Sunday, March 31, 2024

liminal trails

“Cultivating hope
means strengthening the will.”

~ Josemaría Escrivá, Furrow (780)

The liminal season I call winter-into-spring is often more striking than a New England autumn. But subtly, those housepaint skies are atop fifty-degree middays as well as ice storms. These extremes happen hours apart. Liminality represents threshold space, margins between paragraphs. If you can find yourself the luxury of pausing between obligations and demands, there you’ll find those mental spaces to muse. I remember a professor from graduate school, a brilliant lecturer, who would occasionally stop speaking and look out the window. I admired that, realizing he was reflecting in mid-flight. Because the constantly streaming media in our midst obstructs our natural musing tendencies, misconstrued as unproductive, threshold thinking becomes intentional.

Within the mercurial fluctuations of this unpredictable season, I’m amidst moving my household across town to a better abode. Two extremely difficult years of apartment-searching while tolerating an intensely oppressive and nightmarish place became impetus to make a sudden, cold-weather move. Transition is itself a jarring, liminal circumstance- yet it is much better to make a move by choice than to be forced to move (as with two years ago). The move will get its written due, but for the moment I’ll express liminality by noting how the past month has straddled two apartments. When I needed a sponge-scrubber or various tools in one place, having left them in the other place, I took to using my car as a kind of trolley for cleaning and packing material. At least the distances have been just a few miles apart, and true to the transitional the straddling is short-lived. The reward is a more peaceful place that I can better afford. Though I know all the neighborhoods of this small city, it’s threshold life nonetheless, having to find my bearings between the known and the unfamiliar.

My father gave me this radio as a birthday gift when I was 15.
Now it's perched on a red formica kitchen counter.

Through all the shuttling between living spaces, employment, and errands, I’ve maintained such constants as journaling- and a beloved icon of the transitory: radio. A listener all my life, and in this part of the country I know where all the frequencies are. When I’ve test-driven cars, I’ve always checked to make sure the radio can at least pull in AM1030 WBZ. Having several radios, plus the one in my car (and another at work), I’ve subconsciously maintained such threads of continuity. From the basis of the familiar, transcendence springs. Drowsily dozing among boxes in the soon-to-be former place, my radio was tuned to a commentator talking about the implications of contemplative prayer. It is subtle, understated, yet far-reaching. When he said, “ten minutes can reverberate into eternity,” I made sure to write this down. From liminal vantage points, horizons are abstract at best. I particularly liked the radio commentator’s remarks- simple and unostentatious, unlike that which too often dominates the airwaves. Many know the unpronounceable simplicity of enduring faith, and how it often seems unsubstantiated. But perseverance in the liminal is vital. My several-times-daily journal entries represent perseverance, as well as provide private space to express frustration. Much of the writing really is about hope, tedious as the repetition might be, it’s as critically necessary as air. Or a sane living space. I continue to consider writing to be my documented pilgrimage into the future, longing for better living and working situations. This current move is an intentional step in the right direction, while fully aware of the need for improvement and how there is nearly nothing left of the “old life,” or the city I used to enjoy so much. The liminal trail from winter into spring, combined with new slants of light, must lead to renewal. A life of hardworked prep must give way to practical application. A life of readying is ripe for followthrough. Why this has been taking so long is beyond my comprehension, thus it is necessary to believe better times are ahead.

Getting the place clean enough to move in
(and unpack my philosophy books).

Sunday, February 11, 2024


“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth;
but imagination is the organ of meaning.
Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old,
is not the cause of truth, but its condition.
It is, I confess, undeniable that such a view indirectly
implies a kind of truth or rightness in the imagination itself.”

~ C.S. Lewis, Bluspels and Flalansferes

Giving lectures and reading to audiences have evolved into very comfortable and pleasant experiences. My teaching background certainly helps, but knowing my topics frees me from excessive rigidity. Obviously, it all depends upon the audience, and no two groups are ever alike. A recent presentation about archives lent itself especially well to some storytelling. On that particular afternoon, during a dreary winter day, I had brought out examples of treasures such as rare books, maps, prints, and city directories. These types of artifacts are especially conducive to time-traveling musings. I’m surely with the patrons, students, and all the curious- as we all marvel at photographs of specific places then-and-now, noticing the changes.

To do justice to my occupation, I taught myself about when certain various prominent buildings were built, extended, or demolished. Such facts continue to be invaluable for identifying undated imagery and supporting researchers. Years ago while sleuthing out the sites of extinct streets, writing narrative essays with an expression I coined: “ghost streets.” This is to say buried thoroughfares that are gone without a trace. These have been very popular. In a juxtaposition of past and present, cheering an audience on an especially damp day, I made reference to how the local art college is currently in a former department store building constructed in 1904. The store was called Porteous, Mitchell, and Braun (that first name is pronounced “POHR-tchuss”).

now that's a proper pen department

“Now imagine,” I offered to the group, pointing to my left, “walking up Congress Street, stepping inside that big building at number 522, and suddenly noticing bright chandeliers, colorful merchandise, the din of chatting salespeople and customers above the muffled piano music, and the aromas of cosmetics and perfumes.” There followed memories of people among my audience, chiming in with their own recollections. I held up a Porteous ad for Esterbrook fountain pens, printed from a 1952 Christmas season issue of the Portland Evening Express (which gave me a chance to explain the microfilmed newspaper collection). I am often in the role of informing patrons about what was, en route to explaining what is.

somehow, all I needed was the advertisement, and look what I brought back from my time travel errand.

