Wednesday, March 14, 2018


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“Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world,
answering that of God in every one;
whereby in them ye may be a blessing,
and make the witness of God in them to bless you;
then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour,
and a blessing.”

~ George Fox, letter from Launceston Gaol, 1656.

In my previous essay, I wrote about the assuring properties of a “split-second.” By this, I refer to spontaneous, uncontrived personal resuscitative moments that have reassuring properties. A distant memory returned to me from childhood, of a hockey coach’s quirky two-syllable caring gestures. Then I found that in the face of daily life increasingly hinging on the tentative, on all fronts, I’d occasionally whisper to myself, “just for now.” A reinforcing breath, held to memory, serves as a hurricane’s eye at the center of turmoil. I’ve even taken to reminding myself not to embellish any impressions of duress as endless and inescapable. Sufficient unto the day are the ends of my shoes.

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As a recollective moment serves as a rock perch in swirling river rapids, a retreat is an island amidst swarms of indistinguishable months of hard labor. Earning the time and making the plans, I carved out a seven-day sojourn on Beacon Hill. As is customary, the week prior to my time off was replete with the usual barrage of ineptitude and overtime- but I got through my obligations. Cathartically reclining in my train seat, stretching out and enjoying a rolling view of the Saco River, I made note of the railroad journey as a resuscitative moment. While looking forward to my destination, I found the way there pronouncedly reassuring. I heard myself say, savour this. This thought remained with me, across the snowy salt marshes, through the backlots of Dover and Haverhill, and across the Charles River.

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Alighting onto Causeway Street and seeing no frozen precipitation descending, I decided to trundle across the West End and up Beacon Hill. I’m no stranger to this traversal. Brisk paces inclining up to Cambridge Street, followed by measured half-strides up the sharply graded Hill- and this with a backpack and 3 heavy bags, one filled with baked goods I’d made for my kind hosts. “I’ll go home lighter,” I always rationalize to myself. As expected, the huffing and puffing began halfway up Hancock Street. But I said to myself, savour this. And it’s up, and up, and up, pulling all that cargo, amusingly turning at Joy Street. “Are you savouring this?”- I asked myself, still ascending, in a purgative froth. “Sure, why not?”- following my own words and looking up at the pale housepaint sky. In my grateful relief at being away from employment tribulations, everything around me looked comforting. Straining and sweating on a winter day, pulling belongings, gifts, and my typewriter up the steepest neighborhood in Boston, I exhaled “savouring this, savouring this,” with my strides.

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Indeed, I wanted to be there, through every part of the journey. Inevitably my upward passage crested at Mount Vernon Street, bending left at Walnut Street, finally experiencing the benefits of favorable gravity, looking right to Beacon Hill Friends House nestled along Chestnut Street. In a neighborhood of posted gaslights, the Friends House has a large lamp on an outward arm, as though extended to greet passers-by. It’s a votive of confidence, held out for pilgrims seeking refuge. Finally, I hoisted all trailing freight up the curving stone steps to the front door at Number Eight. The basis of a retreat is essentially a savouring of what is. The idea is to break the routine, borrow some time, and rekindle alertness to savour what is good. The residence manager and I recognized each other with joyful greetings. He spoke the most perfect words I could have imagined hearing: Welcome Home. I immediately savoured this, proceeding to settle in- not a single one of my dozens upon dozens of well-packed home-baked cookies broken- greeting more residents en route to my usual room.

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From the very start of my seven-day sojourn, I savoured a profound awareness of being welcome, and this set the tone throughout. There was a snowstorm immediately after my arrival, prompting me to savour my timing. I found myself waiting outside the Church of the Advent during the heaviest snowfall; the rector was late for the morning office. But the ensuing welcome made the wait worthwhile. I didn’t even mind my drafty room, named after the pioneer Quaker George Fox, at the Friends House; it’s always drafty in there. Why not savour the reminder that this was my 12th sojourn with the community? At the heart of each of these retreats are my studies at the Boston Athenaeum, through which I find words and ideas to savour. I always plan a personal study theme for these extended stays, selecting material from the library’s archival collections. This time, it was what I called Assurance and Divine Guidance. Each of my readings had these ideas in common. An example is from Nathaniel Appleton’s Discourse, published in 1742, in Boston:

