Wednesday, August 26, 2009

different now

“You say suddenly you
cannot see yourself out in the world.
With your school suitcase.
Tomorrow- well, you don’t know,
you don’t know.

We’re coming away,
Everything’s changed.
Everything’s different now.
Everything, even the sun.”

~ The Innocence Mission, Everything's Different Now

(some of my grandfather's tools of his trade)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

sight and sound

“Words that build or destroy
Dirt, dry bones, sand and stone.
Barbed wire fence cut me down
I’d like to be around
In a spiral staircase
To the higher ground.”

~ U2, Promenade

Moving through days and distances, the skies and air revealing changes, the increments themselves are what fascinate. In a split-second’s snapshot there is a complete scene before me: of trees, terrace, and a chair to be inhabited. In a fleeting tilt of a silent gesture is the kindness of a stranger. Comprehensible small steps. When the view forward appears pervasively unsure, and institutions uncertain and tenuous, it becomes necessary to take stock of interior treasures reminding me of my own foundation. The exterior gems become easier to find, albeit in a current of overlapping multi-tasks, one interrupting the other. Frequently, work and words are so consistently cut into that it’s hard to tell if something’s ended or if it’s just been broken up again to make way for yet something else. It becomes a challenge of coexistence- and one more balance to master. Average days are replete with fractured efforts and transitions; streams of consciousness diverted into stray rivulets. Of course I want to be able to unify all spheres of my continuum, and see far ahead as vividly as the table upon which I presently write. But long-distance views are often elusive. Simply looking to the present uncovers humble incremental steps. Perhaps the fragments are as much as can be managed.


Now I am pressed to consider if there is any voyage, of any extent, that is not pursued in paces. Like the correspondence between subject and photographer, that which attracts our gazes and draws our attention is composed of fragments. Perhaps rather than being thwarted by a life of puzzle pieces, steps, days- even words- may be constructively perceived as structural modules. Walking across town today, a steep street brought me to notice my steps, cobblestones, and clouds. Simply being in view, these fragments are brought together. Even the spaces between and around components are, as I once learned in typography classes, counterforms. Contours and contiguous spaces define one another. Definitions of objects and spaces can even effect a dynamism. Consider shadows cast by backlit subjects and how light shines through trees.


As with structural elements, accumulating into paths and solid forms, words have momentous potential. These are modules which can build or destroy. We assign by way of our appellations. Further, when communications and rapports must be truncated, the few emerging words become critical pivots. Verbal “sound bites” can wield even more influence than their intentions. Ironically, a culture that shuns silence with space-filling media cannot countenance completeness. I try to prevent myself from following this trend.

Our words are finely-faceted mirrors and windows, reflecting and revealing. From antiquity, we have Saint James’ timeless discourse about how expressions of faith are tarnished by careless talk. He didn’t really focus on words, but instead referred to how we address one another and how we speak to our own conditions. James compared an unbridled tongue to a ship’s flawed rudder. He challenged his readers to match their verbiage and lives consistently. Not knowing what our words can potentially do to others is akin to not knowing one’s own lethal strength. In a conscientiousness of language and movement, we are brought back over and again to the source of life-giving words. In our transformation we may find a new vocabulary building within us- and even new tones. The simplest articulated reference can cause changes of perspective.

I believe we all have our own “root words.” For me the word trust has been a poetic gift from the monks of the Taizé monastery. They use it parallel to the French word confiance, to describe faith, a life of confiding in God, and confident forward movement. This sense is prominently in my lexicon of pilgrimage. It causes me to think of ways to encourage sincere trust wherever I go. When I started journaling, about 15 years ago, it was my antidote to workplace unrest which demanded enormous patience. One of my colleagues saw me writing in my notebook during an outdoor break. Between drags on his cigarette, he commented “it’s good you write; it concretizes your thoughts.” Too good to forget. Words and thoughts, alike, have textures. And the sounds of the pronounced letters cause the mind to visualize.