Early 20th century archival theorist Sir Hilary Jenkinson taught that archivists do best to read the documents in their care, and to be acquainted with the contents. I’ve personally seen this to be an extremely useful idea, especially when it comes to the level of service I can provide, and how I draw together sources and researchers. It’s really about recognition and making connections. Like compassion, these are uniquely human abilities. I’ve been studying the materials, making notes, and committing many things to practical memory. Indeed, this has become the less-traveled road, but the relational touch is surely the most meaningful. Just as people are souls, archives are recorded activities that attest. Through the years of preserving and providing public access to archival material, by default I’ve also had innumerable occasions to be acquainted with many of the people who inquire and use these artifacts. Often, there are patrons who will show up daily for a stretch of time, feverishly nibbling away pursuing evidence of parts of their personal histories. I witness all ages seeking the past, looking for understanding and purpose. I’m no different. Each request is respected, never derided. So many among us simply want to know, then let the witnessing archivist be an eloquent accompanist. With the philosopher Blaise Pascal who pondered in writing: “I am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then.” Inevitably, archives are facts that can enchant the imagination. Once again, and along with my students and patrons, I’m affected, too. Frankly, I could never figure out why other archivists don’t write about their metaphysical experiences. Manuscripts, images, maps, ships’ logs, and even ledgers present much more than what superficially meets the eye. And then there are the interactive discoveries for researchers interpreting the records.

The preservation of the documental record is meant to inform the panoramas between planning ahead, as well as the fleshing out of historiography. Narratives abound in manuscripts, revealing human activities and communications. Indeed, we can understand the popularity of historic novels! And then there is reverie. Serving the public for many years, once in a while I’m asked by patrons marveling over century-old photographs of streets crowded with pedestrians and trolley cars, “Why can’t things go back to the way they were?” Many, many more people wish this without admitting so much. We imagine with our hopes; speaking as a New Englander in the local parlance: “So don’t I.”

From pinched and barricaded confines, imagination insistently pries at the horizons. Ambition is vital. Don’t expect anyone to remind you to flex your hopeful imaginings; we must know to exhort ourselves. Speaking for myself, I write my wishes and prayers as journal entries, often scribing them amidst woeful environments. Remember to dream forward: observe and read between the lines. What we see is not all there is. Our conditioned and compromised cultures reduce our palates to bland, surface bluntness. It is for us to challenge ourselves to think beyond what is “at face,” and cultivate our intellects. We navigate societies of documented hard numbers and literal databases, but the human-voiced manuscripts invite us into the poetry of metaphor. When I managed and facilitated the reference library in a Catholic college, I read the memoir of St. John XXIII in which he wrote of himself, “I am a songbird perched in thorns.” Such a powerful metaphor has never left my thoughts, and I’ve invoked it numerous times since.

The spheres of metaphor and allegory have always provided places of habitation for me, though perceiving through these lexicons can be a two-edged sword when I have to creatively translate for those who cannot interpret subtlety. Fulton Sheen once said, “Introspection requires a lot of humility;” helpful words for speaker and listener alike. I’ll occasionally use archives as metaphor with my philosophy students. Wonderfully diverse as they’ve always been, they refreshingly think and speak at multiple levels. Archival work is entwined with axiological applications- as principles of origin, function, and value are integral to stewardship. Examples help provide crossroads for abstraction and practicality to meet. These also provide runways for metaphysical flights of fancy. Pointing to historic maps and photographs, I’ll ask, “Do places have intrinsic memories?” We’d like to think so. In my helpless insomnia, I imagine being cradled on the waves, aboard a peaceful vessel. In my curatorial adventures, I found documentation from 1948 about a Friend Ship that was sponsored by the Maine Rotary, which brought 107 cargo tons of food and clothing to France. The ship, built in Maine, was called the Saint Patrick, and it crossed the Atlantic in eleven days. Pleasant thoughts of calm seas and noble ambitions. Keep on visualizing better times. As confining situations constrict, my imaginings of comforts, vastness, and possibilities intensify as antidotes. I’d like to think there is still time for improvement.

the Saint Patrick sailing from Portland, Maine to Nantes, France

Monday, January 1, 2024

looking forward

"The kingdom of heaven only costs as much as you have."
~ Saint Gregory

Between the completion of various projects, commitments, and the subsequent holiday weekends, I was able to take a few days away for a quiet retreat in December. Respite time has been extremely rare in the past four years, now generally known as the “covid era” (albeit with the first year being under quarantining orders). Laborers on pared-down staffs often became the surviving hands-on-deck in their respective places of work. I wrote about being among “the working wounded;” yet truly thankfully employed and bill-paying, but holding course while staving off the burnout in my midst. This pandemic era may be tailing off now, but economic and societal conditions have been permanently altered. Suffice it to say, many practical matters are simply too dissimilar to those of four years ago to be as reliable as they were. Try finding an actual hardcopy newspaper now (and when you do, notice how the price is exponentially higher). Notice how social interaction is much more electronic than in-person, how commerce is relegated to impersonal self-checkout, and how a “wallet” is now stored financial data. A “menu option” left the context of restaurant dining, and became a term of robotic telecommunication. As recently as four years ago, taking earned time off meant physically turning to a colleague and comparing calendars; it has since become cajoling and electronic wrangling. Much more than the rigors of earning the time, there are added equations in being able to use the time. The bar having been raised, it is necessary to jump higher with the changed rules of the game. Of course I can do this, and I must.

As the will makes for the way, I recently managed to negotiate for a very modest amount of respite and backup coverage. Eight months in the waiting, the worthwhile carrot at the end of the proverbial stick was a stretch of days for slivers of spiritual health, silence, and writing. Having very little time to plan, as well as to find coverage, I searched for a place that would make space for a pilgrim during this time of the year. An Advent intermission from the beaten track and the routines was what I needed, and a very kind invitation came from a Cistercian community in Massachusetts. Getting through the subsequent complexities related to springing forth for a short time, the more pleasant parts of preparation ensued.

