Friday, December 28, 2007

incarnatus


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"You are like the ticket-half
I find inside the pocket of
my old leaf-raking coat.
There all the time, all the while,
forgotten.
I so often seem to leave You
in churches
and other islands."

~ The Innocence Mission, Every Hour Here



What we now perceive may essentially be a discovery of what we have been gradually deriving from our travels. Our gleanings. Like the shells and pine cones on my dashboard. The jottings in my journal. This season draws another year to a close, or rather to the next chapter’s threshold. Daylight’s brevity is no longer a surprise; we are all used to it, now. Dark mornings are times to gather thoughts. While the holidays punctuate work schedules, magnetizing many to malls, I have been cherishing all the quiet I can find. A cursory glance at last year’s journals verify the enormous transitions of the eventful months since last Christmas. Perhaps appropriately, my thoughts turn to the idea of gifts. And surely, I had no such thoughts at this time last year. When I am unable to see what changes may have manifested, amidst the day’s immediacy, it is thankfully evident in the archival record of written musings. My gratitude for all my adventures of the concluding year is a wonder that is regenerating into a strength of hope.


There is a gift to be found in simply recognizing the value in each preceding step. Material gifts in themselves mean a great deal less to me than ever, not just because of a recent burdensome relocation, but also in my yearning for substantive simplicity. The less, the better; the humblest, the most meaningful. I find that I am re-defining the gifts I have known, be it through the eyes of a recipient or those of the giver. Increasingly, I’m giving gifts that I’ve made myself, as well as treasuring the written words, calls, and embraces (and home-made gifts) I receive. An emphasis upon honest purpose flies in the face of the fog bank of mass-media-driven consumerism, which attempts to convince us all that our lives are incomplete. Don’t buy it, friends. The sublime indescribable beckons so much more forcefully, though indeed subtly, than breakable plastic. The other evening, around the table, I asked each of my gathered friends for a word that came to mind, and collecting them, as one might with exotic postage stamps, I wrote them in my book. The savour of an occasion. Such gifts take on an enhanced significance: the sight of familiar faces, with the ecstatic greetings of friends. We give and gather acknowledgment of one another’s presence.


A lunch hour turned into a barrage of errands and forgettable things nearly forgotten. With a few moments to recharge, I stopped for coffee. The above picture attests to a serendipitous moment of reflection and a few vital tastes to balance a day which otherwise would not have afforded the chance to pause. Balancing time and spirit requires a deftness similar to that of composing a photographic image. All the forms cannot be weighted to one side, or to the center, at the expense of the sum total of the picture. Angle of view is as critical as the image’s contents. I like to think of Robert Capa’s adage that said, "if you’re not happy with your pictures, you need to get closer to your subjects." Defying my old tendency to skip meals in order to get things done, I stopped in the middle of a long road trip; the idea was to avoid arriving at my destination on an empty stomach- as usual. The looks of the little roadside diner in northern Vermont instantly produced a surprising appetite. And when the hospitable waitress set down the aromatic home-made meatloaf at my place, I set down my writing and suddenly saw a grand image for all the senses to absorb- from the bustle inside the tiny diner, to the snowstorm outside, to my table. Discreetly taking a quick photo (below), the waitress later asked if everything was all right. I assured her the meal was truly a thing of beauty. And it really was. From my place setting, fleeting beacons of sunlight interrupted the pensive gloom of winter. These graces may be quite commonplace- and though they know no calendar days, they are no less rarified to behold.


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It is possible to see a renewed way of perception has taken root, when there is an emphasis on the interconnection and interrelation in a life as diversified and eclectic as mine. And it is for me to notice those connections, allowing them to influence one another and add the color of cultivated vision. On a given day, for example, I’ve witnessed a common thread tie together something I read, with something my landlady said on my way out the door, with something an old friend told me on the street later that day, with yet more random thoughts the janitor at work told me that evening. The raw ingredients are for us to discern; we become the editors of connected events from fascinatingly unrelated sources. If we are awake enough to distinguish one day from another, we may surely embody our own evolvement, and recognize the passage of time as a renewing gift. Somehow, through barricades "inclosing all paths with hewn stone," the anguished and tortured Jeremiah found enough shreds of light to remember that so long as he was alive and breathing there was mercy. The verbal ocean of severity he composed, in the Lamentations, is ironically the source of the phrase, "great is Your faithfulness."


