Friday, October 26, 2007

ar lan y môr


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"God is the country of the spirit,
and each of us is given a little holding
of ground in that country;

it is our duty
to explore that holding to gain certain impressions
by such exploring,
to stabilise as laws
the most valuable of these
impressions, and,
as far as we can,
to abide by them.

It is our duty to criticise,
for criticism is
the personal explanation
of appreciation."



~ Dylan Thomas, from a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson





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“every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters”

~ Isaiah 55:1



Having journeyed long enough from shores no longer distinguishable, save for their impressions, now it is possible to notice nuanced changes in light and air current. The new season calls for yet another divergence along the broadening course I navigate. Emerson wrote, "the voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks," reminding me that even after steering through turbulence, the prospect of numerous turns under clear skies really is an appreciation of the finest course. A tidal reconciliation is surely more habitable than tireless resistance. And so the journey unfolds still further. And in this stretch, there seems less need to focus upon my own development. Momentum from pronounced personal sea-changes bring us to points beyond discoveries of essentials, and on to an expansive freedom to give myself more thoroughly to my relationships. The subtle change is one of emphasis, and just as the ancient Psalmist prayed to be upheld evermore with a willing spirit, such yearnings come from the place between restoration from anguish and having already reached a strengthened stride.


Our society's obsessive penchant for preparedness, the worst of which is really connected to fear of the unknown and securing what is already overfortified, makes readiness into an end rather than a means. And at the same time, we ironically revere such expressions as "life is not a rehearsal." But in the balance of things, so as not to let planning obstruct living, we can surely apply what we learn in the miraculous process of comprehension. I like to recall listening to a monk tell me, "what little you can understand of the gospel- live it." This perspective launches theory into practice, and so often learning and application occur simultaneously- even with the "order" reversed. Newly-learned discoveries follow actions, as well as vice-versa. Understanding the vitality of compassion, toward oneself and outwardly, the vast Atlantic reminds me of the vocation of embracing the lives of those around us, and finding our place in lives that parallel ours.


The nature of transformation itself is fluid and dynamic, yet it is forgivably natural to want to preserve that spirit. How is this possible, each day being distinct from the one preceding it? In photography, rather than to preserve a process we refine how it works. What is developed and affixed are images that are tangible. Thus far, I have seen that in the maintenance of a willing spirit, my own transformation continues. It doesn’t happen every day, at least not overtly, but a humble spirit that longs to be led by streams of living water is never far from reach. It is always both figurative and metaphorical, for me to go to the ocean; constantly in motion yet always present and steadfast. In a fascinating triumvirate: the biblical Jeremiah, enduring the tragedy of war, looked to God as the fount of living water; many centuries later John pointed to God as the giver of living water to souls that thirst; and finally John encourages holding on to faith, as that will inspire humans to become conduits of the life-giving Source. The water’s edge continues to remind me of light, the scent of sea air, and the infinite textures of this environment. Even how things taste. And what I thought to be daunting matters regain their realistic scale.


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Monday, October 22, 2007

resurgam ; dirigo


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"I must down to the sea again,
to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song
and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face
and a gray dawn breaking."

~ John Masefield, Sea Fever, (1902), st. 1.


"Right at the depth of the human condition,
lies the longing for a presence,
the silent desire for a communion.
Let us never forget that this simple desire for God
is already the beginning of faith."

~ Brother Roger of Taizé, To the Sources of Trust.



Within so many of all ages is a persistent longing for one’s origins. We want to know what has brought us to this day, and about the mystery of the sources of our lives’ very depths. And still further, we desire to plumb the strata of what distinguishes the individual soul. There are the obvious landmarks: physical places we can locate and make travels to comprehend such as memorials and structures, and even places whose significance is marked only within a person’s heart. Memory can have immense power, enough to either prompt our lives to add more experience- and also to prevent a soul from looking away from what is past. Indeed, remembrance carries with it a double-edge. Still there often remains an ache to experientially know the very sources of encouragement and acceptance that can restore and enliven us. Since my early childhood I’ve known a profound wish to belong, or as a wise friend once described, "to be recognized." And in this sense, recognition is to express a rarified yet somehow effortless and unspoken familiarity for the one who belongs. A treasure for the recipient and a shared joy for those who extend the recognition of their hearts. Such inner communion is beautifully stated by my friends at Weston Priory; the monks write:

"The human heart is nourished with yearning for tomorrow, with poetry and
devotion, with contemplation and the incessant thought of home."


