Friday, January 25, 2008

onward


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"You want to follow Christ, and not look back:
remember that as you walk in his footsteps,
you will be irresistibly drawn to share,
and to a great simplicity of life."

~ Brother Roger of Taizé, No Greater Love


Whether we may be consciously aware, or only subtly, we may surely witness one another’s progress along the great voyage we are presently traveling. As with the writing process, the active life is interspersed with gathering times of recollection. The passage of time provides landmarks for our observances, and reflection may be prompted along our own lives’ calendars, or when transitions of seasons surprise us in our steps. Of course we all want to know we are making progress, and naturally thirst to be acknowledged. Just the other day at work we were talking about cherished old friends, and I heard myself say that my longest-standing friends and I can talk from the context of having seen many years of life on shared ground. The pilgrimage of friendship is not quite as linear as it may appear: we move toward our kindred souls while moving together in a much larger and subtler continuum. Some of this progress is apparent to me, in retrospect. But rather than to appropriate too much abstraction, consider what we mean when we say we are advancing on our way. For me, it is to say that I have learned and applied new themes, based upon my life’s diverse experiences. In that sense, my adventures- the major and unspectacular ones alike- have been converted into a type of currency that brings me further along in my comprehension of living the vocation that combines friendship, community, creativity, and trust. These and other related means will vary, but they each have in common an aspiration for holiness. Grand and lofty goals often embarked upon by the humblest steps. Noticing the passing of time and even of physical distance provides the opportunity to acknowledge how far I’ve advanced on this grand voyage. Indeed, I had long ago left the schoolyard, figuratively and physically, but was not fully cognizant of that difference until years later. Defeats and setbacks can clear away and become realizations. Perhaps I had been aware of the distance traveled, at the point in which I had clearly grown tired and burdened with the prospect of repeating exhausted old patterns and long-expired perspectives and indignations.


Moving forward is essential, especially as we aspire to learn and grow our perceptive abilities with our days. There is no standing still; no stagnating. Paradoxically, that would also mean there must not be fear of stagnation, either- in small steps and large strides alike. As well, the way forward is impatient, but demands all our forbearance. And the rate of travel is unpredictable. Those sparing increments may be all we are capable of spanning, in especially trying times. Then there are brave jumps to new levels which we can somehow providentially make. And, just as with any creative pursuit, those leaps and courageous changes are made because they are both necessary and possible. Moving to a new place, or to a different employment, or finding new social circles, or a newly found perspective, or even the discovery of a rarified hope that calls for the entirety of ones being. Slow and wintry processions break into sprints of springtime. In marvelously unspoken and intuitive calculations, we make our bold jumps into the charged air before us, when we recognize enough to justify the leap. Our activated hopes launch us into new spheres of our journey, even into deeper expressions of trust. For our careful and preparatory steps to come to fruition, we must invariably carry out the sort of movement which commits the entirety of our selves. Would we settle for only a fourth of our dreams fulfilled? Whether our circumstances corner us into making changes, or that we arrive at critical crossroads through our own steady progress, the desire to move onward is stronger than any hesitation about consequence.




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Pressing onward also means departure from what is past. Amidst the healthy upheaval of forward-motion and transcending the past, comes the determination not to look back. When I have set forth in faith, it’s also occurred to me as to how much stock I’d put into seeking security in routines. But with the ground set into motion, my sense of God’s Spirit reaching from within resumes as the stabilizing beacon through clouds of unknowing. And if the closest thing to a rite-of-passage is a passing reference of written thoughts, at least there are reinforcing confirmations to say the setting-forth in faith was worthwhile. The fluidity of renewal outweighs inertia. Often this is realized in retrospect. With more of these bold and conscientious steps, we can see how what had appeared impossible, becomes attainable. Referring back to our own chronicled stories can remind us of the distances we’ve already covered- and that we are reaching ahead, with hope, to still more meaningful things. In similar spirit, the everyday ancient Hebrew devotion of giving thanks for the exodus from Egypt came to mind when, on a sojourn in Taizé, I heard Brother Roger say, "take what little portions you can understand of the gospel, and apply them." Our adventures help provide perspective, but staring back at the past demands too much of the present, and can derail what can guide us onward. So many remembrances are indeed dear and attest to faithfulness, but memory’s powerful pull presents a challenge to be tempered. A two-edged sword; is it good to remember so strongly? Of course, it is for each of us to determine what we leave behind, and what goes with us, when we move forward in the pilgrimage of trust. We can hold on to a few treasures as we jump, however more material only weighs us down. There are metaphorical artifacts that come with us, without our realizing it, reminiscent of the ways I have to bail my backpack during a long trip. But conversely, there are experiences and anecdotes which are very deliberately committed to memory and carefully preserved.