“Faith is a Grace that inspires a divine life into the Soul; and the good Man may make a comfortable Subsistence on it, even in the worst of Times. Habakkuk: 2.4. 'The just shall live by his Faith.' ‘Tis by this that he fetches constant Supplies from Heaven... By this he looks up to the Recompence of Reward, reserved in Heaven for him, and is animated and quickened in a Life of Piety, by the glad Assurances of it. And by this he maintains a Life of Communion with his dear Redeemer: and let temporal Things go how they will with him, while he can do this he is easy, he is happy, he is joyful. Thus beholding as in a Glass the Glory of the Lord, he is changed into the same Image, from Glory to Glory. Thus for this Life he has a glorious Provision made for him.”

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Alongside lifegiving words I heard and studied, were savoury sights, sounds, and tastes. With the occasion of residency on Beacon Hill, I have round-the-clock possibilities for unfettered walks along mazes of intricate streets, as well as through parks and bustling thoroughfares. Urban creature that I’ve always been, a good, large city is as relaxing as it is inspiring. Merchants use their wares as decorative elements. The supply of photo motifs is endless, and the juxtaposition of sidewalk musicians woven among pedestrians provides contrasts with the quiet residential lanes. Yet another contrast is the interior of a cavernous sanctuary, deep in the city, an island of contemplative quiet with soothing and occasional echoes.

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Church of the Advent, Boston.

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Perhaps the most obvious connotation for savoury is taste. It is a joy to bring baked treats to my hosts at the House, the Athenaeum, the Advent, and to shopkeepers I know as friends. The motivation is not that of any kind of “exchange,” but simply one of gratitude. For me, it is a gift in itself to see others happy. On these retreats, I am surely recipient of savoury abundance- from House dinners, to high tea at the Athenaeum, to convivial evenings out. One fine midday, I accompanied members of the Athenaeum staff to a memorably lavish lunch at the Somerset Club. On this recent sojourn, amidst the week of aromas and cheers of the Friends House dining room, I was treated to a dinner on the house by a colleague who is also a restaurant manager. The latter, a small bistro on a side street, provides an environment as savoury as the meal. My friend sat me near the latticed front windows, which I found to be ideal for writing. From a perch within a perch, my appreciation extended from the seasonings and substance, to the textures and sounds of the busy- yet calmly intimate space, by the subdued warmth of incandescent light. Even the return walk to the House, through icy air, was something to savour.

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Returning to words as enduring reminders, in that usual serendipitous way, mixtures of readings I select in advance turn out to perfectly intertwine. Somehow this always happens, even as my selections span centuries and varieties of authors. Perhaps it’s a result of ingenious library cataloguing. Perhaps it also has to do with a reader being an active factor in joining works of literature together in the moment. Among anticipated connecting themes, I repeatedly noticed my savour observation in much of what I studied. Across eight literary works, by as many different writers, a noticeable amount of glimmers emerged about savouring one’s living faith. Don’t take your heartfelt belief for granted. Appleton observed, “we are the possessors of so inestimable a treasure.” Writing about spiritual confidence, Samuel Worcester (19th C) wrote that our faith is the most precious of treasures. In an anonymous work called Path to Happiness (18th C), the writer describes how, “those principles which are really received into our hearts, have an inseparable effect on the actions and conduct of our lives,” and that we must maintain the “safety of that invaluable treasure within us, our immortal souls.” Richard Lucas (17th C), encouraging his readers to persevere, used the exhortation that we “make our progress into assurance.”