Another fascination from childhood has been connected to seeing and knowing about what was and is no longer: abandoned buildings and houses, changed neighborhoods, monuments signifying an event or person having stood at a given site, and indeed hearing a story about an occurrence when passing by a rather unassuming place. The succinct little anecdotes added to visual impressions would strongly take root as memories- even for an adolescent. And such imagery would spark numerous musings about how the city "used to be," and "what would it have been like if I had been there." Like detailed and pictorial postage stamps in an album, I seemed to collect little veritable, yet metaphorical, compass points in different communities, sites annotated by stories. Most of the places were shared with family, friends, and classmates- places in cities divided by the ocean. But being the living common denominator, my return to some of these places retold their significance. The captivating difference was that of time: then and now- and the witness of locale and living beings who can attest to transition.


In more recent years, my sense of the physical landmark has been superceded by the sites and markers carried deep within. It became a spiritual lifeline, to know my sources of strength and compassion, and to pursue a presence of mind to continually return to these wellsprings. As it is also for many, it was in crises that a spiritual sense of place and context began to tangibly emerge; and in these experiences it became impossible to hold on to places and situations. That which was then, but ceased to be now. Even the historic connotation of the word crisis implies a compression, a turning point, a distinction, bringing one to a drawing-together, to a re-gathering. And when a sense of rootedness- and even home- becomes elusive, the assurance of belonging becomes all the more vital. Overarching the despair of where home has been, to my surprise I find it in many places and circumstances. And I find, by abiding near in spirit to my heart’s wellspring. I can provide that for others. If present conditions recall desolation, then conversely I hope to let the scars remind me of grace.


As with home, source is a solid word which can hardly describe the depths of its reference, and to remain substantial it demands some specificity. Going to the source connotes where and how we find our basis, our ground. For me, it has meant faraway pilgrimages, or simple walks along the ocean, and it continues with humble silences spicing my weekdays when all I can do is draw a breath of reminder that I am part of the world around me. Consistent returns to the source have become forward steps, trust which manifests in action, and thus transcending fleeting emotions. Such knowledge, however, can only be intuitively sensed, and not rationalized. As Thomas à Kempis wrote, "I desire to feel compunction rather than to know the details of its definition." It is a knowing from within. The soul’s longing is founded in hope, even if it is an unarticulated aspiration. Still it is a hope that comes from a realization that the way ahead is open and replete with potential and pertinence.


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Sunday, October 14, 2007

senses sharpened


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"When we speak, in gestures or signs,
we fashion a real object in the world;
the gesture is seen, the words and the song are heard.

The arts are simply a kind of writing,
which, in one way or another, fixes words or gestures,
and gives body to the invisible."


~ Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier), French philosopher, 20th C.



Some of my close friends have graciously and sympathetically heard my grousing about the major household purging process I have been satirically dubbing The Big Dig, after the infamously protracted reconfiguration and modernization of downtown Boston’s traffic conduits. If my faltered attempts of fits-and-starts at downsizing years of accumulation have frustratingly persisted, I honestly cannot remember the city of Boston without trenches in the pavement and unpredictable detours. One week I couldn’t find an entrance to a Red Line T station, because it had been moved to another street corner! And when I descended the freshly-minted cement steps, I felt that odd edge of recreating a sense of direction- much as tourists experience when feigning a familiarity with an entirely strange place. It had been unnecessary to read signs before the upheaval. And much like the South End, my own Big Dig had been many times stalled by such factors as limited living space, the need for daily traffic flow, and an unusual abundance of archaeological discoveries beneath the detritus of excavated substrata. Watching (and hobbling over) the city’s peeling layers returns to mind as my wry determination to complete my own material simplification finally reaches its grossly overdue concluding phases. Inevitably, the process began to manifest as far more than sorting, giving-away, and tossing-out (a neatly-kept household conceals accumulation only too well); it has been a spiritual exercise no longer to be procrastinated. To finally carry out this project is to tangibly welcome the new, and solidly separate myself from outdated tastes and general things past.