Pressing onward, with hopes that transcend fears, navigates through the mysteries of living an open-ended pilgrimage. As we set forth, the details are not always known to us- yet we go. At times, our closest accompaniment is our own voice. Leaping forward is a dedication. It’s fully placing oneself into a movement in a specific and committed direction. We are investing our energies and focus, and as we make the jumps, our confidence exceeds our comprehension of any subsequent setbacks. But, truly, the very nature of faith rests in the prospect that we needn’t know all the details- and thankfully cannot know- but are able to propel ourselves with just enough of a glimpse of promise. With the ancient expression, "seeing momentarily through a glass, darkly," there is a reminder that we are only now learning to perceive. And with the Apostle Paul’s "but later we shall know even as we are known," I will fully recognize even as I am completely recognized. When we are our truest selves, we can best recognize God- and be recognized and reconciled by God. In an observation of his own book "Til We Have Faces," C.S. Lewis asserted that we cannot meet the Divine face-to-face, until we can reveal our own face:

"A human being must become real before it can expect to receive any message from the superhuman; that is, it must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines it desires),
being for good or ill itself, not any mask, veil, or persona."


And perhaps, a corollary, in the advance onward to an unfolding faith, is the hope to better recognize the better portions of past and present, through experience and understanding.


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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

recognition


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Writing Award

To my surprise, and with much gratitude, I have received a writing award for
La Vie Graphite, called A Roar for Powerful Words.
A great thanks to Lissa, of Just Write



Such sweet news comes at a time in which I have been taking stock of how important writing has become to my life. Now I have a chance to encourage other writers. I’ve been asked to list 3 necessary ingredients that I believe to be necessary to make writing "good and powerful." Of course, in the open-ended world of journaling and creative writing, there will be many ways for very many writers, but here are just a few:


1. Authenticity.
Write what you have to say with your most honest voice. If you are remembering something from childhood, try to recall your points of view from those times. Describe places, textures, light, air, and feelings as accurately as you can- to the degree that you deem important. Details and emphases are up to you, but authentic representations and responses let you move further across your themes, times, and places.


2. Passion.
Take a strong position about your subjects, whatever they may be. Even if it may be unglorious or despairing. Stand your ground with your written voice; that is far more important than grammatical scrupulosity. Write as though if you left your page blank, the bricks around you would cry forth. You are writing what must be written- and it can be about absolutely anything. You are in charge; you are the wielder of words.


3. Internalization.
To go with writing authentic descriptions of what you’ve seen and felt- past and present, try and take what you are learning to heart. To your deepest heart. Surely not to harangue yourself into a paralysis of analysis, but to simply write your situations and challenges in such ways as to invite the possibility that you are recognizing a new experience. I find that I can "write through" a hardship, and emerge from it with more clarified vision. Yes, it’s a process, and so we all keep on writing because so many of us make this part of our lives.


Now I am pleased to recommend five finely-written and well expressed blogs:

Wonderwall of Words

Everything Needs Rearranging

A Priest's Musings on the Journey

Incarnatus Est

People Reading
(which includes Dogeared )



"There are in all of us
certain thoughts which seem to have
a character entirely different from others."

~ Novalis

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

élan vital


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"The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood;
that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax."


~ Dylan Thomas, The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.



After having looked at writing as a subject, I want to consider the experience that bids me- or any one of us- to gather or write our reflections, and to continue doing so. It is as though words need to be collected and configured, that they may be reckoned with. That spirit of recollection, thirsting to understand, attests to a vivacity from deep within- even when it seems our situations threaten to incarcerate us. In times of extended darkness, when the smallest particles of promise become undetectable, from beyond our limits embers emerge through sources around us. When finding my way has been daunting, there have been friends to help trace out those elusive coals. In retrospect, it is as though people had been assigned to the task, and I would like to think my own presence has served such roles for others.