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Indeed, the reader does play an active role in thematically joining works of literature together. Study is as much analysis as synthesis. The seekers are those who find. And a string of days filled with intense study produces a momentum of perception and awareness. During my leisurely morning coffees, between the Advent and the Athenaeum, words that celebrate the savoury appeared in no less than the sports pages. My muses, once again, were hockey players; this time in gratitude for the Bruins’ unexpected successes. Their specialty is a game that is made of split seconds. “How lucky we are to be here,” offered Brad Marchand to the Boston Herald, “You want it to last forever, but that’s not how it is.” They look as far as the next game. “I appreciate every moment,” philosophized team captain Zdeno Chara, “It goes by fast. It’s very humbling and I’m very grateful I’ve been able to play for this long in the game I love and enjoy so much.” Of course the ideas in my studies and thoughts stayed with me, as I read the morning recaps! Philosophy and competitive sports are not so far from each other. Savour the good words. Store them where you can find them, in the soul’s archives.

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Bruins and Brew, at Café Tatte, Boston.

Just as scholarly learning is an ongoing process, so is the ability to savour. The authors and athletes alike knew to treasure their confidence and their participatory moments. Thomas Merton was one to say that spiritual life is as much struggle as it is contemplation. As vigilance is active, savouring is passive. During my studies in the rare books room, I looked up through the tall windows facing Beacon Street, and wrote in the margin of my notes, “we can never know the stability of our times, places, and loved ones.” Intermissions from the struggle provide time to better appreciate what is meaningful. I do as I am able to afford. By very intentionally savouring a situation or an experience, there’s an ingredient of trying to make time stand still- trying to permanently preserve the moment. But like the hockey player said, that’s not how it is. I know this empirically, as I hold moments in writing and photography, while ferociously pointing toward hopes for better days.

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At my little windowside table in the bistro, delicately tasting my dessert, I wrote in my journal: “Savour dares me to sense some contentment, even through so much difficulty and instability. 'Savour this' means to really taste all this wonderful food and ale, this place, and commit all of it to memory.” An improved perception must transcend the retreat, and be with me in the work trenches. In ways that are similar to how I connect the words I read, it is vital to be able to find what is worthy to savour. These weeks on Beacon Hill always conclude with the Sunday’s Quaker Meeting for Worship. Indeed, I savoured the company of friends, as well as the wise contemplative silence of the gathering. Settling into the communal silence, I certainly had to ride out distracting thoughts about the frustrations and insufficiencies awaiting me. Then I chased them out of the present, recalling what I had been studying about holding inestimable treasure in an earthen vessel. Glancing around the large room, filled with kindred spirits, I noticed sunlight coming in from the Chestnut Street side. It was as though the authors I sought out were passing messages to me, to trust that my faith is something real- to savour this very simple thought, and to continue to stay able to savour.

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Friday, January 26, 2018

just for now

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“Our transitory burden of suffering is achieving for us above measure
exceedingly an eternal weight of glory;
while we look not at things seen, but things unseen;
for things seen are temporary, but things unseen are eternal.”

2nd Corinthians 4:17-18.

Among some old habits of mine is that of keeping a few bandages in my wallet. Through my adventures in art school, studios- and as a bookbinder- I’ve had to provide my own ready supply. Foraging enough with lacerated fingers, through remote and sparsely-stocked first aid kits, taught me to be self sufficient. Most of the time, the band-aids are for my own immediate patching-up, but I’ve given many of these away as needed. In such situations, the most effective cure is the most instantaneous. The cuts and scrapes can be revisited and redressed, beyond the momentary and stabilizing remedy. Rather like temporary, low-speed spare tires that allow us to retake the road en route to safety and more enduring solutions. It is the instantaneous aspect of a short-throw response that lingers so meaningfully. I believe this also holds true, when it comes to timely and thoughtful words that represent generous intentions. As with the small bandages, lightweight tires, splicing tape, binder clips, lengths of fishing line, and plastic tarps, consoling words do not necessarily solve problems: but they may act as vital stop-gaps. The idea of such triage is to reach the next step intact.

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The new year is off to a start that too closely resembles the old year. Indeed, a calendar page’s turn does not automatically change our living standards. Road signs inform us about our direction; their purpose is not to tell is how enjoyably we’re travelling. The passage of time is about my only detectable progress. Apparently, the list of those who meteorically rise in flashy success is short. For me, the pace has more of the resemblance of a forest tree. True to a northern New Englander’s colors, seasons are stark and rapid. Roots anchor deeply, and whatever is above the surface must endure battering elements for some ten months per year. Seedlings evidently need a lot of time, accumulating forces and building some requisite ballast. The process, as least for this mortal, is excruciatingly slow. Fruition cannot manifest soon enough.

