Friday, April 25, 2008

drawing strength

"Look to God and be radiant;
Let your faces not be abashed.
This poor man called;
The Lord heard him,
And rescued him from all his distress."

~ Psalm 34

For those of us whose lives find their contexts in cold, northern climbs, we can undeniably acknowledge the unambiguous departure of winter. Without overt contrasts between interior and exterior temperatures, moving from place to place resumes an effortlessness and a lightness not experienced since last year. A new season invites new views, even in old places. New energies that result from surmounting transition are often counterweighted by the exhaustion of having made efforts needed in order to arrive safely in a new place- or a new mindset. Usually, by this time of the year, I retreat for a spell of days or weeks, and my clear response to this being long overdue is to find strings of hours to help offset my hunger for regathering time. By comparison, one might imagine periodic cups of coffee between sporadic meals, or the way many of us can just occasionally close our eyes during those draining flights and travels before finding that elusive soft bed. Endurance challenges our abilities and drive to sustain our physical paces, but also our spirits are put to the test. Caffeine can help keep me in motion, but with each day’s arrival I must continually draw from the source of faithful, confident trust. Tiredness need not mean disinterestedness, and of late I have witnessed the effects of societal factors that grind spirits right down.

Stopping for a moment to reflect, even if just for brief distant views of the big picture, I realize how many people’s eroded aspirations I listen to, in the course of an ordinary day. Sometimes I hear overt discouragement from those who speak candidly about their employment, the political process, their churches, or other struggles in their lives. Other times, disenchantments are unspoken yet pronouncedly evident, apparent between what is said and how the words are expressed. And for justifiable reasons. I feel the same things, too, catching myself under the weight of similar ineptitudes, spite, and carelessness everyone else notices, responds to, and carries with them. Counteracting such burdens takes some conscious perseverance. Although most times I am unaware of my vigilance against apathy, occasionally the concerted need for an infused effort surfaces. And as with any spiritual venture, antidotes come in forms such as friends and reflection. But to recognize diverting currents before they can poison cultivated ideals is a conscientious endeavor. Conscience is the voice of the soul, it is what Karl Barth described as, "the interpreter of life." When our forces and creative reserves run thin, or appear set back, we can conscientiously take stock of what is around us and within us, and proceed. Perhaps an incident which only you have noticed sticks with you, or that your voice is solitary in a figurative wilderness. But, still, you search your conscience and explore both the disenchantments and the gratitudes alike. In defining and delineating the source of an emotion, I am applying some of the approaches I’ve taught in art criticism: first determine the appeal of an image, and then follow by articulating the basis of my response. Through that discourse of asking and seeking, we can find an assuring sense of self-confidence that we will surely need when conscience must be our spark of celestial fire.

Perhaps it may also occur to you, as new strengths noticeably begin to undergird your words and actions, assumed limits consequently follow as dissipating banks of dense fog. More road becomes visible, and the landscape widens. Many presumed impossibilities start evolving as the attainable, in some form or another- shedding old preconceptions. Last week, I asked myself about my perceived limitations- outside of practical and material constraints. What outdated ideas and goals need to be challenged which had been long deemed out of reach? As we grow and advance, so must our expectations and hopes. Reflecting upon the concepts of what I expect- even the words "goals," "aims," and "success," though representing necessary practical matters, also attest to the lexicon of these times: "what can one amass for one’s own self-aggrandizement?"

Throughout the 1990s, and a bit since, I’ve had to sit through a lot of bulleted and powerpointed lists of whatever flavor or method or series of habits and steps promised to make for a better person and a more productive workplace. Everyone had to conjure up and declare an altruistic "mission statement." Even the company that sold me bicycle parts by mail made a mission statement. These are really shadows of motions, neatly wrapped with a bow, that essentially changed nothing. Formulas, apparently, are easier than to simply profess working together and respecting one another, and follow it up by solid implementation. If there had been an upshot, it was the way many launched from the empty words into thinking seriously about living life authentically, more deeply than the perfunctory verbiage. When aspirations come to mind these days, these are honestly more about what I hope to accomplish alongside those around me. If realizing how the small and sporadic measures of encouragement have been as rare gems to me, then it is for me to be respectfully encouraging to others. To do this well implies a real desire to understand, and that means letting go of limiting mental structures and universalizing my comprehension.