As I’ve known for years, most any sojourn can be a pilgrimage; it needn’t involve great distance. Intention is basically all that is needed. For a pilgrim of trust, the purpose is to sanctify time and place for immersion in the sacred. In anticipation, I began to assemble trip necessities such as writing and reading material, clothing, camera, and some groceries to add to the guesthouse provisions. This was my first time both at Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey, and in southwestern Norfolk County, though I know the general region. My drive to Wrentham took about three hours on roads that traverse familiar New England terrain that comprises cities with repurposed mill buildings, farms, forests, and villages. The winding country road leading to the abbey slices through tall pines, and must be navigated slowly. Arriving to gentle greetings, I proceeded to the guesthouse and found an envelope on a lit end-table which welcomed me in cursive flourishes resembling the tones I’d heard moments before. Setting my satchel and duffel bag in my dormered room, I immediately and gratefully felt the quiet of the place, along with like the country air. Two of the community’s guest sisters and I spoke about the vitality of contemplative silence. We talked about how burnout endangers the souls of this culture’s understaffed overworked. We also made reference to weather alerts pertaining to an approaching storm. From there, we all prepared for vespers. Above all, being in late-December I was among kindred spirits in anticipation of the Advent.

Gradually settling into the old, familiar monastic rhythm, I immediately noticed how tightly-wound I’d been for too long. Equally old and familiar is the sense of reverse-inertia: slowing down to a halt needs quite a long runway. The soothing tones of sung liturgies harmonize with the natural landscape, helping to transit from stressful vigilance to receptivity. Even as the rainstorm arrived, the patter on the abbey church roof pronouncedly audible, the peaceful ambience of the place simply absorbed all sounds. During an evening service, the rain intensified into a backdrop for the readings, chanted psalms, and silent adoration. I later heard the continuum of pelting rain on the skylight immediately overhead in my little room.

The storm amounted to something similar to a hurricane, with torrential rain and 90mph winds persisting throughout the following day. I cannot remember ever seeing such hard rain. Looking from the guesthouse windows reminded me of driving through a carwash, but this went on for more than a day, eventually causing felled trees and a regional power outage. Along with the loss of electricity was the loss of heat, hot water, and backup generators. The abbey had to cancel services. We used plenty of candles in the guesthouse, dining on leftovers, still savouring the spirit of the community. Even considering the cold, dark night ahead, I did not try to make an early trip back to Maine; the storm was moving north, and I would’ve been contending with hazardous conditions all the way up. The best thing to do was to patiently wait out the weather. Inevitably the storm passed, yet the outage was predicted to last another day. Washing with cold water the following morning, and downing day-old tepid coffee from my thermos, I packed my car for the return in daylight. Before taking to the roads, I made sure to thank my hosts and to bask in the healthful silence of the unlit abbey church. While the retreat had to be shortened, there was plenty to cherish, such as an open-ended welcome to come back, some new friends, and the acquaintance with an oasis new to me. Driving between large branches and fallen trees, en route to highways and hot coffee, was that among other things I have hope itself.

the storm past; writing by candlelight

“Still will we trust, though earth seem dark and dreary,” William Burleigh composed more than a century ago; “Though rough and steep our pathway, worn and weary.” Indeed, I returned from a shortened sojourn, back to work and the search for better, holding fast to Advent light as night falls in the afternoons. A new year approaches. Perhaps a suitable excuse, as the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve may not automatically regenerate much more than a calendar. As the Battle for the Better continues, albeit via Advancement by Small Measures, I’m looking to the upcoming year with the usual ache for a good future. Fully aware of being in the thick of significant work, there’s every good reason to keep at it. Looking forward is the best thing I can possibly do. I needed at least a year and a half to write the housing-loss grief out of myself. Now it’s the forward gaze that indicates preparation for the granting of my most vigorous wishes. It isn’t really difficult to insist upon looking forward, with essentially so little left for which to look back. If anything at all, I’m looking forward to returning to the abbey in Wrentham during better weather. Grand things manifest because of humble things. While commenting about Psalms 13 and 14, Saint Augustine remarked that “Interior and unceasing prayer is the desire of the heart.” Essentially, one’s profoundest hopes are distilled into intentions of the spirit. He added, “The desire of your heart is itself your prayer.”

Reminiscent of my original profession and my most fluent language: photography, I find my reminders for the present. Practitioners of the craft like me can recall or point to studios, portfolios (effectively our resumés), projects, exhibitions, and tools of the trade. Far and away, the most important aspect is a cultivated sense of vision. This transcendent ingredient is also known as “the photographer’s eye.” Artistic vision, as I’ve found, can be applied to numerous types of work and facets of life- even the human imagination. As a working archivist and conservator for nearly 26 years, I’ve often envisioned completed results (and their remedies) ahead of time. But that doesn’t mean I can predict the events of the new year, as these involve much greater complexities than those of my sole efforts. Once again, and at the very least, I can put up my end of things, and I know enough to "forget those things which are behind, and reach forward to those things which are ahead, pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call*". Everything is in need of improvement; bring on the new year.

views from Saint Mary's Abbey, by ambient light only


*Philippians, chapter 3

Thursday, December 14, 2023

domine, ut videam

“When darkness falls; when nighttime is at its deepest,
and day seems far away; whenever we seem caught and blinded
by the powers and principalities of this present darkness,
there’s only one thing to do.
Turn on the light.

Many have said it across the years, in philosophy and stories,
in words of wisdom and song, and yet we are so quick to forget.
But there is a simple solution to the darkness of a room
in the middle of the night, of mind and heart,
of civilization and society. Reach for the flashlight,
for the word of hope, for the prayer.
Open the door to light, to grace, and to glory;
invite in the Light of the World, and allow that light
to chase away the shadows of nighttime fears.
Turn on the light.”