Yet another fascinating module is the measurement of chronology. Apart from calendars and clocks, we interiorly mark our passages of time. Parallel to fixed frameworks, we have our own timepieces and milestones known better by ourselves than anyone else. Our own relationships with time. The long shadows cast by my academic sundial extended from my school years, to teaching years, through post-grad, and then on to years of working in schools. I still buy calendars in August and divide the year into “fall” and “spring” seasons. The late-summer light and air transitions return vivid recollections of returning to school. And there are “eras,” characterized by personal watershed events, as well as small moments counted as tastes of life. The aroma of pine and sweetgrass. The heightened expectation of travel. Invoking a loved one’s name. An ancient Jewish custom assures the ceremonial remembrance of the departed on the anniversary of their passing: yohrtzeit, which means time-of-year. This is a special memorial, among the numerous, more informal ways souls are remembered.


Then there is the currency of time. If we choose to cultivate a skill, or to simply appreciate a silence, it will demand of our schedules (even as we’ve been conditioned to believe time is money). That means there is an expense involved. But perhaps we may measure time (and its worth) a bit differently than others. I know that I do- considering that I chose to write at this moment, above other leisure activities or any other amusement (wait, this is an amusement!). Time may move in a universally measurable progression, but it can be for me to set the increments, even if not the sizes of the notches. Perhaps that’s it. We each have our historic landmarks and festive days (as well as our days of mourning), but we can determine our own quantities- if not the units of measure. I wonder if impressions may also be fragments. Indeed they are ingredients portioned in each soul. That which we have seen, and heard, and held; these are as tangible to us as they are indelible to our memories and hopes. Imagery has an iconic staying power, and it has always drawn me to seek meanings beyond surfaces. It is a wonder to me, how I can remember moments- tiny snippets and fragments of the distant past- above and beyond other things. But just as the senses can surprise me with reminders, I cannot predict which present ingredients will endure into the future. Today is amidst notions and encounters that will be fixed in time as remembrances.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

la via rhodia

"I do not write it to survive
My mortal self, but being alive
And full of curious thoughts today,
It pleases me somehow to say,
'This book when I am dead will be
A little faint perfume of me.'"

~ (Maine author)- Edna St. Vincent Millay, Journal

The pilgrim journey of jots and jumps makes an ephemeral diversion, with a welcome to my dear home, Portland, Maine. The small city cradled upon the Atlantic waves of Casco Bay was ever beloved by native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (whose home is pictured above).
This small coastal state, at the northeasternmost corner of the U.S., has been home to numerous writers and artists. This visit, however, has a scribbler's twist: we begin by crossing the street from Longfellow's house...

Endeared to artists, writers, and list-makers are the French-made, famously orange Rhodia pads. This one (above) is at the Art Mart (pronounced Aht Maht). These writing pads are all over Portland.

At left in the above photo is our 202 year old signal tower, which is on Congress Street. Below (as well as the lead photo at the top of this entry, with the "Rhodia roof") is an example of West End architecture.

...of his home town, Longfellow wrote:

"Often I think of the beautiful town
That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
And my youth comes back to me."

The folks at Artist & Craftsman Supply kindly encouraged my photographing for this essay. The store, located near the University of Southern Maine, is a cavernous emporium of calligraphic treats, among other wares for creative pursuits.

Amidst aisles of paints, canvas, clay, and captivating novelties, are all things graphite, ink, and paper.

Beside the Revere Street counter, a second Rhodia display- conveniently near the supply of journals and yet more arrays of pens. Now to the East End of town.

Visitors to Portland may take note of our orange and black taxicabs.

A Portland tourist information guide makes helpful notes.
To landmarks and lobster dinners the purveyed perforated pages prompt !

Pencil only
, in the famous Portland Room, at the Portland Public Library.

Maine's official beverage is Moxie, invented here in 1884. I describe this as "root beer with viscosity," and Rhodia's colors are complementary to the imbibement of Moxie.

The Portland Museum of Art is a cleverly successful I.M. Pei design, in plenty of Maine granite and brick. Locals such as the Wyeths, Edward Hopper, and Winslow Homer are among the artists represented here, along with an eclectic spectrum of works of art.

... and finally to misty Portland Head, note-inspiring to legions of thinkers and artists.

On a stroll here, Longfellow reflected:

"The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day."


with special thanks:
ABC Taxi Company, Art Mart, Artist & Craftsman Supply, Greater Portland Landmarks,
Maine Historical Society, Le Papier Gourmet, Paper Patch, Portland Public Library,
scrivening allies across the country at Rhodia Drive.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

close kept

“the word is very near you;
it is in your mouth and on your heart
so you may apply it.”