At times during which stagnation seemed certain, I had been unaware of what had been forming beneath the visible surface. Revised perceptions inform us that we are awake. And how we perceive the benevolence in our lives, humble as it may be, does attest to how our tastes- and even our spirituality has begun to evolve. A paradox comes to mind, which finds the seemingly lowly as greatly exalted in one’s heart. Our heart’s desires also develop, as do our wishes for one another. And for me, it is to be something of a tabula rasa- as much as possible. All transitions challenge us, even the ones that present new gifts to our lives. Even the positive changes ask our time for adjustment. Keeping perspective in the mixture of frustration, trepidation, homesickness- and- yes, excitement. And somehow, in the midst of this mélange, is a detachment that inspires an odd, gripless strength. It seems that with less to hold on to, there are fewer tangible reasons to tempt me to look back. With less grasp, there is an expanse of an embrace for others, and for what is both now and shall become.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

graphite bright


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A very colorful Christmas season to all,

and a sharpened New Year !



Friday, December 21, 2007

belonging


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"Love is our true destiny.
We do not find the meaning of life
by ourselves alone-
we find it with one another."

~ Thomas Merton, Love and Living


In this recollection, in this foraging for signals of grace through the season’s incessant and thick snowstorms, it becomes vital to revisit my purposes. Nature’s encroachment has a confronting beauty. Even if to remember that clouds of unknowing are part-and-parcel of the life of faith, and the key is to simply continue with a consistently hopeful and grateful spirit. Sowing and seeking compassion must be undaunted. Perhaps it is natural that when our steps fail us, we begin to look back. I am trying to transform that reflex into some kind of balance between a forward perspective and the search within, though it can occasionally send us back in time. If I am to plumb the depths of the soul I have journeyed these years with, I must dare to consider the volatile theme of belonging- one thread which has laced my days from earliest memory. It is a life theme. When absent, an anguish; when present, a sublime joy.


To be integral to something greater than our lone selves is a universal longing. In varying degrees, founded upon our earliest experiences, we desire the assurance of belonging. There is a strengthening comfort in knowing we are anticipated and accepted for nothing other than who we are. For some, "fitting in," implies more impact than for others, coexisting with a hungering for our own distinguished identities. At some point, just about all of us dressed and talked like our friends; we liked what each other liked, though we’d all claim our own unique style to our selves. My personal adventures, having been in such far-flung places and demographically diverse situations, all have contributed to a scrapbook life of savoury kindred and community experiences. Indeed, many of us can pause to notice layers of concentric circles of friends and colleagues. Many an academic workday has comprised nights of ESL volunteer teaching, with the next day involving a photo shoot, and the next day playing music in a church, with the next day taking to the road- or the air- to see more people in still more situations that I know. This has gone on for years. A perceptive friend once pointed out how amusing it can be to simply glance at one’s entire e-mailing address list, noticing all the names and the meandering ways we become a common reference point to a hodge-podge of individuals we can only imagine ever seeing all of them in the same banquet hall at the same time. An amusing thought. But, oh, how the soul longs for unity- and for recognition! We are created for community and we thrive when we are assured of our belonging, or our being as part of a boundless entirety.


In a life of opposites and paradoxes, belonging and exclusion are far more than vague concepts. These are powerful emotions connected to experiences, many of which are indelible still. It does surprise me, to think about how many childhood instances remain with me. These things, in the duration of their happening, had short-lived significance- and if any more than that, circumstances I simply wished to surmount. Getting through school, wishing to be anyplace else than where I was, escaping the grasps of gangs and thugs, or dreaming about leaving. Quite often it seemed the idea was to move on to the "bigger and better" things. I used to wish away my time, having been one of those kids who was mercilessly bullied without defense, and that had profoundly affected my view of life- always between acceptance and rejection, and always looking to some imagined destination. It took years to sort out these ingrained self-assessments, and the challenge occasionally amplified when I could recognize condoned workplace versions of schoolyard bullying. The relentlessly abusive production manager at a studio I worked for, echoed the aggression of muggers in the elevator of the high-rise project I lived in, during my grade-school years. During a misunderstanding in which I stood alone in my cause, it was as though I had been back in one of those summer camps, teased and maligned, suddenly tossed from the garden as it were. Being shunned by colleagues blurred into the shunning of my co-religionists and family when I embraced a new faith, and the gauntlet seemed to go on and back to the snarls aimed at the youngest, smallest, weakest kid in the class. Once, as a ten-year-old, I took an unwarranted thrashing from a bigger kid- and got sent to the school nurse, who turned out to be the kid’s mother. She did not know who had bloodied me, and when she told me who she was, I simply said that her son was a nice guy. Why I remember such things is beyond me.