~ Carrie Gress, A Litany of Light

The paragraphs quoted above are reproduced with Dr. Gress’ permission; her text was given to me last April at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, when I spent a week there. That was my last significant time off from work. Such respite has not been possible since. Stresses and excessive fatigue have intensified my already longstanding insomnia. Not an easy topic, and I’ve been resisting any sort of permanency for a condition that must not last; just like a miserable housing situation. Let hardship generate needed motivation to transcend. Typical insomniac nights are restless. Imagine being at the conclusion of full and arduous workdays, yet unable to fall asleep- or remain asleep. None of the usual tactics help- from shutting down the lit screen early in the evening, to routines for bringing the day in for a landing, to reflective reading. I’ve always been told to walk around and have a glass of water, instead of tossing-and-turning in place. That doesn’t work, either. Listening to the radio is another repeatedly bad measure. The cast of culprits includes employment, housing, worries, regrets, frustrations, and other various obstacles. In this context, the Litany of Light I’ve quoted here offers a discipline to stem these daunting tides. “Turn on the light” is occasionally literal- so that I can write something down- and is more often metaphorical. As well, the discipline is not rigorous, but in forms of gentle reminders. Gentleness is surely not something experienced in daily life, not even in the boorishly cacophonous apartment building. Forms of gentleness worth my practicing include chaplets, prayers, and turning the light on- either by redirecting thoughts or by flashlight. This is to survive to see better days, and ahead of that to being open to seeing better. The biblical Bartimaeus miraculously received his sight by praying, Domine, ut videam, which means O God, help me to see!

The present state of my self-discipline is to refrain from fixating my sights far beyond the immediate. There is nothing easy about this, especially after pulling my own weight- and then some- for many, many vigilant years. But in rescinding my grasp, in modest increments, it becomes easier to sense the guiding consolations of saints and angels. It is essential for me to stay the course of good conscience, smart work, and responsibility- even though I’ve yet to see favorable results. I know enough not to expect favors, and I remember very well how my father would encourage me to keep at it: he’d say “Keep on stepping up and swinging the bat for the fences!” My wakeful and repeatedly fractured nights are riddled with reminders of how badly all my efforts are going, and I understand enough to consider my circumstances as an engulfing trial of as-yet-unknown duration. What I do know is the immediate, and the next right thing is what needs my attention; there’s nothing nebulous about that. Continuing to productively work is paralleled by continuing to network and search for better. Anguish serves to generate ambition.

Finding light in the darkness is a constant pursuit, yet paradoxically thinking about that very pursuit itself winds up helping me get back to sleep. I recently remembered something I’d do while on cherished travels such as pilgrimages: at the close of the day, I’d fall asleep while recalling the good things I experienced. With eyes closed, lying back, my thoughts would effortlessly return to the day’s scenery, people, sounds, tastes, and ideas. A grateful review of the day. Now under twin yokes of work duress and miserable housing, I try closing the day and gratefully asking, “what did I like today? What went well?” The temporary apartment is cramped, oppressive, and often invasively loud. When I’m wakefully clambering to look out from the windows, using a small flashlight to help me squeeze my way to pouring a glass of water during the midnight hours, I always notice the rare quiet. Working two careers that required the sharpest, clearest photo images, I marvel at the dusky, grainy, grey light of the hours long before dawn. My ache for better days and situations keeps me ambitiously working, and also keeps me awake at night.

During a recent sojourn at the Boston Athenaeum, I studied the 17th century text, Tender Counsel and Advice by way of Epistle, by pioneering Quaker William Penn. As always during my prized study days in the manuscripts room, I made numerous notes for my later reading. Providing his tender counsel, applying the Quaker emphasis to mind the Light, Penn bids the reader to walk in the holy Light of Christ, and thereby be preserved through all trials and difficulties on earthly life’s pilgrimage:

“For even Jesus was tempted and tried, and is therefore become our Captain, because he overcame. Neither be ye cast down, because the Lord sometimes seemeth to hide his Face from you, that you feel not always that Joy and Refreshment, that you sometimes enjoy. I know what work the Enemy maketh of these Withdrawings of the Lord. Perhaps he will insinuate, that God hath deserted you in his displeasure, that you must never expect to see him, that he will never come again: And by these and the like strategems, he will endeavour to shake your faith and hope, and distract you with fear, and to beget great jealousies and doubts in you; and by impatience and infidelity, frustrate your good beginnings.”

Reaching for light, along with recollecting positive experiences, help to uphold a sense of wonder to be able to look forward. As much as it runs against the grain of desolation, it is all the more essential to force the effort to stay hopeful. Trading consolations one morning with a colleague that is also a good friend, we compared how we wryly express our perseverance. In a comedic gruffness, looking up from a computer, my friend said, “I’m happy, dammit!” I replied with my sarcastic equalizer, “I’m being positive ‘til it kills me!” Even amidst austerity, there’s room for some kind of humor. Sarcasm, however, can detrimentally ingrain itself into one’s every perspective. I described catching and adjusting my own propensities as being similar to a car with misaligned wheels. With some focused consideration, I’ll steer my thoughts forward, preventing myself from swerving off the road. Balance and luminosity need one another, and all the more in dark and unmarked valleys. “For with you is the fountain of life,” wrote King David in the 36th Psalm; “In Your light we shall see light.” Philosophizing about the verse in the 5th century, Saint Augustine observed, “we are, and understand, because of divine illumination.” Have I got enough of this light of understanding, and do I obstruct the headlamps of guidance? As the matter of the heart is the heart of the matter, I try holding up my end of things with all I can provide. Sure, there’s grace, but typically it’s been costlier for me than it’s seemed to be for most everyone I know. Whether or not that’s true, with contrast being the mother of clarity, it honestly looks that way to me. Leaving such notions aside, and now insistently swerving away from them, the road ahead must include surrendering the failings and the incorrigibles. Living an ascended, resurrected life is needed for new beginnings. Let the way upward be lit by aspiration and gratitude.

Sunday, November 12, 2023


“The Spirit moves the faithful to plead
with sighs too deep for words by inspiring in them
a desire for the great and as yet unknown reality
that we look forward to with patience.
How can words express what we desire when it remains unknown?
If we were entirely ignorant of it we would not desire it;
again, we would not desire it or seek it with sighs,
if we were able to see it.”

~ Saint Augustine, The Spirit Pleads for Us.

