Sunday, January 25, 2009

post tenebras

My time of day is the dark time...
When the street belongs to the cop
And the janitor with a mop
And the grocery clerks are all gone

When the smell of the rainwashed pavement
Comes up clean, and fresh, and cold
And the streetlamp light
Fills the gutter with gold

That’s my time of day.

~ Frank Loesser, My Time of Day (from Guys and Dolls)

In my most silenced and darkest waking hours, there is time to regather. With ambient light dimmed to crepuscular graininess, even the objects and structures in our midst emerge with softer edges. How are the pre-dawn hours so unlike those we call “late night?” Is there a zone of demarcation- like, say, 1 am? I find the noticeable significance when my awakening renews my alertness very early in the morning, before sunrise. Unlike a world-weary after-midnight wakefulness, my regained consciousness parallels hot water and soap, clean clothes and coffee. The windows are still blackened with night, and mirror my interior back to me. The world is still asleep. Muted sounds from my table radio, the sole permitted murmurs through the holy silence of the day that seems not to have started yet. There’s time, in these nascent hours, to reflect on the day passed and aspire to the one yet to form.

Yesterday’s newspaper sits on the dining table, rendered obsolete by the simple traversal of the night hours. At my desk, situated where I’d left them, my wallet, books, sweater, and writing things await. These inanimate objects in their respite, as the parked cars lined up outside at chilled ease- yet lingering with their owners’ residual imprint. What remains of us, when our instruments and habitations remain in our absence? Does your bicycle in the hallway, the notebook atop your desk, and your chairback-draped coat await only you? By the second cup of coffee, the grey light presents a black-and-white photo exterior. Perhaps in this essence of advancement there may be found the difference between the darkest hours before and after repose. More than a marking of time, it’s an alteration of perspective, the division between the winding-down of well-worn thought processes and the restarting of rested reasoning.

In these precious, slower, somber moments of the half-lit day, there is a sense of catching up with time’s pace, witnessing light’s increase. The scenery outside develops, reminiscent of images manifesting in darkroom processing trays. In the holy darkness, we do not wait in vain. These vigils recall creation, with light dividing the uncomprehending darkness. With such thresholds are new thoughts and reflections to accompany my routines through the work day’s structure and its daunting complexities. Such silent spaces are my Divine Hours, and the hushed darkness- those times of less apparent visibility- invite an expanse of inward roads.

I have never found myself begrudging the early-waking. The time seems to belong to me; it is uninterrupted and given gratefully to unstructured contemplation. Being awake is all there is to be concerned about. There is still time to dream. The slate is clear, hot coffee fresh, and the liminal gradations through dusk are navigated with certitude into light. As I learned in memorable wonder through my many monastic sojourns, from vigils and lauds the day silently emerges into being, and with the ensuing visibility a new admiration for the full sunlight that follows. Another set of very-early-morning memories rewinds my thoughts to junior high school years when I began to take to waking before 5am, hearing my Dad readying for work. We were both half-awake, he with his coffee and me with my cereal bowl, and the New York Times sports section before us. And cartoons. Sometimes, at the opposite end of especially prolific baseball days, we would go out walking after 11pm, to buy tomorrow’s Times. We were the vigilant and purposeful souls, awake before the rest of the block, save for- at least it seemed- the delivery trucks and Newsradio 88. This was the safest part of my adolescent day, and only now when thinking of it I realize the origin of all my good connotations and sensitivities attached to these hours.

Walking home last night, scaling the embankment along Pleasant Street, I remembered tracking those same sidewalks after groggy all-nighters in my studio at art college. During senior year, I worked a third shift in the dusty press room of the city newspaper, walking home to grind the ink off my forearms with abrasives. Of the divine darkness, there is no defined duration. Perhaps that cognizance of eventide remains with a soul, in varying degrees and times of day. Dionysius wrote how it is in this kind of lucent darkness that we long to be, “and through unsight and unknowledge to see and to know that which is above sight and knowledge, by very not seeing and not knowing.” About nine hundred years later, in the latter 14th century, there followed the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Perhaps the symbolic cloud is as much a place of uncontrived comprehension as it is a shield to counteract what Dionysius called the “oversensible.” In silence and in sparing shreds of light, the soul may “be borne aloft to the superessential ray of divine darkness.” At this moment of writing, early in the morning, I am borne aloft by an unseeing sense of expectation. Not really rested, but as always a clean slate. Now writing of this gift, I become more aware of the ingredients with which each day begins.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


“There is in books
one voice and one letter that is read,
but it informs not all alike.
For I am within,
secretly hidden in the letter,
the teacher of truth,
the searcher of the human heart.”

~ Thomas à Kempis, Imitatione Christi, ch.43

How amazing to consider the ways jottings and their configuration can call forth a full spectrum of lived experience! The names and symbols above recount an evening I spent at Fenway Park, last June.

Monday, January 5, 2009

drop-off and pick-up

“When the past haunts you
Leave it alone.

You’ve spent too many nights staring at the ceiling
You can only beat yourself so long
You can only hurt so deep.
What you need is a new sleeping canvas
To paint your dreams a new color
A brighter scheme.”