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But what to do, when the ground trembles at every turn and foundations are endangered? Planning ahead and projecting only go so far in front of closed doors and locked gates. Now that surely needn’t negate composing wish lists. Instability demands a closer focus upon the present- even taking stock to appreciate the temporal. A wise friend once told me about “split seconds;” as anyone might do, catching their breath to regain composure and be able to stand at ease. A change of perspective is to sense my immediate context, and leave the far future for later- even if just as an experiment not to overthink. To me, a split-second regathering is a restorative moment, a stabilizing and portable respite.

Pondering this, through the tentativeness of unaffordable housing and difficult employment, my sense of momentary consolation is put to the test. There remains much to appreciate, but it requires creating some space in the chaos to be better able to savor what is life-giving. Appreciation must be an active observation. Don’t just admire that perfect cup of coffee; drink it before it gets cold. Just the other day, it came to me, as I was reassuring an anxious colleague. I heard myself say, “this is just for now.” Somehow those few and small words alleviated stress, pointing to the fleeting nature of a present oppression. The storm will pass and dissipate. Just for now. Later on, through the week, I noticed that I was occasionally repeating this to myself. Even the typographic "J4N" has been appearing in my journal entries.

But an active mind always aspires for more, especially as sources are discovered and tapped. And the motivation for supply is the demand. While just for now helps soothe the soreness of defeat, the memory of a long-ago “split second” has recently returned to me. Way back when I played hockey, the teacher that coordinated and watched over us did his job with fierceness and with the vigilant eye of a mentor. We were unruly kids, yet we followed our leader. Amidst our rambunctious collisions and adrenaline, he’d say to any one of us, “[are] you all right?” -or “you okay?”- in an understated tone of voice. Channeling this memory of sound, I’ve claimed this as another momentary respite: You all right? You okay? In an imagined response, I’ll say, sure; all right, and instantly resume whatever task I’d interrupted with that very brief pause.

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Those split-seconds’ worth of resuscitation are punctuation marks in seamless streams of verbiage and shifting surfaces. Not solutions in themselves, but they are stepping stones in the days’ traversals- small yet vital bandages at the ready. Just for now is both grasp and release. In recent years, my experiences have comprised a voyage of survival, requiring a development of momentary consolations. The salve of just for now may be in response to difficult days, or weeks, deadlines, of crises of varied duration. The “time being” of a just for now might be a long time.

The relationship of time and memory amounts to yet another dimension in the human odyssey. As with any reactive remedy, just for now exists in real time. Retrospective observations are not about now, but about then. “Somehow, I pulled through,” or “I nearly didn’t survive,” are both statements that look back. Intrinsically, administering an instant cure is pointed toward the future- yet it is the present that is stabilized. A fleeting pause may be an eye in a storm, buying a tiny bit of time to find some bearing, take stock of the present, and look ahead.

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Memory makes demands that are not unlike looking forward: as progress is intently expected, so memory expects time to stand still. In a sensation very similar to how we anticipate, we are often incredulous with the ways things change from past to present. As an archivist, I notice this daily among my clientele. Passing by places with which I have lengthy and vivid personal histories, it’s easy to be astonished at how they have changed over the years- irrationality notwithstanding. Memory iconographically freezes objects and people in place, registering images as a camera might on film. For example, my mind’s eye recognizes a school, a house, or a past workplace, but none of the people now are familiar to me, and I am merely an observer with a memory. Missing a person, a place, or a situation amounts to much more than people and physical surroundings, but what they represent for us. Remembrance revisits deeply registered pictures and footage, intensifying contrasts between past and present. It is often a reluctant realization that prized and enshrined memories were also fleeting instances of just for now. Still, we continue to preserve, to expect, and to be startled. Bereavement, another example, is a just for now of undefined duration, and the losses are of those who should have been permanent and unchanging. Of course that’s unreasonable, however real the pains and wishes can be. Just for now cannot be more than temporal- and paradoxically the just for now is integral to healing and continuity.

