending with the composite din of passing traffic, non-phone chatting murmurs, dogs, and the occasional jetliner in the clouds overhead. This evenness allowed me to listen to the park.




As always, the Boston retreat was a week of salubrious respite. I was welcomed by many friends, and my studies at the Athenaeum were brought together by themes I created around the strengthening of character. Conviviality, collegiality, and kindredship- all threaded together by the leafy streets of Beacon Hill. On this occasion, I was hosted by the College Club of Boston. They’re situated in a grand Victorian town house near the Boston Public Garden. I was offered the writer’s room, which has a stately drop-leaf desk near a window. The house is a retreat in itself; no two alcoves, or rooms, or views are alike. My hosts were heartwarmingly kind to me. Then there was the quiet. Upstairs from the parlors and dining room, the large house was cushioned in a consoling hush that creates space for reflection and rest. I marveled at the difference between the bustle of Newbury Street and Commonwealth Avenue, compared with the muffled interior of the house. I believe that I’m not alone in my cherishing of tranquility and recognition of stepping away from unnecessary noise. Yes, retreats are great and healthful things, but ironically it takes some major effort! Current advertising seems to have caught some of the current: hotels market themselves to resemble spas; vacation getaways include the trappings of “peace and quiet.” These venues all look very expensive and dauntingly stress-inducing. Still, there is a detectable, general thirst for contemplation. Much less exotic, during a walk through Copley Square, I saw ads for public events called “The Big Quiet,” one of which to be held in the Boston Public Library. We can all use some recollective silence.






Richard Rohr, a Franciscan author, recently published an article called "Finding God in the Depths of Silence", in which he wrote: “Probably more than ever, because of iPads, cell phones, billboards, TVs, and iPods, we are a toxically overstimulated people. Only time will tell the deep effects of this on emotional maturity, relationships, communication, conversation, and religion itself.” He added that although silence may come across as a luxury, it is inevitably a decision. Striking a very familiar chord, Rohr offered this succinctly-articulated observation:

We are all forced to overhear cell phone calls in cafés, airports, and other public places today. People now seem to fill up their available time, reacting to their boredom—and their fear of silence—often by talking about nothing, or making nervous attempts at mutual flattery and reassurance. One wonders if the people on the other end of the line really need your too-easy comforts. Maybe they do, and maybe we all have come to expect it. But that is all we can settle for when there is no greater non-self, no gracious silence to hold all of our pain and our self-doubt. Cheap communication is often a substitute for actual communion.



Indeed, the soul needs silent space, in some accessible form. We must procure it for ourselves, even if it is at our expense. Even if it means a few less enslaving gadgets, apps, or activities. Even if it might mean sitting with our thoughts as we decompress in laundromats and on trains. There is more to be missed than to be amassed.







The week of retreat and reflection happened as late-summer transitioned toward early-autumn. A liminal season of noticeably changing light and air. Being in Boston, I’m unavoidably reminded of the annual return to school for the new academic year. Added to the city’s usual intensity are the swarms of arriving students. I saw reminders of this time of the year in all my places of community and study, through the week. But I was in the city for the contrasting purpose of respite. Ancient pages of text reflected up to me in the Athenaeum reading rooms, while muted sounds of traffic audibly reminded me of where I was- albeit on my own schedule. As with the moments in which I saw common spaces upheld by a shared sense of sanctity, I was able to savour the sounds of the environment. Finding silent space of any duration, amidst our chaotic swirls, is essentially our developed skill for identifying counterforms between our time structures. During work weeks, morsels of respite, discovered between rigid forms, can serve as windows through which we can admit light and air. Just as in graphic design, the ability to delineate counterform leads to improved perception of solid form. In the life of thought, this would be parenthetic quiet. Surely not a rule for every person, as we must each determine whether or not some grasp of our consciousness is being denied. Beneath this realization is an awareness of a deficit to be transcended.







Thursday, August 8, 2019

open windows




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


~ Austin Marsden Farrer, from Called to be Saints.











graphite



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





ink



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





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




typewriting



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






notes

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




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




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