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Perhaps there is a cutting edge, when enough ostracism, disowning, rejection, and undercutting becomes a costly self-underestimation. Surely it has not all been negative, and the pendulum would often get pulled in the very opposite direction when I would find welcome company. And it has been, and remains, in many unrelated places, tastes of spiritual and intellectual kindredship. Part of its beauty is in its very unpredictability. If you treat everyone well, there is always an open door for something new to materialize. Then you can be the one who includes others. And when things descended to their very worst, and I had been certain that I walked this earth alone and unwanted, my steps brought me to the little sign along the path to the Weston Priory that reads, Know That You Are Welcome. There, on the first of countless pilgrimages, I began to pull the experiences of acceptance together with the nurture of an encouraging community, and build enough strength to begin applying all the good which had been shared with me. If it has been an odyssey to find where I most clearly sense that coveted attribute of belonging, I have been learning to gratefully recognize the fleeting situations and the companies of those among whom I find the deepest joy. When the inward cry of "where is home," is contrasted by the presence of compassionate friends, it is impossible not to connect the two scenarios. When we have had to navigate the darkness east of Eden, with some patience we can surely learn to savour the sunlight.


In his book, Love and Living, Thomas Merton adds, "We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded." Adding this to our equation, we may reconsider the impact of belonging, for us and those in our midst. If we embrace the call to belong*, then we see our role in the lives of those we meet who wish not to be islands unto themselves. (In this respectful context, nothing is to be enforced upon anyone.) So who makes the rules, anyway, about who "deserves" sympathy and respect, and who doesn’t? Who’s in the "club," and who’s out? Upon reflection, for those whose impressionable exclusions have forced themselves into self-imposed lives as outcasts, perhaps it is that we have the power to include ourselves into our own environments, and conversely to embrace those around us- those kindred souls each of us will invariably find- into our unique spheres. For me, it’s been helpful to think about the gold I have emerged with, through times of trial. And when I see those contrasts of rejection and belonging juxtaposed, my resolve is to continue being mindful of others’ circumstances, and to be sure to contribute positively to wherever I am. Time may not reliably heal, but it does shape our perspectives. And there is always that open-end, that beautiful way forward that is extended to us each day. This morning my thoughts were captivated by simply acknowledging the amazing mystery of not being able to fully know what I may be equipping myself for.


* Romans 1:5,6


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Thursday, December 13, 2007

horizons


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"You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore."

~ André Gide


To realize whether one has a place of departure still prominently in their sights implies there has been some straining in a direction opposite that which they are heading. Some distracting looking-back has been diverting the focus. And that seems a natural, though a pivotal, juncture to follow any major transition. Here is where it becomes essential for me to keep the courage and lose the departed shore. Just as surmounting the inertia with energy to "push off" into a new direction is itself a marvel of self-propulsion of the soul, so is the resolve to continue on, reaching forth to that which is forward. Such moments may manifest between horizons, when the one ahead is too far to unambiguously delineate, and the docks left in the wake are still near enough to revisit. But the courage to lose sight of the shore calls forth an abiding trust, and that is both conscious and surely not passive at all. Indeed, far from a gesture that simply allows things to leave what may be perceived to be "in my control," but consciously desiring and aiming for a life that is not mine alone. The courage to fly to the unknown implies a boldness to keep going, even if through miles of disorientation. The substance of things hoped for is sufficient bread for the journey. Choosing to move in a specific direction does imply motion away from another destination: my intended course becomes worth losing any other that might diminish the great hope that has been given to me. And when my long-held hopes reveal times of fulfilment, I realize how I have often created a sense of permanence out of very tentative and temporal circumstances. Cultivating aspirations became more an end than the means it was intended to be. Do we hope without the wholehearted expectation of reaching the other shore? The temporal has a dynamic that can propel us forward without even wanting to look back, and thus a life of ever moving forward maintains a fresh view of each moment.


Desiring to pursue dreams, choosing to continually reach for holiness instead of refueling the past, causes me to ask whether I have been asking too little of myself. When a wondrous way is prepared and presented to me, how astonishing that I should even hesitate to give my all, in a grateful spirit of trust. It seems easy to cling to what we know, even if it may pale in comparison to the brilliance arrayed before us from the horizon. What is familiar is meant to be exceeded, and indeed if we fear surrendering the known in exchange for frightening things, conversely we can trade up to far better things- even if we may not immediately know any more than the assuring certitude that it is the next right thing, and our souls are peacefully elated with the new reality. If, in this context there is a trial set before us, it is to move right through the jarring displacements and unrelentingly find enough balance to start ever anew, make ourselves at home, and continue to aspire. The change of perspective then becomes a change in that which we find our identities.


John Stuart Mill exemplified the transition from viewing life as despairing trials, to what he called "the maintenance of a due balance among the faculties." The simple recognition of the supreme value of seeking within and cultivating his soul was enough to draw him forward. For Mill, writing in the early 1900s (A Crisis in My Mental History), it was the music of Weber and especially Wordsworth’s poetry that sensitized his heart enough to transcend his defeats and find what he described as a "Source of inward joy." "Through my dejection," Mill wrote, "honestly looked at, could not be called other than egotistical." He connected his disappointments to his ego, and determined that "unless I could see my way to some better hope than this... my dejection must continue," concluding that a perceptive hopefulness is connected to the peace within that allowed him to see the world in his midst with hope. In Mill’s emergence, he let go of his despair, while keeping the poetic sources of his inspiration close at hand.