~ Brian Hardin, Love Will Not Care

This unusual New Year’s observance included an odd general combination of relief, reluctance, and catharsis. The recent calendar’s turning wasn’t even like the millennial “Y2K” anticipation, which was mostly one of excited anticipation- despite fearful survivalists’ exclamatories. This time around, there’s been a hefty dose of political and social commentary showing a kind of mortified hesitation about proceeding into the new year. As if we could actually select not to face tomorrow- or choose alternatives to the natural progress of time. Admittedly, much is not well with this economy and society, but what causes us to look at accepting the motions of time as if it were some sort of choice? Would I really want to go back? Even if I did long for a past era, these would be places for which there are no connecting roads or usable itineraries. “For most, this year’s special joy is in ringing out the old,” read an article title in the January 1st Boston Globe, and I have to agree. The occasion of a year turning (arbitrary as the first of January may seem), provides a forum to do some wringing-out, but also a renewal opportunity. Even with a perspective of living among beginnings, a year’s anniversary marks an extraordinary threshold. Personally, with the closure of an expired year, and a new one presenting itself, I become aware of how much I have navigated the Terra Nova of life in the Spirit. And while I wish to discard old millstones, I also want to bring along the good things I have known and collected.

Every advance of time is a threshold, and a pilgrim’s steps transit between liminal spaces. Thinking of how travelers are increasingly exhorted to minimize their baggage, I am thinking of something more permanent than a sojourn: there is material that should not traverse the new threshold with me. Excess may be physical objects with weight, as well as thoughts and attitudes that figuratively weigh upon us. Noticing how places of transportation have places of inquiry and admission, they also have checkpoints for embarkation- and areas for drop-off and pick-up. The latter functions concern the transition of passengers and merchandise. Usually it is an exchange from one mode to another. With a time-landmark such as a new year, my thoughts turn to the ideas I wish to drop off at the gate and not take with me. But the need for even the simplest provision informs me to pick up necessities. What unnecessary bulk should not be carried into the new year? Here is a chance to put off what holds me back, and in order to do that, I’ve had to identify what that is.

Walking with the idea of dropping off the notions that prevent me from reaching forth, I arrived at the word “justification,” and wrote it down while waiting at a stop light. Not an item, but a concept. It occurs to me that I hold many of my memories in order to give some kind of justice to my survival. Recollecting details about jobs, schools, people, and all sorts of failures and triumphs alike, becomes a way of immortalizing what ceases to exist. In my young life, I’ve witnessed many places and events: countless lives, localities, situations, emotions, and environments. My words and vivid memory-pictures keep all these things- good and bad, joyous and tragic- alive and retrievable. Archivally stored. (When writing of what I call “the archives of the soul,” that should also include applying some good process appraisal principles.)

“Justification,” in this context, means articulating the evidence of what’s been endured, committing details to memory. Justifying how I dealt with adversities, or what needed to be done. Remembering the good and the bad, thus entrenching those assessments. “The best offense is a good defense.” Making sure my experiences retain their value: all that tolerance, hard work, and perseverance were worth something. How exhausting and diverting. I must simply have faith that no honest effort is a wasted one. Notwithstanding the value of historic perspective (practiced by few in this culture), that persistent sense of self-vindication is something to let go of. What to leave outside the threshold brings me to think of the convergence of memory and burden- and their needed divergence. The daring challenge is to let go of failing tallies as well as successful ones. Beneath this is a sense of universal forgiveness.

The strength of negative memory is formidable, and if defeatism is to be dropped off and counteracted, something will have to be picked up. Indeed, not an impulse purchase, but something more of an upgrade. Trade the wasteful guzzler for something practical, durable, and maneuverable. Just as a change of diet, nutrients need to be reconfigured. What is picked up can surely be more trim than what was dropped off, but the soul will need something to take along for the journey, replacing what was dislodged. “Replacing” here refers to how the mind must be occupied and enthralled- yet not ensnared. We are not wired to be devoid of thought. The mystery of our lives’ symmetry involves exchanges of time, of endeavors, of directions. We finish a book and begin another; “the end” implies there will be something else. We intuitively turn pages and restock cupboards.

Just the other day, distracted by the encroachment of materials and cluttering thoughts, and moved to continue my writing at a library, I realized that I needed to thoroughly clean out my desk upon my return home. Reveling that evening in the ability to read and write at my small desk, with both elbows on the newly-polished surface, the pick-up to supercede the drop-off occurred to me. The antidote to narrowing horizons is a healthy sense of fascination with life. Even a kind of constructive tension to parallel the hunger to learn, informing me of how much more there is out there than what I see from my doorstep. And if I am to be confident enough to drop that over-compensatory burden of self-vindication, it must be replaced by an assuring sense of significance. In the face of a stale view that pries into my days with convincements of senselessness, I’ll pick up its very antithesis:

Each day’s set of paths has substance, and none are wasted. And if “finding” the meaning seems forced, well then I’ll fall back on reliable ways, as a journal-writer, the meaning tends to find me. I think I may have had it wrong when I tend to look for fulfillment before getting into a project or job. It seems the other way around, that I must do the work with faith that it will incorporate into a broader sacred vocation, which may be momentarily undefinable. In my favorite of her books, The Golden Sequence, Evelyn Underhill expressed how we cannot know the depths of artistic magnificence unless, “we have learned to look and listen with self-oblivious reverence, acknowledging a beauty that is beyond our grasp.” Realizing this, my relating to creation and the created order becomes something new. The closed-loop litanies of remembered faults, in response, become dead weights. Renewed aspirations allow for open-ended ways ahead, and incomplete mysteries are less daunting and more alluring.