~ Deuteronomy 30:14

A significant part of my work involves what the archival profession calls description. It would not suffice to simply transcribe the obvious contents of documents. The work of analytical interpretation implies connecting the materials to their respective contexts. Rather than to settle for the discreet artifact, vital points of reference are to be found amidst the palpable yet invisible space around the artifact. In doing this, even for some of the driest of records, I do note my gratitude for the prominence of words themselves in my days. Pleasurable as it is, the work is intense, and is enmeshed among scattered duties, deadlines, and a busier bigger picture. Having negotiated a rare day off, there are now enough moments to string together here at the Boston Athenaeum library. Paradoxically, overwork simultaneously generates both fatigue and wakefulness. And it is the restlessness that reminds me of the cravings of the spirit.

During a particularly sleepless night this week, it became very difficult to settle all the racing thoughts. Even my prayers wound up into circles. Then, unexpectedly, I noticed my repose as two simple and soothing words smoothly wove through the discarded clamor:
So Near

With a life of producing and consuming words and images, thoughts often take shape in typographic forms. It was as though I entered into the already existent words, upon their recognition, and so near became a prayer for consolation and of gratitude. The restlessness calmed, the assurance of a safe harbor, and the reminder of a future. An unusual, yet perfect lullaby.

The next day, thinking about this brought to mind the anonymously authored Cloud of Unknowing. The writer’s own prayers were often nearly wordless, or as the 14th century text translates, “the fewer words the better.” Further, still, “the efficacy of one little word surging up from the depths of one’s spirit, is the expression of one’s entire being.” With very little, perception becomes easier. The so near puts all else that distracts quite far away.

But these are more than mere words. Though indeed, to write of the inner life does mean ascribing limited, finitely-articulated thoughts to the scarcely describable. Yet I do so, and am gladly undaunted. The so near that dispelled my troubled thoughts, the Holy Spirit, was called paraclete by the ancients. Translated, this refers to “the advocate that stands at one’s side.” When the noisome clutter clears away, the Divine spirit is noticeable as the soul of my own heart. As near as the words I am barely thinking of praying. As my thoughts gather into the So Near, the consolation exceeds years of pains of rejection- and even the struggles of career striving.

I’d imagine this knowledge to be enough, with plenty of assuring reserves. Yes and no. Another paradox. (Only references to manna are archival, not the manna itself.) Perhaps it’s more like an increasingly effortless vigilance. Sure, there will be more restlessness, but that attests to a form of thirst which draws me to reach forward. And answers arrive.

The beginnings of a soul’s spiritual thirst involve pondering a mystery without beginnings. It is amazing to imagine an innate yearning for the sources of trust. The invitation is not initiated by me, rather my thirst is to respond. At times, the response seems involuntary. Directing away from anxiousness, uncertainties, and recollections of losses, is a motion in favor of strength. The drive is for enough cultivation of the spirit to continue on constructive paths, through both present and future days.

In my continuing experience, I find the essence of the Spirit is in its very pull. This draw toward the source of life occurs quite spontaneously. Especially in silence. It is for me to simply reach back. This mysterious pull reminds, signals, and calls forth, causing me to give thanks for the rootedness that is somehow already within. In recollection, I imagine how my steps have been punctuated with experiences of holiness. Whether great or small, all significant. What comes to mind are the superimposed impressions of grace upon my trails. As with photographic imagery, corresponding imprints are made as light compensates for darkness. The greatest amounts of silver are collected where the contacted negative has been the most transparent.

This week, the unexpected gift came in the form of reminders of the so near; as I described to a friend, le tout-proche. And to meditate upon the meanings of these words, in this context, is consoling through the day. Comfort in the thought of having always had a witness to my being- even in its most perceived ignominy. Amidst my unknowing, the knowing consoler emerges with nuanced and glimmering remembrances of my very origins. Something I do know is to ever turn toward the source, confiding and trusting- without which the incompleteness would be unbearable. Yes, as much in the silence as upon my ocean ledges at home, or this morning’s rapid swarm of Boston traffic during which I heard myself add my own litany of so near to the morning’s psalmody.