Maybe you’re a bit like me, and your morning routines include tuning into the news of current events. If you know better than to do this, you’re much smarter than me. An old habit of mine for many years has been to wake-wash-dress-caffeinate with the radio tuned to the news. Added to the ensemble is online news and checking for messages. In recent years, the “ensemble” is more like a barrage to me. Invariably, I’ll glean just enough to know what’s happening and something about weather prognostication, increasingly choosing to begin the day with writing and reading. Indeed, lit screens are integral to each day- especially at work- and can be very useful, if not essential for connectivity, communication, and construction of resources. After all, I’ve been a blogger for 17 years, gratefully authoring essays, and the results have opened doors to extraordinary writing opportunities and fellowships. Simultaneously, considering the internet’s persistent abundance, controlling even a limited stream is equally essential for clarity of thought. Especially at the start of the demanding day. The pandemic era revealed to the isolated many that it is left to the individual to manage their own mental and spiritual health. And develop an intellectual, artistic life. Without such pursuits, it becomes even easier to be lulled into digital complacency. Days flow into months and years. “We have only so much time,” said a pastor friend of mine, “to gladden the hearts of those who make the journey with us.”

As I try experimenting with apportioning my sparse, unsold slivers of time, I’m minimizing media to make space for unfettered constructive thoughts. Making a few written notes in my journal, the words are re-read and built upon later in the day. Thoughts at daybreak seem as unimpeded as any I’ll have. Extending to my uttermost reaches to improve a desperate situation, I’m repeatedly writing about hope. A soul that hopes is one that aspires to see and inhabit better days. And persistent hope does not cease to seek ways to succeed. A living hope somehow generates its own adrenaline supply: a saturated strength, especially as it’s captivated by the unseen. Ideals may seem abstract, but conceptually striving efforts toward better work and housing are tangible motivations. Hope’s objects may be out of view, but these intentions are solid. Many individuals want to talk about their hopes, sharing them, even assisting others with theirs. Unfulfilled hopes drive many to the extremities of their abilities, becoming pleas for assistance, and further as outpourings of prayers.

A conscientious, focused suppliant turns the mind and thoughts to God. Contemplation essentially entails immersing the mind into the heart. Ancient wisdom as recorded in the Philokalia refers to prayer as “conversing with God, in reverent respect and hope.” Saint Dimitri wrote, “Collect all your thoughts: laying aside all worldly cares, direct your mind towards God.” As worries reflect fears, prayer reflects a driven hope. An aspiration that is anything but passive demands a paradoxical combination of persistence and surrender. And it must be lived, much more than observed. To be thwarted for many years at every turn is exhausting, yet still I counteract the weariness with increased striving. Navigating a careful balance between coasting and full-throttle intensity is a discipline in itself. A mystery, indeed, that is neither vague wishing nor obsessive grasping. Intent upon improvement, what lesson is there to be gleaned? Hope is essential, but perhaps one mustn’t hope too intensely? Wishing and hoarding are sentiments than run in opposite directions. We’re all susceptible to overthinking, particularly when straining to overcome deficiencies en route to goals. I surely know the dangers of the paralysis-of-analysis, yet I fall under them nonetheless. It’s a long, long haul and if improvements are merely incremental, they’re still positive factors.

Outside of such things as archival documentation (speaking from many years as a professional archivist), all that is past has ceased to pulsate: At best, it informs, whether we choose to look back a day or a decade. Trying to steer away from anxious wakefulness, my efforts are to channel thoughts to the immediate. Aware of juggling several unsustainable continua, I warn myself against pondering this. Just pursue and tack toward calmer waters. Endure and trust. I’ve witnessed countless friends burn out, and notwithstanding how much I’ve had in common with most of these fine souls, thus far I’ve avoided such straits and fates. Navigating as such by my wits doesn’t mean I’m better; it means I’m intent upon surviving to see and to live improvement. Competition is at all hands, and the last thing I’d ever want to do is damage my chances. Inevitably, the finest of hopes grow amidst discouraging, fruitless, and inhospitable thickets. And thus, the words hope and must are twinned by necessity.

Admittedly, treacherous shoals are far from limited to those offered by such outlets as those announcing what’s wrong and what’s deficient about us. There are parallel dangers in perfectionism, trend-chasing, and lack of compassion. “We’re human, all likewise God’s children,” wrote Josemaría Escrivá, “and we cannot think that life consists in building up a brilliant curriculum vitæ or an outstanding career. Ties of solidarity should bind us all and, besides, in the order of grace we are united by the supernatural bond of the Communion of Saints.” I read Escrivá’s remark while shivering at a deserted bus stop, admiring his big-picture view that inspires individuals to look beyond themselves. Has my manicured résumé really helped to pave a road for me? That’s the desired result, but so much of this entire odyssey reveals the limited control one person has over the critical complexities of living. Roadblocks attest to what cannot happen, but as with swerving away from dangers, these denials can become prompts toward magnanimity. One recent pared-down early morning, my gratitude came to mind that I’ve arrived at the impulse to ceaselessly look to God, and for the grace of perseverance. Manifestations of this type of grace, wrote Theophan the Recluse, “show itself on a person’s side in a yearning and aspiration towards God, and on God’s side in good intention, help, and protection.” At the very least, I am certain that God is. Perhaps there is more to that conviction than I’m able to comprehend now. In his work, Collations on the Hexaëmeron, Saint Bonaventure beautifully observed:

“The soul has to learn how to be willing and consistent. Grace lifts the soul above its own nature and effort, when grace elevates it to receive direct illuminations from God, which then become the subject of spiritual reflection and theological speculation.”

Considering the sanctity of the soul, and trying to remove as much that is deleterious as possible, mental and spiritual refuge must be carefully and judiciously replenished. Winnowing chaff and pursuing advancement, I’m reminded of the first Johannine epistle. To me, John is the archivist’s apostle, peppering his letters and his evangel with terms such as the record, that which he witnessed, and that which was written, as one connecting historicity, his younger audience, and his personal experience. “Test the spirits, beloved,” he wrote in chapter four, so that we can discern what is authentic and confirming of the gospel. He encouraged his faithful students with, you’ve overcome cruel spirits, because greater is the Holy Spirit within you, than that which circulates through the culture in our midst. A popular American financial institution advertises its credit card by asking, “what’s in your wallet?” Over two millennia ago, John asked his listeners and readers, “what’s within?” What’s enshrined in your sanctuary? Applying some language from the archival profession, “what’s your collection development policy?” and “what are your appraisal criteria?” Like stewarding multifaceted archives, being the curator of one’s soul implies confrontation of deciding what warrants preservation. At the same time, I’m maintaining room for growth on the shelves, leaving space for worthwhile acquisitions.