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Saturday, December 30, 2017

for a future

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“Because my heart was enkindled, my reins also were changed.”

~ Psalm 73:21

tenuous to temerity

There is a strange selectivity to perceiving the interminable, and it’s likely our use of the former to identify the latter. Indeed, the desire to preserve what is cherished seems eclipsed by the persistence of the odious. Or so it appears. While time is mercilessly indiscriminate, matters as solid to us as tastes, affections, and value are not. Reckoning with what really looks like a disparity demands detached perspective. But mortals like me are not formed that way, and I’m increasingly reminded of this. I want the good things to permanently prosper, and I want the bad things to quickly dissolve. As with a misaligned game of exquisite corpse, the components cannot be coaxed into lining up as they should. Apparently, it is an indicator of maturity to cease expecting the puzzle-like sections to smoothly dovetail. Yet still, despite decades of disappointment and that supposed sense of better judgment, I continue to anticipate.

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And thus I wake very early every morning, energetically taking on complex and long workdays. Those dusky hours before the slippery slope of servitude and sold time are guarded for journal writing and reflective reading. My everyday habit of many years in an old building has been to begin filling the bath immediately after waking, brew coffee and round up necessary clothing- all at once. With my coffee cup on the bath ledge, I ready myself to be a clean slate for another day. Perhaps it bespeaks a penchant for punishment, but I tend to listen to the radio, while readying in the bath with the day’s first cup of coffee. Sometimes it’s news- just enough; sometimes classical music. I try to find some inspiration via preachy broadcast programs, almost all of which are banally sophomoric. Though admittedly there are some worthy nuggets- any of which will outdo a typical staff meeting- I’ll often reflexively turn off the radio. In recent months, as I quickly shut down whatever has invaded the peacefulness of the morning, my thoughts instantly turn to prayers for a future. Through the soft salt-lamp light and bath vapor, I look from the silenced radio to the clothing stand. How I wish for a future. Prayers are staked on faith, on my persevering anticipation and hope for a future that exceeds past and present. Like the news and seasons, trendy words, employment, and running water, my time is temporal and tenuous. I need to know I’m heading in the right direction, that goodness really is in store.

gaze fixed, yet unknowing

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Diligence, industriousness, and carefulness are all pointed toward the future. By this, I mean a good future; an arrival upon shores of stability, better employment, and some form of compensation for all I’ve been enduring all these years. I believe many starve for something like this, and work very hard toward such goals. Though in a less material sense, belief in a good future is essentially faith. Spiritually speaking, a good future refers to union with God, clearly beyond and above the routine- yet through it. Speaking as a worker and a Christian, my contention is that a good future is both goal and means. Ideals are rarely attained. For me, however, the choice is to risk the full commitment of applied life in a forward direction- reaching forth for the prize. Doing so does mean believing in the effort as much as believing in the goal. That’s an enormous amount of full-tilt striving.

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Paradoxically, with forces fixed upon skills and sustenance, I am intensely enjoined to live in a spirit of detachment. It is a paradox among the many that oscillate between momentary and eternity. We invest that which is ephemeral and visible toward what will be abiding and yet unseen. Regardless of level of material wealth, there are intentions to invest- or to squander. I like to emphasize civility toward neighbors whenever possible; you never know who may be pushing your car out of a snow drift. Uphold a sense of decency, amidst prevailing meanness.

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The path of detachment and depletion is a very steep, narrow, and rugged climb. This was experientially known to San Juan de la Cruz, whose Ascent of Mount Carmel meant unfettered focus on the Divine- even as the voyage leads into densest, darkest tunnels.

