"My dark and cloudy words
they do but hold
as cabinets inclose the gold."
~ John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
This time, the prospect of an unfolding and new calendar year is less about resolutions and more about what I would like to continue cultivating. And though, in these pages, I have visited the concept of journaling before, this time it’s a gratitude for the writing vocation itself. Those slivers of time between portions of the workday, intermissions of varying duration, when the first reflex is to pencil some words- is the very thing for which I am taking stock. No matter the metaphorical terrain, or the temperature of emotion, there are always ideas, words, and things to comprehend. And the jottings draw energy from both silence and conversation. Often the first spark of realization comes when we notice what we are communicating. Hasn’t it happened, that you depart from animated exchanges, quizzically reflecting upon what transpired. Numerous written entries, over the years, begin with "I heard myself say," and there begins another stretch of the reflective life.
Indeed and with respect, not everyone will seek to frame thoughts and realizations with words. And still further, there is thankfully no "correct" way to write one’s expressions. Quite like prayer. For me, there had been many fits-and-starts, especially while still in the mindset of having my writing graded by school teachers. Things began to really change, when I convinced myself there is no intended audience to enforce any rules. Later on, my steps turned another corner when writing became absolutely necessary, as headlights at midnight, to find my way and somehow balance what transpired before me with a wavering will to live. Long before I consciously noticed its value to me, I had been filling notebooks and traveling with enough writing materials packed so that I could continue. Somehow, the recording of thoughts became something vital, some sort of vigilant acknowledgment to be preserved for the moment- and for later reference. Faithfulness to some form of creative expression implies a commitment to consistently and closely consider one’s circumstances. In the easy times and the harsh challenges, equally. And by doing so, what evolves is a written narrative of gradual transformation, which is to say the purging of old notions like resistance, fearfulness- even the comparison with others- and taking on a more ‘realized’ life that focuses on the more creative present. Moreover, for me, part of the full process has been to record words that have been said by those around me. As with photography, the trivial may be aggrandized, and by articulation fears can be dispelled and brought down to a manageable size. While taking on new ways of perceiving, it becomes possible to diminish and discard outdated notions.
In a letter to a friend whose work was helping people with career changes, Thomas Merton wrote, "...writing has always remained secondary. What has been important above all has been living in the most meaningful possible way, at least for me. This has meant, again, a lot of conflict, questioning, searching. Entering a monastery is only the beginning of a long road." In a compact expression, he observed the written word as a means- and not even his primary avenue- along a committed life of spiritual development and belonging to his espoused community. But here, we are interested in the means, and grateful for it. The very nature of the temporal is its inviting dynamism. Coincidentally, enduring a career change of my own, the very natural means of cameras and darkrooms were joined by the very portable means of written words- all of which have contributed to a rejuvenating sense of interiority.
Surely, what has been of far more vitality are the manifestations of journeying through the contemplative heart. We may persevere with these practices, even through deserted spans of time, because we innately know that spiritual heights are not climbed without struggle and endurance. And, of course, the adventures are far from being all trials and grimness. Reflecting life, there is levity- and satire. Inevitably the written inner voice serves as the silent, grounding witness of our voyage: acknowledging, recounting, observing, and looking ahead. Re-reading is yet another reflective adventure. While hiking the Appalachian Trail in Vermont, during a scorching stretch of August days, I stopped and sat on a big rock to write, and my solitary reflection turned into a description of how I had been unwittingly providing a banquet feast for numerous consuming insects. The pages are smeared with swatted bugs. And still I wrote, with pen & ink, until what needed to be said was stated. Then I rinsed the pen-point in a stream, packed up and moved along, smarting through the oddly-mixed odors of sun-drenched paths and deet. "Though we travel the world over," pondered Emerson, "to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not."
Writing the progress of process emphasizes how life-lessons can develop into derived truths, and the experiences are recorded in their real-time. As time passes, our perceptions of past, present, and future change. I sometimes wonder if the grammar-school me, or the high-school me, would find the present me of interest. After all, it’s still me! In very dark times, some years ago, I determined to write straight through countless forbidding nights of the soul, while referring to my days as "The Continuum," refusing to call it "life." Then, much later, I found it disdaining and outmoded to speak from such vantage points, and thus began to write about living as "Pilgrimage." A simple exchange of terminology attests to more than mere words. Living, and all it implies, warrants a more accurate description. My narrative needed terms to reflect the changes represented through all the written observations. New colors for new scenery.
In varying forms, as journal-writers, we act as our own chroniclers, setting forth and speaking on our own behalf. Content and formats do fluctuate, but the voice is the unique tie that binds. The other day, a Saturday morning, while ambling from my West End front stoop and across downtown to the Old Port- to my favorite café long known in my journals as The Familiar Perch (indeed not its real name), it occurred to me that for years this has been the most natural thing to do, given some unstructured free time. The friendly paths of redbricked walkways that angle and slope down to the shimmering waterfront, such that I look straight and slightly upward to the sky, as I wend my steps to hot coffee, reading, and written words, have been part of the framework alongside my own turning pages. Being reminded of such continuity tells us of our travels- and redoubles our thirst to learn more and be ever renewed.
At a New Year’s party, just this week, a friend asked me about writing. I heard myself say that I had been posting some reflections as a blog, and in response to his asking whether it was the same as writing in a notebook, I said the syntax of the two writing media kept the formats distinct from one another, even in substance. Further, as journal-writers we may write our inner observations in a variety of roles. At times, it is the narrative historian’s voice, at many others the editorialist, and primarily the reflecting explorer. And often- the reporter; this especially happens when I am in the audience of a fascinating speaker, recording words and ideas. Occasionally, there are portions of dialogues that I wish to preserve so as to revisit the spirit of a visit. Reporters always like a good quote, and I’ll sometimes ask friends to offer a few words of their own for me to cherish. Indeed, it all continues, in some open-ended form or another, knowing that constructing with words belongs to my day about as much as baths, coffee, and fresh air. Never out of season. Forever some discovery or intrigue to ponder. Always something to learn.