Drawing strength, I aspire to run the race without regret. Reaching forth in an open-ended progress requires that I challenge and refine my perspectives. Sufficient for the moment, while reflecting upon ways to conscientiously persevere and dislodging presumed limitations, I would like to reconsider long-used vantage points. In photography, part of the skill of compositional dynamics is to vary your angle of view. Try to portray your subject from differing trajectories, and not constantly view from the same standpoint or always the same distance. Surely, and for so many of us, writing allows for a variety of ways of observing- as does listening and participating in the world that is in our midst. In the search to see afresh in this new season, especially along the journal-writing road, I am reconsidering the lenses through which I’ve been looking back and writing my history. Of course, there are the historiographic elements of accuracy and genuineness, but that is just the foundation. Reflection, by nature, is a patient voyage without deadlines. Plumbing the depths of recovery, resurgence, and rebuilding after past times of loss and brokenness- finds its fulfilment in an abiding thirst for the spirit that traverses the waters of discovery into involvement. I ponder how it is possible to regard afresh- even without the excess baggage of memory.

The other night, after helping to serve a joyous meal to a group of very dear friends, I dreamt about two places from my past that- in the dream- were in adjoining rooms. (Of course, in real life, that would have been geographically impossible.) In the dream, I moved from the staff room of a studio in which I’d worked for many years- to the office I’d had at yet another job more recently- as if walking between two next-door spaces. Both were in notably egregious disarray. My presence was unnoticed in the hum of daily operations and ringing phones. In one of the rooms, while instinctively stopping to pick up some of the mess- I stopped myself and said, "Leave it alone; you don’t work here anymore. Just leave it be." The next morning, I mused about the imagery of the presence of my absence- and enjoyed the way I did not interfere with what had lost its relevance. It all left the same impression as that of turning a street corner and discovering the first flowers of spring.

Friday, April 11, 2008

walking the line

"The most you can do is trust
The faith you see with your own eyes
And my feet are still tender
Like skin is when it heals

I’ve got to walk that line

We remember how you bled
When we all drink the wine
We’re looking for your steps
That started up that line."

~ The Smalltown Poets, That Line

A weekday off: not a sick-day or a legal holiday, but an unstructured and approved string of waking hours that I have designated for ruminative frivolity. It is deliciously grey and cool outside, and the sky is a seamless white backdrop. With light so completely diffused, there are no shadows - not even beneath the chair legs upon the slate terrace floor outside the Boston Athenaeum. With a day all my own, this is the place to be- considering I cannot stray too far from tomorrow’s resuming routines. Longer sojourns have their place, but there is much to be said for a day’s retreat, be it indoors or out. My intent isn’t to write specifically about this place, however my personal reference to this grand library as a preferred philological retreat- like the pensive overcast sky- manifests in the form of a starting point for many thoughts. I gravitate to places like this, because I love to learn- particularly when the learning involves concepts, words, and images that my heart embraces.

My own learning process got a lot more interesting, since having gotten through all my formal schooling. The reward for all my perseverance is that I can discover and choose my own sources, and if I want to spend two months reading a short book, so be it. As it now appears, it seems we must surmount all sorts of obstacles, along with senseless courses and exams, to reach a point at which we can choose to learn for our own personal expression and growth. My gratitude for this moment comprises an ingredient of having survived the crime-ridden and impoverished New York City public school system, with some scattered recollections of some good instruction that took root- beginning at Public School No.13, and extending all the way through post-graduate work.

Permeating much of the useful learning that continues to accompany me comes from my mother’s common-sense and humored way of integrating diverse subjects into an eclectic way of approaching life. I saw a consistent conscientiousness in every situation, whether it was in the preparation of a meal, a painting or drawing, a flower bed, a household project, or fixing a flat bicycle tire. That sense of method and intuition was present in every context, such that there seemed just one context: how things are done. And, that there are meanings in ordinary things. Appropriate for today’s thoughts, it was with the very same sensitivity that she taught me to write. I learned how to write at home, before the penmanship lessons that taught us an American style of slanted and flowing cursiveness, so my handwriting to this day resembles my mother’s vertical style. Following the light pencilled lines, she would say, "make your mark." Then, at about nine years of age, it was calligraphy- ink blots and all. "Make me nice clear numbers that I can read," and "Make those I’s nice and tall like you are!" Indeed, learning demands doing, just as theory prompts practice. To really make one’s mark, it takes some extraordinary tenacity that goes far beyond training and lessons. When we can merge our skills with our passions, the learning, refinement, and collecting of insights continues with a very natural effort.