Evaluating physical space, like the pursuit of spiritual clarity, is a reckoning with the passage of time and its accompanying transitions. We would surely prefer to house and haul around things (and perceptions) that are pleasant and useful today and tomorrow, than things we used to like and use. Further, it’s an assurance to consider that how I was "then" matters much less than how I am now. Admittedly, there is a strong temptation to resist change and grasp what is considered safe and predictable. The desire for stability is both persistent and frequently misunderstood. We long to move from strength to strength. Transition is in the nature of living this life, and like the passage of time neither can be held back. This is a season of sharpened senses. New prospects alert us to the differences between maintained status quo and openness to possibilities. And in this part of the world, at this time of the year, autumn avails us to a physical harbinger of change: the air, land, and sight-lines. We’ll be walking on noisy leaves and snow, before green grass reappears. Soon enough the season will give way to the marking of chronological transition. Perhaps the penchant for holding on to things formerly useful, but not anymore, is better understood in our roles as self-styled historic curators. This season’s message is for me to simply admire the tides when I walk the waterfront. To clear out what is no longer relevant, making physical and spiritual room for treasures yet to be perceived, makes way for what we find dynamic in our presence.


"On this stone a new name will be written, unknown to everyone except for the person who receives it." This fascinating phrase, from Revelation, inspired Jan van Ruysbroeck (in the 14th century) to elaborate upon what he called The Sparkling Stone, given to every contemplative soul. He wrote,

"On it is written a new name, unknown to everyone except the one who receives it. You should know that all spirits receive a name when they go to God- each an extraordinary name in accordance with the nobility of its service and the depth of its love."


Ruysbroeck wrote much in this treatise about how the offering of our selves and the work we do, can be an eternal gift of gratitude. Later, in his mystical and poetic fashion, he continues that we proceed by transcending even these gifts as we become immersed in the Spirit. That sparkling stone of transformed identity may yet hold still more metaphors for us, as in solidly realizing who we are, offering our works as our gifts, the invitation follows to simply let go of the grasp of such things- unbound by obstacles of our selves and our trappings. When a new horizon calls us to broaden our understanding, perceptions are shaken, and such challenges draw us to finer- even thin- places of vulnerability. Such exposure sensitizes us to the subtlest of sea-changes. While becoming susceptible to the grandeur and grace in our very midst, the double-edged paradox rounds out in the form of enhanced empathy toward lives parallel to ours. In the presence of greatness, sustainability is found in the humblest reception and reciprocity. In this perplexing exercise of shedding baggage, I do not wish to replace the material with a rotation of more, but would rather abide with less and transcend past with the bareness of being unburdened. With the unseen is found the sublime.


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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

heart in motion


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"If at times it seems insane-
all the tears in searching;
Turning all your joy to pain-
In pursuit of learning."


~ Paul Weller (The Jam), Into Tomorrow


We are ever challenged to know where we are going, and exactly where we stand. In this culture of time-management and stereotyping, those who dare will fashion their apportioned hours to include quiet contemplation, and will consider the individuals around them beyond the limits of job descriptions or outward identities. And when our steps do not trail a clearly-delineated track, or even one that repeats an avenue familiar to our own personal experience, the prospect of one of those large tourists’ illustrated You Are Here diagrams might be consoling. Indeed, though a leap into the unknown, it is still more inviting to realize the metaphorical map as it unfolds. Perceptive fans of The Jam recall such rapid-fire syncopated statements as those quoted above, with respect to many of the tones of the New Wave’s advent- as something between cynicism and adventurousness (both were strong motifs in their era). An argument could be made for our persistent state of discontent. It makes sense. And it is easy to see what is lacking, more than what is really present and at our doorsteps. The pursuit of learning may taint the safer forms of happiness and status quo, however the pursuit itself can be a joy. Might the more daring perspective be to comprehend this day as a developing fulfillment of our longings already navigated? What of the palpable spaces that are between definable places?