Thursday, October 26, 2023


“In the words of the psalm,
‘For with You is the fountain of life;
it is only in Your light that we see light.’

Human beings have no other secure standpoint
for being certain about anything at all.”

~ Douglas Dales, referencing Psalm 36 and Saint Bonaventure,
in Truth and Reality : The Wisdom of Saint Bonaventure.

My ongoing philosophical studies have continued to serve as healthful oases amidst chaos and setbacks. Such pursuits into contemplation also produce learning and constructive thoughts for me, as well as teaching material which I gladly share. With material needs as vital as housing and work in protracted fluidity, survival requires waystations in welcoming forms. As the Word is a lamp to my steps, so it is that in Divine light that I can discern light. Aspirations live in ethereal mists, and thus hopes are not always solid enough for my mortal self. A comfortable place to live and a really good job would do wonders to the morale, with all searches continuing as fibers in the general cord of the pursuit for improvement. This is not to say there aren’t present-moments to savour, because there are- both modest and grand. I’ve surely learned to constructively make do, under pared-down circumstances, throughout my working life. Yet I’ve never stopped hoping large and working ambitiously. It’s equal parts survival, fulfillment, and acknowledgment of the great teachers and mentors I’ve had.

Because my studies are self-directed, I’ll stay with a topic until I’ve covered enough ground to my satisfaction. This practice dates back to my beginnings with philosophy-teaching, in 2015, and intensified during the austerity of pandemic-era quarantining. Lifelines of learning and writing still stand as reliable constants and sources of mental strength. I chose to revisit Saint Bonaventure’s Itinerarium, which I had first studied as the severities of early 2020 set in. Now, following deep dives into the works and lives of Wyclif, Erasmus, Colet, and the Devotio Moderna, the 13th century Bonaventure appears to me as a proto-Renaissance thinker. He was also a university professor and a Franciscan, blending charism and pedagogy with “No one comes to wisdom except through grace... One does not come to contemplation except through perspicacious meditation, holy comportment, and devout prayer.” Bonaventure has some aspects of the scholasticism in his midst, balanced by his mysticism, with metaphysical statements such as, “We are led to re-enter ourselves, that is our mind... one cannot enter within, unless by means of Christ, who says I am the door... but we do not approach this door unless we believe...” Navigating thus far- from Bonaventure’s Itinerary, to some of his commentaries, to the Collations on the Hexaëmeron I continue finding more to nourish me, and will simply keep on reading. It’s as though I’m standing near The Seraphic Doctor himself, with reverent devotion.

Beginning in the middle of last year, I’ve had to function without a comforting home base- or as Dales observed (and quoted above), “a secure standpoint.” Between both work and housing instabilities, the vantage point is at once being between two dead-ends while also admitting that everything is up in the air. Thoughts of this reality at night are threatening. Thoughts of this at noon the next day almost seem exciting. But all thinking and activity take place amidst the din of instability and uncertainty; as much above it, as under it. Missing a physical, welcoming “home base,” that proverbial secure standpoint takes shape as a state of being during which I sense assurance. While frustratingly searching for a comfortable perch, I’ve thus far noticed ephemeral slivers of rest during times of study and writing: reading at bus stops, or sometimes late at night in the crunched hovel after the loud neighbors shut down, and writing during my thirty-minute lunch breaks, or outdoors any chance I get. Not terrible, making room for gratitude, but always too brief and just under the tension radar.

The Archives, 2023

For many years, I’ve called momentary intermissions tagging up which is a baseball expression describing a baserunner’s safely advancing amidst a play. During my 14 years of fulltime work in the pressured commercial photography field, I’d start days and find breathers “tagging up” at the counter of my studio darkroom. It was my base of operations, with two slick, imported Durst enlargers bolted to the surface, and filled with the tools of the custom photographic trade. To help me feel at ease during sickeningly stressful times, I decorated the place and had a small stereo system. Just about everyone I knew in the profession listened to music to keep up the pace of production; for me, it was new wave and opera. And I always had a thermos of coffee with me, as I do now. My memories of closing the darkroom door and gathering my wits for the next project come back to me when I do something similar- albeit in much shorter snippets, resetting during breaks in the archives. The building that housed my studio was torn down in 2016. Indeed, I photographed the demolition.

The Studio Darkroom, 1998

With the business and all the people who passed through the place as workers (many of whom I photographed), customers, friends, and vendors gone, I saw the large piles of debris frontloaded away in dump trucks. Six years later, I lost my home of nearly four decades, the building being converted into elite condos. These are now simply locations, their respective histories and lives syphoned out. They are past and gone, but here I am now and straining to look forward. Places such as cities or neighborhoods or buildings, I’ve learned, are stages. It’s about souls, more than about streets. Solid places to regroup thoughts and broaden perspectives are essentially replaced by points of reflection. My writing and reading are always with me, providing ready clefts of stability- lulls in the battle. Journaling affords the ability to write through trials and get them out of my system. Movements of conscience take time. In my journals, the term point de repère- which actually means a reference-point or a landmark- parallels how I’ve come to see moments as respite. And such metaphorical landmarks can be anywhere.