"I hear, I forget;
I see, I understand;
I do, I remember"

Those immortal words of Confucius, quoted above, were posted as a motto by my fourth grade teacher at P.S. 13 (Mrs. Levy, Room 313), and somehow despite the ocean of information that I’ve navigated since those rough-and-tumble days at the age of eight, these words remain with me. Such simple sayings are easy to remember, and for a visual person, the message’s content is accompanied by the way it appeared on the wall: in cut-out construction paper letters. Every day, as I walk across my living room, I glance at a small letterpress print given to me by the Shaker community, here in Maine, that reads: "Hands to Work, Hearts to God." Seeing and understanding has been a guideline for me, to distinguish between theoretical and practical. But doing and remembering is a principle that is the basis for how I learn and how I teach- and- for the spiritual life. Learning and understanding, or comprehension, joins the equation of doing and remembering. In my experience, the practice and refinement of a craft, or a method, or an ability, is the fulfillment of its pursuit. Theory demands practice, and practice demands continuity. It is also true of belief. When a conscientious faith is not implemented, we see uncompassionate social ministry and unwise and disjointed management. The cutting-edge between disconnection and a fine sense of mutuality is the ability and desire to see from another’s vantage point, to figuratively "walk in another’s shoes." Pondering these things, so many schoolrooms and places of employment later, my hope has been to somehow apply a unitive perspective to all of life’s interactions and embarkations. To see those around me, and the contexts I inhabit, as an integrated entirety.

In the cultivating of vigilant hope- especially in these times and this culture, we are ever confronted by tempting currents of cynicism and apathy. Indeed, we know how easily a pessimistic reckoning of living can take hold, considering the emphases on compounding hardships in so many forms. To try to understand some of these realities, and yet also to keep from being overwhelmed, there must be counterbalance. Not an unreality, which would further disappoint, but an aspiration that strengthens by the day, in the spirit that assures us with "my friends, know that I am with you always and until the end of time." Such mindfulness implies both remembrance and looking forward. Being fully awake to life as it unfolds, and also actively participating in it, is to be both watchful and unhesitating. I believe it is well worth cultivating a sense of evaluative discernment, yet keeping obstructive judgments in check. Inhabiting- and even prospering- in this society, yet not being of this society, implies an openness amenable enough for the miraculous, along with a strength to withstand a spirit that brings many to debilitating jadedness.

Choosing hopefulness also means repeatedly deciding against succumbing to an inability to trust. At times I have to strain, and need solid reminders that direct me to what is good. Reflecting upon what is worthwhile shows me the blessings for which to take stock, and also pitfalls to avoid. Granted, this life subjects us to constant uncertainties and frustrating mediocrities, but it doesn’t mean we must recoil with insecurity or lower our standards. The fact that situations are often fleeting could be reason itself to take heart. In his book, "Struggle and Contemplation," Brother Roger of Taizé wrote: "Nothing is more disheartening than people frozen into the appearances of a vocation reduced to its sociological forms." Perhaps that was his way of expressing the observation of that state of "going through the motions," that many of us witness with dismay, viewing it as a warning. For me, nothing has been more disheartening than untapped potential. But in the face of what may dictate otherwise, I press forward and grasp the consoling hopes I’ve been given and continue to discover. Among such promise is the consolation of the open-ended learning process, and gratitude for some of the guidelines that are with me today.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


"The way to recover the meaning of life and the worthwhileness of life is to recover the power to experience, to have impulse voices from within and to be able to hear those impulse voices from within- and make the point: This can be done."

~ Abraham Maslow, from Memorial Volume

The observation phrased above emphasizes a recovery of a sense of meaning, a cultivation of intuition, as if a fine sensitivity had been lost. So many of us are well familiar with intermittent streams of consciousness and the sort of schedule-juggling, multi-tasking that can numb the senses. At times, we are foraging to recover by recollection, but then we discover anew- as though noticing the first crocus of spring for the first time. The ways we perceive can bring newness to the familiar. As I consider my own voyage today, rather than to focus on recovering, I am much more interested in maintaining and nurturing the power to experience. For beginnings to find their fulfillment, there must be a consistent follow-through of continued discovery. The adventure of learning experiences converts to its culminating dimension with application.

Regarding the spiritual life, too much emphasis is placed upon the starting line. To front-load narratives of spirituality with introductory references, practitioners are left at those initial stages and become understandably discouraged once the primrose path meets inevitable deserts of trials. Much more can be attempted in the direction of developing new ways of trust- though outwardly unspectacular, it is vital. And we need one another, so that our steps may progress away from theoretical beginnings, and into the continuities of real life. My own experience has been challenged by the necessity of seeking out substantial sources, having to explore far beyond exhausted superficialities that are set before too many of us, purported to be sufficient. The ability to experience may be the sustained discipline that will move a soul from recovery to consistent practice.

