Monday, March 24, 2008

here and away


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"The water is wide
I cannot get o’er
Neither have I
Wings to fly"

~Water is Wide, 17th century Scottish folk song


Perhaps this has happened to you as well as to me, just recently and as I type these words. Exerting forces and resources all waking hours, while pausing to realize the distances traveled and the arduous work done, a sudden sense of what has transpired and the unknown journeys ahead- has brought my steps to a physical intermission. An extremely rare halt, amidst a life of perpetual motion. It had occurred to me that I had been plodding through barrages of overbooked, restless, and multitasked days- and it was clearly displayed to me in an ordinary moment the other day. My workplace has a top-floor hallway whose length and breadth is encased in glass. Now, with the new novelty of lengthened light, the view outside has come to sharply differentiate from institutionally monochromatic interiors. With the usual returning strides to my work details, those wraparound northwest windows revealed a disruptively long view of bright beckoning blue skies beyond Back Cove. Living on an ocean-oriented peninsula, it’s easy to forget the higher elevations that are west of this place, always present. Racing along the hallway, I couldn’t really stop, but could surely hear my thoughts reflect, "how long away, so near and so far."


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The soul longs for the world outside, paradoxically either to retreat or to be immersed. These exhausting days remind me of what a persistent and dizzying haul this voyage can seem. At times the road appears as a gauntlet; with some healed perspective, paths and horizons become invited vistas. Finally, noticing some symptoms of physical illness, I claimed the day off. Of course, it will take more than a fleeting day to completely recharge, but necessity dictates that I regroup just enough to return to the stream of striving. For the moment, I’ve been enjoying a day without a schedule. I get to see how sunlight fills my apartment in the midafternoon. In between intervals of repose, as I suppose it must be for most everyone, thoughts of what tasks need to be done, what ought to have been done, and what may potentially be demanded- introduces another unpleasant cycle. Imagine there are those who are brought to perceive the spiritual life as such! Part of sidelining oneself is the need to not do, to stop, and to recognize that overburdening can harm our souls. How easily we can be conditioned by this culture that ties progress together with over-achievement. On a day like today, I daresay substantial forward movement can manifest without doing- when perception can be cultivated in reflection.


Indeed, there are the myriads of practical necessities that send us all out into the often bizarre marketplace of work experiences, qualifications, ambitions, and titles. And for contemplatives who do not live reclusively, the chaos around us must be offset by tranquility within. And, ironically, the contrast can really energize us. At times it is as though inhabiting two worlds which, on occasion, cannot intersect. But the inner life calls, the Spirit tugs at our hearts- whether we are actively interpreting our lives, or simply regarding circumstances from what may appear to be an inactive distance. And I am finding the inner life to be something of an "outer" life, integrated so as to be indistinguishable and unsegregated from what happens in the day’s interactions. Indeed, a way of being in this world. Thomas Merton wrote about an intuition that transcends the senses- and even the intellect itself. Infused contemplation, he wrote in The Inner Experience, "is characterized by a quality of light in darkness, knowing in unknowing. It is beyond feeling, even beyond concepts." Merton continues by discussing "detachment from sensible realities." Surely no simple matter and indeed a challenge for those who must answer to employers, landlords, bill-collectors, and such unpredictable personalities of which we can each cite our own examples. But, truly, looking to the newly-accentuated scenery reminds me that moving further beyond means progressing deeper within. Engaging the great journey is not only to begin, but also to continue where we are right at this instant, in this one life we have in this world.


The long way ahead can overwhelm, when horizons exhaust and do not excite, it becomes vital that I be watchful of what causes my vigilance to waver. With this in mind, I might return to Merton’s corroboration with the ancients to try and transcend feelings and hindering attachments. But again the challenge abides, to move between detachment and affectation, between looking to unseen, eternal horizons and being very much upon the pavement in this world. Over the years, "looking ahead" has represented a mixture of meanings for me. For an extended period, beginning immediately after college, an obsession with charting my future emphasized my displeasure with the present as it had been. Apparently, what I treasured in daily life seemed to be whisked away from reach, along with elusive goals and breaks that appeared to be allotted to many around me that worked much less diligently than I did. Eventually, as the din of exasperation had been joined by unmanageable crises, it became urgently necessary that I change my perspective- beginning by cherishing the blessings at my door. When perfectionism possesses us, it’s easy to step over sturdy thresholds while lunging at shifting mirages. So I try to be watchful and at peace, liberated of those old unreasonable perfectionist leanings.