A better side of remembrance is to recollect what we’ve learned. An individual as vast and inspired as the Apostle Paul wrote of his occasional rearward glances coinciding with reminders to himself of graces along his arduous path. I call this stocktaking. What’s good? Even between two dead ends, a burgeoning life reaches heavenward. Managing to schedule my first weekday off in three months, I made it a reflective day. “What’s good” included appreciating the outdoors at midday, chatting with friends, putting something away in my savings account, getting a very long-overdue haircut. Simple and understated, yet somehow luxurious. Profoundly missing those twice-yearly retreats I’d make- before 2020- something I can do is to find bits of time on weekends to recollect and accentuate graces learned. Among numerous turns-of-phrases I’ve learned from the monks of Taizé (and I’ve written down many, as well as words from the monks of Weston Priory), is the expression almost nothing. In context, this is to say there is always something one can do, “even with very limited means, with almost nothing,” to progress on the voyage to sanctification, and to help others. “See what you can accomplish with almost nothing,” Brother Emile once said to me. I use this at work, always aware of the spiritual/material ambiguity. "With almost nothing, with very little,” Brother Roger taught, “we can live something beyond all our hopes, something that will never come to an end." A beautifully hopeful thought.

Another savoured expression I learned in Taizé is to “live in the dynamic of the provisional.” Consistent with the positive practicality of seeing what one can do with a lively spirit and almost nothing. Consider the fluidity of the present as the provisional challenges individuals to exercise the dynamism inherent amidst our temporal situations- which can be improved as we find ways to improve our perspectives and abilities. Perhaps our most enduring landmarks are within, away from heavy demolition vehicles and exploitive developers. When our points of reference tend from the physical to the spiritual, their properties do have a dynamic in our provisional reality. Hardly the seclusion of a studio, or the coziness of a Victorian livingroom, I await the daily workbound bus in the East End while looking to the skies. It rains a lot here, and I deal with the uncanopied bus stops by wrapping my books in plastic and using a lined water-resistant satchel. Looking up, I’ve taken to musing about how landmarks live in our spirits. If they’re real and important enough, I’ll write about them. The cutting-edge is whether to be constructive or to eat my heart out; that’s quite a choice. “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound,” Paul observed as he addressed the Philippians. This comes to mind as I’ve watched many colleagues over the years burn out, while I try sensing the boundaries and do all I can to avoid becoming damaged goods. Keeping in good energies is essential in the reach for better days. “Pray without ceasing, and in all things give thanks,” wrote Paul to the Thessalonians. What supports our hopes? Causes can find me unwittingly, even at weatherbeaten bus stops, wielding my umbrella and a book with this grounding paragraph by Francisco Fernandez-Carvajal:

“We mustn’t forget that our greatest happiness and our most authentic good are not always those which we dream of and long for. It is difficult for us to see things in their true perspective: we can only take in a very small part of complete reality. We only see a tiny piece of reality that is here, in front of us. We are inclined to feel that earthly existence is the only real one and often consider our time on earth to be the period in which all our longings for perfect happiness ought to be fulfilled.”

Commenting about the determination of the humbled Zacchaeus (Luke 19), Bonaventure wrote, “it is the nature of genuine eagerness, which draws the soul to Christ, that even if obstacles are thrown in the way, its desire is not broken, but is the more enkindled.” Referring to my current studies as the Bonaventure Adventure, complete with a monthly day at the Boston Athenaeum library for replenishment, I’ve also made various side studies of his fellow Franciscans Saint Anthony and Saint Francis of Assisi. Comparing notes with a correspondent, I now know of the Franciscan Fr. Dolindo Ruotolo, whose extraordinary life gave the world a very simple devotional practice of openness to completely trusting the Holy Spirit within, called the Surrender Novena. The latter word means nine, as in nine consecutive days of focused meditation upon surrendering one’s will to God’s will. For example, in day eight’s reading, Ruotolo wrote in reflection of the Divine voice, “Repose in me, believing in my goodness, and I promise you by my love that if you say, You take care of it, I will take care of it all; I will console you, liberate you, and guide you.” I’ve been journeying through the past month with this compelling discipline. An elder friend of mine says it best: “Surrendering is so inviting; It sounds so easy until you try. Almost immediately after surrendering, you take up the problem and start dragging it around with you.” I couldn’t have expressed it better.

Surrendering one’s personal will and mortal navigational abilities to the very force of Creation is a formidable discipline that requires its own vigilance. In the throes of intense searching and applying, there must be surrender of all the subsequent worries. And there are many. What will happen? Why can’t this or that be so? What wrongs must I correct? To add to my counterbalance exemplified in Ruotolo’s prayer are those of Brother Roger in his essay, From Doubt to Humble Trusting:“Let your anxiety be transformed into the trust of faith.” And there are thick, embedded layers of anxiety. Consciously implementing this spiritual practice is the adjustment of a way of thinking and being, trying to surrender my attempts to control what is out of my influence, and not to fret. That is a major challenge. I can just hold up my end of things, searching and presenting as well as my experiences inform, always looking to improve my pitch. A devotional practice emphasizing humility and surrender causes- even forces- me to entrust my efforts to God. All at once, struggles expose limits, and defeats ignite more rallying to transcend. To cease is to fall backwards. Yet here again, surrender exhorts that I release all the worries that tend to follow my best attempts. Submit those carefully-phrased credentials at uploaded attachments, and then detach. The same trusting confidence in attaching files must go with detaching from the appealing ads. The prayers of surrender are about confiding, entrusting, and releasing fears and worries. Plenty still for me to learn, as I attentively correct my missteps and continue seeking a secure standpoint.

Friday, September 29, 2023

more than this

“I'm hearing right and wrong so clearly
There must be more than this.
It's only in uncertainty
That we're naked and alive.
I hear it through the rattle of a streetcar;
Hear it through the things you said.
I can get so scared.
Listen to the wind.”

~ Peter Gabriel, That Voice Again

Major efforts are composed of small measures. This often occurs to me, when in the throes of processing large archival aggregates out of many thousands of single components. Years are made of days which comprise hours. A friend talked about their job search, comparing it to throwing big rocks at a wall until it crumbles. That’s the desired outcome. Thinking of the present as an indefinite trial, linking unresolved days, generates its own brand of exhaustion that only loads more upon existing burdens. I try to avoid doing this, but like any forward-moving driver, I must check all gauges and mirrors. Patience in tribulation is essential in these staggering times.