Autumnal light and air exemplify transition. With each passing day of the early notices of the season, there is something of a surprise in the long shadows, chills, and earlier-than-expected receding light. When we long for change, its arrival could not be fast enough, and when change surprises us, we think ourselves unprepared. It is as though our days travel at varying speeds, deviating from our prescribed watches and calendars. And I’ve learned not to wish away time, particularly while noticing this rare opportunity to dwell within the process, to inhabit the voyage. At this moment, the challenge is in finding the sufficiency to distinguish between memory of what has been real, and unreasonable longings for fantasized notions. It’s good for me to call to mind that my humblest day-to-day life is something many people in significantly lesser straits wish they had. The pressing call is to revel in this often painful journey of joining place with place- and that demands quiet pauses. This morning, I remembered how one of my photographer friends, whose speciality was working with film, would lodge himself inside the processing machinery. He would routinely enter the network of cogs, pipes, hangers, racks, and tanks- in complete darkness- analyzing and making the process happen. It always impressed me, and this memory reminds me of how development occurs in sequential steps, and the value of being entirely present to the critical parts of the process, not just the "before and after."


This time, recollection is unlike previous meditations in which I needed to know my basic purpose. At this moment, it is to recall the valuable desert voyaging of the past in order to appreciate what is present; remember the distance covered while inhabiting the sense of arrival. Recalling the descent, when embodying the ascent. All of which is to say liminal spaces are to be appreciated, even the ones that make us squirm with anticipation. So I am attuning myself to thresholds as I recognize them. Being the spiritual life, a provisional, interim stage may be a physical place, a situation- or a way of experiencing life. Gas stations, laundromats, and store checkouts draw new connotations, as well as my response to the tint of today’s thickly overcast sky. I once had a figure-drawing professor who used to pace the room while all of us were furiously scribbling with our charcoal, saying, "enjoy your mistakes, and keep going." I thought he was crazy, because in my naïveté mistakes were something to avoid at all costs and they revealed nothing more than weakness. But wait. Training oneself to enjoy the liminal spaces is to not be so quick to assess the worth of life’s moments. The retraining is to unlearn the need to instantly judge all I see or experience, even if that’s the most reflexive response. Reveling in the journey means savouring the steps. And if I can clearly re-visit liminal spaces of a year ago (or two, or five, or ten), it becomes possible to courageously appreciate transition, and that vital sense of surrender is in welcoming change without judgment. Even if what I’m doing now is not what I could’ve imagined myself doing years ago. Isn’t that the essence of change?


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Revisiting familiar threshold places helps to put the present into perspective. Not that it’s necessary- or even possible for everyone. There’s always been an element of both mystery and history when I walk by a former workplace, or apartment, or some location with personal significance. The element of meaning is entirely personal, and it is for us to choose to have our own "register of historic landmarks." Admittedly, the downside is a vulnerability in wishing to turn back the clock and live the past with these precious here-and-now moments. The upside comes in simply recalling places and life’s chapters, recognizing the value of "this or that happened, and I once worked there." In fact, the moment of this writing takes place on the front stoop of my home of twenty-two years. This massive 140-year-old Victorian granite stoop casts a dark silvery grey against the evening brick sidewalk red and the heavily-clothed maples along the paths. I am enjoying this space on its own terms, with nothing resisted or wished away. And what comes to mind in this twilight, after a most saturating work day, is an accumulating gratitude for a lifetime of safe passages, and the inevitable benefits of ground already covered. Amidst throes of overworked stress or depths of grief, it had not been possible to take such stock, but right now I can- right here on my well-trodden front stoop. Liminal spaces may be as tangible as 19th century masonry, or as fine as holding thoughts that came to you at the moment someone unwittingly said precisely the words you needed to hear. Indeed, transitional is definable place, rather than an empty void of "neither-nor" between events or circumstances we might sooner consider meaningful. Renewed perspective demands reflective time, so that outdated ideas might be redefined, and what had been can evolve into what can become. And returning to our own sources, the ones that speak most pronouncedly to us, provides reinforcement and renewing definitions of what adventure is, while we advance.


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