“In this detachment, the spiritual soul finds its quiet and repose; for since it covets nothing, nothing wearies it when it is lifted up, and nothing oppresses it when it is cast down, because it is in the center of its humility; but when it covets anything, at that very moment it becomes wearied and tormented.
(The Ascent of Mount Carmel, book 1, ch.13)

He added, in Book 2, that “the less the soul works with its own ability, the more securely it journeys, because it journeys in faith.” To say the least, this is an interesting mindset with which to pursue a career; the dozens of approaches I’ve tried have not caught the proverbial brass ring. San Juan’s night of sense teaches simultaneous passivity and forward motion. He urges his readers to hold fast to the practice and pursuit of agapé, while releasing one’s grasp of “objects of understanding.” Threaded within this wisdom is an instruction to hold fast to trust, while purging away self-aggrandizing notions. Even as desolation extends to the horizon, believe in the journey’s purpose, dare to visualize resolve, and take stock in the solidity of the interior road. During drives on unlit highways at night, as well as through snowstorms with whiteout conditions, foregrounds and distances are undifferentiated. These conditions force me to keep very close watch at what is immediately in front. Sometimes the sole points of steering reference I’ve got are hints of a guard rail and bits of painted lines. Thirsting to advance means attention to the immediate. Such scenarios are parables of prayers for a future, looking ahead without losing what is proximate, leaving past to historic citation.

striving and surviving

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Writing with such frequency about patience and waiting continues to be true to the moment, providing plenty of documentation for future retrospective. That, itself, is a bold statement of faith. Though I practice patience with individuals, groups, and my diverse work procedures, I’m terribly impatient for better days. Life is very short, none of us get younger, and I intensely dislike time-wasting, treadmill-running, and misapplied talent. I’ve endured too much of that. We are designed to face forward and to move ahead. Treading water spends too much valuable physical and mental energies. Striving and waiting make for a painful grind.

There have been increasing reasons for me to revisit these persistent and convicting thoughts. Struggles that unfortunately lend to self-centeredness have been recently punctuated by the passing-away of three friends whom I knew from three different spheres of my life. Two were close colleagues; I gave the eulogy for a co-worker and friend of more than a decade. All three were wonderful, brilliant, and cultivated. In their collective wake, people like me can only wave from the shore, keeping memories to talk about and write down. Speaking for myself, I am very much in the land of the living. As long as I continue, there is a future. My years have been very much centered around readying for the future. Academic life is steeped in the concept of preparation. The amassing of knowledge, along with being equipped to compete, and readiness to provide. Always a next thing, looking to a future that exceeds the present. Built into this are strenuous self-improvement efforts. Good outcomes would justify what I’ve survived; it’s a motivating factor.

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Recently returned from some tiring holiday travels, I dutifully went back to work. There’s nothing like a hiatus to accentuate all that glaringly needs to be improved- along with appreciated. The longer the absence, the more clearly this is evident. My workspaces have but one window through which I can occasionally glimpse the outside world. When I pass through the hallway with the window, I glance down to the intersection below, and up to the skies above nearby rooftops. Looking at scurrying pedestrians, I’m reminded that a great many people struggle. My earnings are less than my state’s per capita median, and I’ve just been hit hard by a rent increase in a woefully gentrified city. But there are surely the less-fortunate. Looking from the window provides some reminders. I also picture those passed on, that I used to regularly meet along the streets beneath the window.

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I go to this same window during my occasional breaks. The glances have time to become gazes, and then- quite naturally- prayers. For a future. For the health of loved ones. For better days of better work, better conditions, and better housing. For fulfillment. For justification of all this hard work and forbearance, balancing out the chain of substandard situations. Indeed, there is an element of justice in my hopes. Striving and ambition are paralleled with the passive paring-down of San Juan’s night of the soul. Liminal space isn’t much of a place for residency, and certainly not for comfort. Similar to being a tenant-at-will, studying with library books, and provisional employment, I can say I have nothing while also everything. By writing I may be no-one as much as someone. By reading I may be depleted while also filled. Still, true to the ephemeral, tomorrow morning’s prayers will rise through the steam and the grainy salt-lamp light. Within the darkening night, embers of intention burn for a good future.

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Wednesday, November 1, 2017


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“In this quiet moment of a changing season,
we are called to remember:
Never stand still but move with one heart.

The colors of this hushed autumn morning
will all too quickly fade
into the still winter silence.”

~ Monks of Weston Priory, Move With One Heart.

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