Now 13 months into housing displacement and its accompanying instability, there remains no rest for the weary. As my friend with the wall metaphor, there isn’t a day without searching and inquiring. And constant, earnest prayers. It’s how I push back against oppression and thwarted hopes. Other vital tactics are to persevere in my studies and writing; these are solid sources of inspiration and means to higher goals. Such things are extremely hard to find; if you find literary sources, forms of creative expression, and devotions that uplift (instead of “dumb down”), hold fast to these things and grow with them. Keeping vigil for better situations parallels my interests in learning and trying to understand the broader world. For many years, I’ve started each day with radio-accompanied ablutions and coffee. During my graduate school years, that routine would typically begin at about 5am. In high school, it was New York City’s Newsradio88; life in Boston and its orbit got me into 1030-WBZ. Invariably, the repetition of basics and ads sends me to the checkerboard realm of religious radio. At the tops of hours, I bounce back to WBZ for much less-stilted news. Within that minefield, however, are a few edifying and useful homilists. Most of the preachers are terrible orators, sounding to my New Englander’s ears like something between auctioneers and Huckleberry Hound. But this professional archivist can separate wheat from chaff. Radios can always be switched off, too, as much as I’m intrigued to hear what’s out there.

Among the more scholarly and nonsectarian Christian resources are the broadcasts from Chicago’s Moody Institute. Recordings of the late Rev.Weirsbe’s brilliance, delivered with his gentle Midwestern lilt, continue to outshine almost all of what proliferates. The successor to Weirsbe is Moody’s Rev. Lutzer, also with an academic and folksy yarnspinning style, though much more stoic than his predecessors. Well, on a recent workday morning with hot water running and coffee on the bathtub’s edge, I caught one of Lutzer’s installments on his theme, Making the Best of a Bad Decision. I’ll add that many of us must make the best of other people’s bad decisions. Can I get an Amen? Back to Lutzer. Through the noise of first-thing scrubbing, I heard the radio voice beckon, “If you’re still alive, God isn’t through with you.” Surely he wants to encourage his listeners, but considering my state of affairs of recent years, I can easily look at those words ambiguously and through my snowballed sarcasm. Sometimes I do, yet the resultant bad feeling makes me take it back. Reverting to a bleary-eyed positive, my leanings reach inward and upward, through my imagination. That’s my supplicatosphere, which is the stratum immediately beneath clouds of unknowing. “Through with me,” in the wrong context, sounds threatening; but in a healthier frame of reference, my wish really is for Divine intervention. Why is grace deferred? Did I misstep? How am I supposed to know, if nobody tells me? Have I overstayed my welcome? Perhaps I’m inhabiting the very attempt to comprehend the meaning of hope.

While trying to glean insights about things eternal, I’m also constantly reckoning with the ways of mortals. Recently with my philosophy students, I taught about the Golden Rule, framing this in the context of ethics. Our group discussion, probing the time-honored “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” went right into dilemmas about what happens when there isn’t any reciprocity for our respectful acts. Do we keep on being honorable and forbearing, or do we conform to the hardball tactics that confront us? You can imagine our very lively Socratic forum discourse. Whatever we do, we need to choose our reactions and responses. Generally, there’s the trigger end, and there’s the barrel end. Are you the issuer, or are you the inflicted? When so many critical factors are out of our control, what is within a person’s reach? With each day, questions arise in my thoughts as to whether landlords, employers, and community leaders should care about their inhabitants and “stakeholders;” in a word, neighbors. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect such people of influence to care, as I care. Ever the cockeyed idealist, I believe everyone should care. That’s how things stand a chance of changing for the better. A genuine sense of respect, even in simple transactions, runs against the currents of pessimism.

Just the other day, I helped a researcher with a query so complex we needed to go back and forth rather extensively in order to unearth the actual question. Having some specifics that mutually made sense, I set about producing what I could find to help this fellow. In the midst of my retrievals, the man frustratedly stormed out of the research room. While I began putting the materials away, he returned and apologized. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I think this world of instant gratification has gotten to me.” He pointed disdainfully at his smartphone. After expressing my understanding, he sat down to read through what I had found, and we talked about his projects. His initial and abrupt impatience was disappointing, but his later presence of mind was impressive. In a handful of minutes, I witnessed metanoia- on both our accounts. Reflecting upon this, later in the day, I was reminded about a barely-known spiritual exercise called examination of conscience. I use parts of my daily journal writing for this purpose, considering such writing as the safest space for articulating thoughts. “Make an appraisal of the entire situation,” wrote Francisco Fernandez Carvajal, adding that we must know what means are available to us, and how to be faithful and thorough. In addition, we must also contemplate how we can remove obstructions in our intentions, as “knowledge of self is the first step the soul must take in order to arrive at the knowledge of God.”

Collecting and digesting knowledge comes very naturally to me, always taking notes. My notebooks become reference sources themselves and they’re great for me to reread when distractions throw my studies off course. These many pages of annotated gleanings remind me of the philosophical texts I’ve been so carefully reading, while struggling to prosper above the fray. As it is with examining my conscience, there must be focused intention to transform head-knowledge into heart-knowledge. What is there for me to learn, from my experiences? “When a person accepts a great undertaking,” as Carvajal recommended, “they must consider various possibilities and look for the opportune means for bringing the work to successful completion,” adding that “we have to be aware of what is lacking so that we can ask God confidently.” In my repeated recoveries from rejected applications, trying to figure out my deficiencies (because reasons are never specified), while left to figure things out I remind myself that more attempts will be accompanied by more failures. More at-bats increase the odds of striking out. Yet still, and even now as the setbacks persist unabated, my efforts continue and amplify. It’s imperative. The here-and-now is at once stifling, uninviting, and tentative; it’s more than enough to keep the search coals stoked. As an extension of my certainty that all we see is not all there is, during the present drudgery I’m convinced there is more than this, and the accumulation of my being is meant for better and more conducive circumstances.