When I’m back at work tomorrow, that glassed hallway will become an iconic image. The water, skies, and hills represent a big-picture view of solidity transcending fluidity. I am reminded to look through circumstances, gazing toward the immovable without losing the moment. It causes me to consider what is steadfast and substantial. Is my trust consistently founded upon that which endures, the creating force that far out-endures my intuition? It is reassuring to even pose the question, as so many more thoughts and vantage points are prompted. And while looking forward to renewed strength, it is reinforcing to know that a burgeoning life of conscientious work is amounting to something, and yet even more consoling that it has become but a point of reference and no longer as important to me as it is to confidently move forward. Regaining strength, I hope to be equipped for the indefinite haul, and will embrace the signs of renewal as reminders. Perhaps there is even a spiritual discipline in the simplicity of being reminded.


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Friday, March 14, 2008

substrata


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"beneath the snow
beneath the dew
a seed planted in autumn
is growing through

a tiny leaf
below the grass
stretching upward
hasn’t had a chance
to be proven both
strong and true


within my heart
deep in my soul
a fire was started in winter
that cuts through the cold

a tiny flame
below the ice
reaching upward
hasn’t had a chance
to be proven both
strong and bold"


~ Vector, Watch Over Me, and I’ll Watch Over You


Early signs of spring, as the increasingly brighter light combines with bracing air and freezing temperatures, call to mind how struggle and transformation exist alongside each other. I can see how tiring the long winter has been for so many of us, and now there are tangible signs for us all to experience a general sense of catharsis. The sidewalks can almost all be trodden with normal and careless strides. During today’s mid-morning coffee break, a bit more weary than usual for a day so new, I remembered the all-nighters I’d work at my studio. Sunrises following sleepless vigils of hard work evoke the reprieving solace of late winter’s early thaw. The relief is not immediate, but its evidence is convincing. Beneath the frozen surface is promise, and even if the melting outer layers reveal last October’s dried leaves, its fullness is a harbinger of newness. Dormant life manifests from within the weakened crust that remains from past seasons- both physical and those of the heart.

Today, I remembered the fresh-start gesture of the New Year’s revelers who set a huge paper-shredder out on a sidewalk and invited the public to destroy written references to their regrets and misgivings. Though symbolic, the action represents a definitive discarding of the uninvited past. Now, fatigue, along with the scarcity of reflective time, makes for labored steps, it is still possible for me to see how lengthened light outpaces what has become irrelevance from past days. As with discarded words and directions, modest forays can set profound changes into motion. This time of the year provides us with images that attest to the mystery of renewal. Though exerted, the desire to recommence anew gives way for us to emerge from the shedding cloak of winter. Trust is at hand, and the day’s change from yesterday’s rhythm fuels a forward movement.



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As natural elements change before us- and around us, these physical signs represent the mystery of transformation. The transition is gradual, and always recognizable. For me, this fascinating imagery becomes as sacred iconography, revealing otherwise concealed insights. Icons are often compared to windows, as the image subjects themselves have multiple levels, and like a window frame we can see through encompassing images into still more motifs. Further, as with photography, more careful observation reveals subtleties that are ordinarily hidden from passing glances. With our contemplative sense of sight, we can observe the questions we provisionally live with.

"Est autem fides sperandorum substantia,
rerum argumentum non apparentium."

These words of Paul, addressed to my ancestors the Mediterranean Hebrews (11:1), came to mind today, while pondering how we can comprehend through our inner stirrings. Surely, his poetic statement about the wonder of trust speaks across all generations and peoples. The context for so wondrous a definition of faith, "the substance of things hoped for, and the certainty of what we do not see," or what is not readily apparent, comes during a discourse about perseverance. We can all be patient to a degree, and amidst hardships, it can run thin. His paragraphs point to those lives have embodied steadfast trust. The Latin offers some vivid imagery: imagine a substantive argument for the unapparent. The words lend themselves, and our thoughts, to the essence of trust- as a cultivated gift of being able to interpret what is not concretely evident. Rather, this is the ability of perceiving the world, creation, the lives around ourselves, and events through eyes sensitized by faith.



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By looking again at the long journey as the destination, while the months of tarnish melt away from the ground beneath me, levels and layers of raw, unflourished ground appear. In this season, it’s as though the earth has been sanded down to a surface that cannot be seen through autumn’s colors and summer’s density- or the deep snow, for that matter. March’s thin veneer brings to mind how real are the layered substrata we walk upon. Being mindful of what abides beyond the surface parallels a personal examination of conscience. The burgeoning season brings me to new vantage points, and indeed changed perspectives. Subtle modifications in living are indeed quiet changes, and though unlike pronounced crises, evolving perspectives are no of less effort. And beneath the surface is mystery, unknowing- yet fascinating and consoling. Renewal is a wonder, because it astonishes me to see how freshly we can start over and again- especially without the jadedness of what must melt away. Truly, a fresh start is one that is unfettered by cynicism and liberated from condemning.