Maintaining a solidly hopeful perspective and becoming more fully conscious of life’s changes demands a new frame of reference- one that ceases to look at this moment as a succession of times past. I can begin to take stock of my life with the undisputed given fact that I have a life. And perhaps, like Mill, I may call upon my own heart’s muses. Meister Eckhart, of the 13th century, considered humanity’s goal as being a complete union with God, and in order for a person to become divine it was necessary that they "detach themselves from all that is creaturely." For his monastic mind, he referred to detachment as the condition of our transformation into the things of God. Such profound and thorough development seems to me as incremental advances- and the thought of manageable steps is in itself heartening to me. An organic process can occur at any pace- the one we can each comprehend. Perhaps we know we’ve "advanced" to a new chapter of our lives, when we notice, ironically, that some things are taken for granted (and are no longer worries). When we move away from a shore we can still see and reach, we may endanger a longing for what we’ve concertedly pushed away from. But still further, the departed land may have simply lost its savour and thus our interest. Do we, in our heart of hearts, long for what was- more than what is set before us? The mirages are subdued by reality, when we see how our days have taken us to the threshold of this instant. Open doors may imply an undertone of another closing, but for a moment; all succeeding considerations point to new and beckoning horizons.


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Thursday, December 6, 2007

chronos


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“Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky;
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Escape.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.”


~ Rumi, Quietness


There seems no end to the mystery and perplexity of the passage of time; at times grievous, at other times in reminiscence, still again in a wonder which evades words. We seem to think we can do things to manage time, to stop or accelerate, or slow down the advances of moments, hours, and years. Of course, we are well familiar with the increments against which our days are structured. At my place of work, there is a large grandfather clock, with the name “Regulator” engraved across its face, lending itself to plenty of irony. Lesser portions of days are irritable games of “beat the clock,” but with renewed perceptions the day balanced with obligations and unstructured moments develops into a sentient puzzle. As a child, I would muse about the meaning of the recollections of those around me, those elder voices explaining times past. Had “a long time ago” disappeared into a darkened lane, to be retrieved? Or as it turns out, is the retrieval only at our summons? And the witnesses of time’s advance do not always remain with us, and accompanying our cognizance of this reality we find ourselves witnesses of our own times.

Moments may become landmarks as tangible for us as any boldly-planted granite memorial. And perhaps, with that consideration, we may be the iconoclasts operating the demolition equipment. But we may also be the preservation historians. One which stays with me proved to be a turning point. When I was seventeen, it seemed opportune for one of my most loving elder family members to explain the harsh truths to me about what had happened during the Holocaust, and actually took me on walks to see the actual places in Paris that- for us- are landmarks. It was all so profoundly astonishing to me that, for days, it was very difficult to sleep. Among many thoughts I had been trying to fully comprehend, was that of time. Staring out from the balcony at midnight, above the darkened street in Montmartre, my evolving thoughts dwelt upon the idea that it was time that divided the perished lives of my own family- from mine at that present moment which suddenly occurred to me as a life spared. In my stupor, my thoughts turned to imagining the divide of some forty years between a hopeless, unimaginable, brutal end- and- the found realization of looking forward very freely. What can one do with these truths? As well, during those wakeful nights alone on the balcony, I would look up at the charcoal skies and, in my thoughts, ask “what is out there?” “Who is out there, and why am I spared?” And it was up and out to the same skies, but months later above the coast of Maine, that I began to entreat with the simplest prayers in my own unpresuming vernacular words.

We find ourselves inhabiting the context of our times, inherited- and occasionally also freely chosen by us. And when we can embrace our own direction, from our hearts and with the ingredients which have brought us to this very day, we know our spirits are unconstrained by the limitations of measure. Yes, with an apprehension of our own time’s landmarks we can see our paths as part of an immeasurable continuum. We know about the superimposed units of measure, but we cannot presume to determine the pace. When he began to create a summation of his experiential discoveries, the ancient apostle Peter went so far as to stipulate that if there was even one thing of which even the most bewildered- or the most knowledgeable- must not lose sight is that in the context of creation “a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day.” With the illustration of extremes, the man who witnessed the Transfiguration assures the reader how the Divine is transcendent of time, “the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness, but is patient with you.” In that unpleasant habit of wishing away time, frustrated by what may appear to be a lack of progress, it’s easy to miss that many steps are unhastened for our own undetectable sakes. And thus it becomes possible to be reminded that places and situations may test the limits of our strivings, but is less essential than the very action of setting forth.


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