There is always something to learn, and by holding to that principle, one really can pursue an acumen that savors experience. Within the discipline of learning is an acquired distaste for losing the practice, a wariness of the wages of stagnation. It is a kind of solicitude; a concern that finds its rest in vigilance. If our uneasiness with status quos brings us to re-evaluate our perceptions, then a watchful vigilance is a way to stabilize that sense of impatience which accompanies a thirst for the Spirit while contending with hardships. I like to think of vigilance as devotionally keeping watch- having all senses awakened. Vigil lights are burning candles, and for many these are visible acts of prayer that signify watchfulness. It is a mark of silent dedication that shines outward, especially as contrasted by darkness. Souls that desire the well-being of others, want to give of themselves. What we had brought ourselves to believe as our own will, may have to be sacrificed- yet we go forth gladly, persuaded by the affirming movements of our hearts. But it is not all blind stirrings from within, though much can start that way. For me, it continues as vigilance in learning, perceiving, and applying what beneficial experiences I can find. "Be fervent," said Paul to his protégé, Timothy, "be it in season or out of season." This is to say readiness whether convenient or not- or as the Latin presents it: "insta opportune importune."

To be vigilant, even in the quietest of ways, is indeed opposed to passivity. An obvious parallel is how, at various monitoring intervals, I’ve seen monks silently looking after votive lights in monastery halls and chapels- day and night. And never disruptively. Once in a while, when I’m tending the wick of a candle or an oil lamp in my home, the image of Brother Daniel carefully peering around corners of the night chapel at Weston Priory comes to mind. That watchful tenacity of just-making-sure is silent, save for the scuffing of sandals on the flagstones. The first photo studio job I had, after finishing art college, involved working for an energetic and jovial photographer who had taken his childhood family-business and Navy experiences into our field, which was commercial photography. He was a good sport, and could handle the rest of us making fun of his "time to lean, time to clean" adages during slower production times. He taught us some impressive methods to get to a final print in the fewest steps, and very quickly- and that oddly militaristic streak would emerge when he’d see one of us trying to print, wedged and weighed to countertops on our elbows. "Off your elbows!" he’d coach; "you can’t do anything on your elbows!" Talk about solicitude. Strangely enough, years and many employers later, that little paroxysm has been a motto for my efforts. And its definition reaches a lot farther than photo enlargers and color printing. When I think of the wholehearted effort needed to thoroughly accomplish a task, I remind myself that it cannot be achieved merely on my elbows. My fellow calligraphers will also recognize how we’ve been taught to write from our shoulders; no bold stroke can emanate from a wrist- or for that matter, an elbow.

The other evening, I was turning my shortwave radio in a variety of directions, twisting a coil of copper wire, all to retain a distant signal. Then, by day, I’m researching through arcane documents and scanning electronic utilities to find information to help other historians. What is really worth our vigilance? To what lengths will we go, and how much will we spend, in order to find what we seek? Have you wondered, much later, at the crazy efforts you’ve made in order to reach a place, or find an object, or complete some venture? Among my photo media of choice is kallityping- a method of solar contact printing that demands very bright sunlight. Before sensitizing paper for a day’s printing, I must be sure of clear weather forecasts the night before. On one occasion, after a satisfyingly productive afternoon, I set up one last landscape print- on a large sheet of paper. The image took longer than the previous ones to print, due to the gradually departing light. Evaluating the darkening details in five-minute intervals, it repeatedly seemed as though I needed just a bit more light. So I began moving my easel further down the street from my front stoop, trying to catch that last light of the day. Eventually, I completed the print while climbing a tree around the corner, two blocks away- just able to gather some light from the setting sun, the 11x14 printing frame held firmly in my extended arms.

The kallitype story made for a great anecdote during its exhibit, but indeed not all vigilant undertakings have the anticipated result for which we’ll stick our necks all the way out. Surely, such things are exceptions- especially in lives that incorporate trying many different ways of expression. Amidst numerous enterprises that fall through, it’s easy to remember endeavors that turn out even better than planned. But somehow, the failed attempts, the elusive outcomes- whether explainable or not- can captivate our imaginations. Wanting to know why many things in our lives do not work out- can possess the best of our energies. Weighing what convincingly appears as wasted efforts, dividing regrets between the avoidable ones and the inevitable ones, becomes a terrible fog bank between where we stand at this pulsating instant and the fresh paths ahead. Indeed, exhumed pasts risk becoming more influential than the present, where we live and breathe and have our being. Oh, how the what-had-been can be such an endless, unanswerable curiosity! Its perplexities engender a solicitude all its own. And in my watchful vigilance, I must see to it that expired anguishes not prevail, that the road grit which had been washed away scatters to the four winds. An incidental vigil has come in the form of recording words such as these. Watching thoughts by written observations, in all circumstances, opens a way to pursue, to progress face-forward. The important thing is to continue.