If I am really living ever-renewing days, what changes have emerged from the depths of the surface? Being revivified means to live differently. For the past couple of weeks, my handwritten journal has been speckled with pencilled jots inquiring about what has changed. I’d try the question at different times of the day- alas always during fleeting breaks from work. Indeed, since the nature of reflective journaling is an evolving format, we can explore and revisit concepts, allowing them to develop. If we began with presumed conclusions, it would defeat the dynamism of the process. Contemplatives, in this culture, have to steer around society’s obsessions built around controlling outcomes. These days in reflection, I am only now realizing through conscious writing and reading, we can be the incarnation of our learning. Manifesting what one learns about, corresponds with how perception influences what we see and how we interpret the signs and images in our lives. Momentarily, the specifics of my own renewal are still elusive and, so far, can be articulated as changes in perception. A general, intuitive change in how I perceive, both what is living and what is non-sentient. Spiritual growth, or development, unfolds mysteries we can recognize, but it also seems there are always concealed truths we become aware of in a beautifully unspoken way. Continuing on, with just enough of what attests to a confidence unseen, may be considered an undramatic change. But gradual transformation is indeed silently noticeable- and perceptible in both our thoughts and how we communicate. Perhaps it suffices, even momentarily, to assert there has been a sea-change. Even amidst intense road weariness, I am certain of the voyage- with all its required rigors and the grace each stage of the journey offers.



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Monday, March 3, 2008

light and shading


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"Reach out to pierce the darkness above.
Yes, beat upon that thick cloud of unknowing
with the dart of your loving desire and do not cease, come what may."


~ The Cloud of Unknowing, ch.7



Swirls of billowing snow glittered over the narrows of Beacon Street outside, as I could see through the upward-reaching windows of the Boston Athenaeum Library. Prolific snowfall visible between the interior’s carefully stocked bookshelves provided the background for a midday Baroque recital. I’d already scavenged a few tomes from the lower stacks, before walking into the impromptu concert hall; and so I sat holding fast to the books lest a five-pound hardcover hit the floor during an adagio. Grateful for my rare, reflective pause, there was a noticeable stillness to find- between the sprightly trills of Couperin and Bach directly in front of me, and the noiselessly feathering snow outdoors. It was one of those consoling moments during which I felt pronouncedly rooted in the very space and time beneath my feet. As it is with a savory meal, occasionally a forceful sense of place can be as prominent as the action one may be occupied with. During a summer of landscape-photographing in Norway, I stopped in the astonishingly beautiful mountainous seaside city of Bergen. As anyone might imagine, the amazement of a new and enchanting place can inspire a visual artist to rather ceaselessly explore- without much thought of rest. Well, on an afternoon of a memorable day’s photographing in an area along a fjord, the combination of exhaustion and wonder had drawn me to an extraordinarily peaceful place. At the summit of a green and sunlit hill, with trees and small medieval houses behind me and the ocean at the fore, I set down my heavy backpack of four-by-five film holders, the large camera, and all the bulky gear, and enjoyed an indelible repose. Part of the memory is wrapped up in the terrain- so steeply inclined that although lying on my back I could see straight out to the glistening water. And, just as that instant in the library, there are moments and places that can assimilate our being. The long journey traces a delicate path, and if our soul’s yearnings are unclear in the flailing, they surely come to our consciousness as we welcome more consoling moments.



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As contemplation balances action, reading balances writing, and learning balances application, marathons of striving are offset by a solace that surprises. To arrive at a stride without overt or adversarial struggle is an entirely new predicament. So many of us become conditioned by enough discouraging experiences to expect "another shoe to drop," when our attention gets momentarily diverted from a joyous time in our lives. "Hope for the best; expect the worst," goes the old Mel Brooks song, and perhaps that speaks for a great many of us who call ourselves optimists. Indeed, it’s long about time this shoe-dropping business gets shaken away from its axiomatic pedestal. The cutting edge, as I’ve been recently learning, is not to stand still- surely no less when turning a corner onto level and well-lit roads, but to continue building upon the hard-earned aspirations that have brought me to this day. On this day of frosted exteriors and hushed, white-capped surfaces, this time for listening is not passive, but is a movement of trust. Here is an open door to meditate upon what I’ve learned, and also to challenge that veiled pessimism which has conditioned many of us to negatively anticipate- when we see goodness (and more potential for still more goodness) around us. Indeed this is an uncharacteristic frame of reference, but a welcome one: to explore and inhabit a new reality of evolving awareness and concerns that extend far beyond immediate survival.