How definable is the divine spark, and to what extent can we bring ourselves to comprehend the currents upon which we move? The smallest spark, the humblest scintilla, is both the seed of beginning, and the vestige with which to rebuild. That illuminating scintilla has been perceptible to me amidst the depths of extreme circumstances- and, if I am conscious enough, in the everyday ordinary. In comparing the extremes: those of hardship and fulfilling joy, that essential ember would be palpable to me as I was reminded of my own context as part of something much larger, and boundlessly vast. In the darkest nights, listening to the words of friends (even writing some of them down for me to re-read), and the words beyond my musings that I could offer have been simple and vigilant prayers. Acknowledgments of consoling expanses. At the other side, enormous and abiding joy attests to the common spark in the community experience- or in simply becoming aware of being some part of a greater sum. It’s a marvel to reflect upon the many forms this takes: working on a project with a group of people, listening to one friend, or even this very day’s "stolen moment," very early in the morning (with the window whiskered open so as to sense the cold air), reminding me that I needn’t supply each and every ingredient beyond my self in order for things to happen. What a relief. The pilgrimage experience illustrates this well for me: traveling alone with a sketch of an itinerary, and then arriving and becoming enfolded in a brief common life of buoyant sharing, music, and strengthening communion (often crossing paths with people I will only see at that one instance). With the journey home, there are enough stories and images to remind me that my deeply-ingrained aloneness had been but a passing mirage. That divine spark manifests so clearly- from outside of me- such that it is both pleasing and assuring to rest in my very "covertness" as a grain of leaven in this world. Problems that had previously seemed monolithic begin to pale in their significance as obstacles, and it is the clear knowledge of the scintilla that motivates.


Part of what amazes me about those subtle embers is the aspect of life force in its grandeur emanating from comparatively lowly and almost unnoticeable sources. Nearly hidden, but never out of our reach, and what may appear to our human senses as a sparkling ember of a vestige is indicative of the infinite. Still further, if prone to claim the divine spark to one’s own self, I invariably find the source comes from beyond me. Another relief, even if the respite follows intense struggle. The value of continuing to realize this, is for me to see what I can influence- and what is essentially out of my control; all in the context of being at peace with knowing I am among many others and am not alone, in the larger and greater entirety. Perhaps this was how it occurred to Paul when he alluded to the assuring and encompassing cloud of witnesses, inspiring patience and endurance in those who move forward in trust. The scintilla we recognize, which drives us onward, represents the incalculable; the source itself has no point of origin. And, as the day unfolds, and the bright sun stirs the January air, I know the winter does not wait for spring in vain. My words and steps have great distances still to travel, and though I follow trails that precede my days, my path is uniquely my own. In the paradox of distinction and disappearance- the desire to set oneself apart, with the wish to covertly dissolve quietly into the mysterious communion of faith- come the added paradoxes that blend the small and grand, the humble and magnificent, the new and ancient, and the transitional and rooted.


When a flash of the divine spark captivates and encourages, wonder and gratitude may cause us to want to somehow capture and preserve that light. Surely, we cannot own the universe to which we belong. Can the clay claim the potter? Now I am thinking of the junior high school teacher I had who used to ask us to "bring in a jar of moonbeams tomorrow." Indeed, the ember is here within reach- regardless of circumstance and strait; though out of our control, this abiding proximity is within our ability. What I seek has been seeking me, for a much longer period of time than I can reasonably guess. And I’ll gladly leave it at that, grateful to simply honor the wellspring of life, the source of wonder, so as to cultivate a solid yet flexible foundation, and to continue in the spirit of trust. As the cloud of witnesses has provided unseen guidance upon my life- even the divine sparks I have very much needed, mine may hopefully be part of an unseen grace upon the lives of others.


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Thursday, January 3, 2008

j’écris, donc je suis


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"My dark and cloudy words
they do but hold
The truth,
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, intermezzos of varying durations, 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.



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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.




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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.



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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.