Reaching a place of contemplative calm, this time, is without thunderous spectacle. But this is a turning-point, and these are steps I have walked with circumspectly in the past few months. And, as the paradoxes of grasp-and-release come to mind, we may revisit the ancient words that speak to the familiar scenario of pursuing conflicting ends. In Matthew we read the expression as "serving two masters," and we might adapt the concept as "playing on two opposing teams," or as I’d seen in the corporate sphere, "working for two disagreeing bosses." In the discourse following the Sermon on the Mount, the essence revolved around giving the all of oneself to the Eternal versus enslaving oneself to material trappings that intrinsically do not last. "Care not for the morrow, but let the morrow care for itself: for the day present has ever enough of its own troubles." In that bidding is an exercise of faith- of trust that there mustn’t be an apprehension about what may follow. The crossroad of trust and fear is constantly presented before our steps. In that sense, there are numerous turning-points, whether or not amidst personal quiet spells. And somehow, by turning one’s attention away from self, and onto the fullness of this voyage, the range of what we can appreciate attains an expanse. Indeed, within that expanded awareness are innumerable treasures. Thankfully, we loom less largely in an aggrandizing milieu, and with an awakened vision the ordinary is transfigured. Commonplace occurrences, such as conversations, noticing the symmetry of street corners, meals, baths, and streams of inspired written words, draw us to tastes of rarified grace. I am relieved to look away from outdated notions, and to turn to things that are more complete and full. Out of the lengthy and deliberately-paced film Into Great Silence, the portion which has remained with me- more than the mountainous landscape and the ancient stone monastery- is the sequence which shows a monk repairing one of his boots. He aligns the pieces and applies the adhesive with a sacramental attentiveness, and then has the patient wisdom to allow the glue to very slightly begin to dry before finishing the job. Assembling the essentials takes time and devoted care.



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If by releasing our imagined hold, we more fully comprehend, then indeed by unknowing we may come to know. For me, this has been a consoling relief, not to require some sort of highly-detailed itinerary of life (if such credible things ever existed). I appreciate that not all things are spelled out- and further how not all concepts are meant to be scripted outside of being lived realities. It seems for us to really set our hearts in a particular direction, we need to know- whether cognitively or intuitively- just enough so that we have the essentials to move forward. I have not minded the mixture of verifiable knowing, with a purposeful obscurity. An integral component in how I made my livelihood for nearly 14 years was to create imagery in a completely dark chamber. From the crepuscular pitch blackness of photographic darkrooms, I would bring forth colorful and silver-engraved imagery on every manner of still film and paper. The only light, when there was any, came from the pinpoint-focused enlarger light sources which blended the mixed colors and densities that I would very carefully calibrate. It was a way of daily life and living, and no matter the weather or current events outside, there was the darkroom: an otherworldly blending of the intense stresses of production, a pervading element of uncertainty in the accomplishments of problem-solving, and the oddly tranquil bandaged darkness that would prompt meditations to offset the output demands. Always in very close quarters, and ever with muted vinegar-like odors. Between occasional consultations, those long stretches in the darkroom tended to exaggerate whatever I would seem to carry in with me from outside. Perhaps it is inherent to solitary darkness, that both solace and anxiety alike would be subject to the effects of confrontational shadows. In that combination of practicality and mystery, and when I’d be absent from the studio, the consciousness of the work of crafting light out of the darkness would remain. Many times, during the height of production, it did not always occur to me that I was working in lightless spaces; imagine doing extremely precise work- more by intuition than by sight.


Workplace adventures join with the lengthening reach of all life experiences- even the humblest and most unspectacular- or those "pictures" our minds might "take," when we find ourselves beholding a veritable collage of image and sound (and weather). Foraging through literal darkness and light alike lends profound metaphor to an evolving contemplative life. All that we go through- discoveries and setbacks- enrich our inner solitude. In his book, The Inner Eye of Love, William Johnston wrote:


"When the eye of love becomes accustomed to the dark,
it perceives that the darkness is light
and the void is plenitude."


By such perspective it is possible to see how the Spirit guides us through every form of life-situation, and the force of creation indeed originates from beyond ourselves. Dionysius the Areopagite wrote of "the ray of Divine darkness," and how a prayerful life journey teaches us to know with our inner eyes. In the fullness of the spiritual journey, he reflected that love- in the entirety of its meaning- is the motivating force. Using the example of Moses’ ascent into the dark and clouded mountain, it was "by great love" that he was drawn forward and on to unprecedented heights. To embrace the darkness and unknowing- not as forbidding obstacles, but as brilliant passages- is to welcome the mystery of calling yet to be finely articulated.