“There’s a rushing sound that is sometimes heard
when your mind won’t let you sleep.
It’s the flickering sound of a thief
who’s come to tear up all these dreams.
Stealing from the heart, stealing from the soul
stealing from the future
On the wind that blows away my words.”
~ The Alarm, The Wind Blows Away My Words
seen from afar
Having strongly visual thought processes, concepts tend to begin as images. Many ideas formulate as pictures, which are equivalent to language. Often, thoughts are first “seen” in my mind’s eye; after that, words follow. As well, memories are retained as images. In perspective, words and images are brought together by points of reference both felt and seen. Even extraordinary and new sites can cause the mind to reach into the past recesses of the archives of the soul. While on the road the other day, looking up at very clear weather brought to mind how skies appear when traveling by plane. Flying over New England, I recognize the lakes by their shapes. Over the Atlantic, I’m fascinated by strata- and noticing ships very far at sea. If it’s clear and bright enough, at the head of a long linear wake, an ocean-going ship is a study in determination from 35,000 feet. It’s going somewhere, there’s a crew aboard, and an assignment. The vessel is as small to me, as the large jet must appear to those on its deck. Proportion is based upon distance. Driven and directed, the craft goes on. Leaving a straight trail to dissolve on the water’s surface, it is not marooned. Piloting is not determined by sight, and navigation and travel must continue- no matter the light, the absence of light, or weather. It must go forward, and get where it needs to go. That’s the real goal, and the only way to do that is to persevere. Land is out of range, and the ship is at once far from its port of departure and from its terminus.
Becoming aware of my own traveled distances is as liberating as it is occasionally sorrowful. When I woke at around 3am the other day, my thoughts could only be assuaged by penciling some words in my journal. Hours later, in the evening, I re-read it as my own version of a ship’s log. The jottings are as from faraway at sea, very long away from family memories and my mean-street adolescence. The closest thing to a sentence reads, “try to keep the world from getting colder, vaster, less-familiar.” It’s how a wakeful and longing mind writes: not very rational, but it somehow makes sense. Every past has both its smooth stones and broken fragments, and in the wake of time a dissolving dispersal among deepest waters. Yet there are those nights when I awaken, realizing the very fact of the irretrievable. The distance itself becomes more prominent than childhood experiences or my varied journeys over the years since. The port from whence I launched is long out of contact, and the places have transformed into things hardly recognizable.
The following day those same words looked up at me, as my journal opened to sunlight outside with coffee. Looking skyward, I almost couldn’t relate to my own words. Reflecting back can be daunting and obstructive in times of weakness, and a similar recounting can be contrastingly optimistic in satisfying times. Darker nights can tempt the mind with regrets, with inventories of what cannot be done, with recollections of wrong turns, and with ruminations of wasted efforts and time. The light of history, meant to view events and ideas in context, illumines achievements and blessings. Reminders of what I’ve endured cause me to better appreciate what I discover. Experiences do provide strength and point to potential, when their value is recollected. Distinguishing the uses of the past is a discipline in itself, demanding a distillation of time’s complexities. Praise is often tied together with pain, returning my thoughts to the solitude of ostracism and distance. I wonder at how far I have really traveled, while reminding myself that as the ocean-going vessels seen from the air I am neither lost nor without direction.
uses of the past
“Wisdom consists in knowing God and in knowing oneself,” wrote Bossuet, in the 17th century. “From the knowledge of self,” he continued, “we rise to the knowledge of God.” A sense of self, within a context of reality, can help maintain solid forward movement. The first challenge, however, is to be aware of oneself without becoming self-engrossed. My own check-and-balance system incorporates tempering my tendency toward introspection with old parental disgust at my interest in things past and spiritual. But to establish self-awareness and to transcend as Bossuet enjoined implies knowing one’s true self. A life’s journey that comprises recollection, understanding, and renewed perspective. And to challenge judgements, examining how true they are. The purpose must never be to create a closed-loop of self-obsessed isolation. Quite to the contrary is the aspiration to blend into God’s presence in this world.
This self-knowledge imperative may also have a root in what most would call the less-than-spiritual. My earliest years were fraught with having to stand my own defense- and run fast- having been shown the ways of this world at the hands of merciless bullying. Younger, lighter, quieter, and smaller than the others in my grade, I was an easy target for bulked bands of armed cowards that lurked the hallways, basements, streets, public schools, and parks of my crowded crime-ridden section of New York City. The stuff of nightmares. I remember how, as a bloodied nine-year-old, I collected myself and sought out the head of the summer camp for some kind of justice. The director could not understand what the daily beatings and tauntings were doing to me, and gave me a talk about “peace and harmony.” The sheer uselessness of this was representative of misunderstanding and disregard at so many turns. I could comprehend others, but was very rarely understood- and never taken seriously. The grand reward, following more years of tension and muggings, was my determined departure from the city. Survival took a different form, certainly without the violence. Liberty does have its costs, and for some it is the solitariness of self-navigation- intensified all the more for the family black sheep.
Truly, there is too much that is laudable and open-ended, rather than for me to waste another minute in bygone quagmires! Momentum will not tolerate wallowing. Just like the Passover commemoration, sufferings are remembered in order to give thanks for the present and the gift of a future in a better land. A navigation without instruments or charts is that of the spirit of trust- within. This exploration can allow for a surpassing of obscurity into a less-impaired heart, through which I can embrace the Divine. Not a wallow, but well worthwhile; worth exceeding the weight of anguish. Here, past adds propulsion to present. A bridge is not purposed to be a place of permanent residence. Sure I can articulate disappointments and missed opportunities, but the next thing is that there must be a next right thing. “Build something positive out of the fragments,” I wrote today in my journal, during a breath’s worth of a coffee break. Memory is precious space; loosen the grip. Back at my desk, it occurred to me that as an archivist, memory is documentation. This manifests in many formats, and the enduring value of records concerns their authenticity and their uses to inform. Whether the information is “good” and “bad” is aside the point. The most critical aspect is accuracy.
ports of call
A favorite saying came to me from a Quaker who said, “the Christian life may be rough on the feet, but it’s good on the soul.” Times of respite are to be cherished, as they are exceptional. The reality of pilgrimage- especially one that fully embraces the whole voyage- it that it’s not always pleasant. Rarely easy, but surely not without joy, either! Balancing contexts of past and present is joined by perceiving horizons. For me, it means to steer carefully without getting caught up in the what-ifs of the not-yets which may only be mirages. Distances covered are facts of this life, and there are many more gratitudes than regrets. Even a small distance, such as between an especially dark night and a seat in the sun, aired my words to the light. What a wonder to notice anxious thoughts disperse as night predators do before sunrise. Patient observance is an ability slowly learned, and some great examples have been among wise and kindred friends. Claiming islands of quiet time- however humble or momentary- has been the best way to take stock and take care.
Resuming the voyage and tacking into the wind, I am aware of such times when the rigors of so many miles covered are sharply felt. But that is still not a reason to stagnate or to cheapen aspirations. “In speaking of the debt of reason to revelation,” Etienne Gilson wrote, “we may have in mind the moving memory of those moments when, as in the meeting-place of two convergent rays, the opacity of faith suddenly gives way within to the transparency of understanding.” Because there are daily responsibilities and many who count upon me, the two-sided coin of unknowing will have to ride on the dashboard: It remains both assuring and troubling alike, being aware of how little I really know. Within the gradual learning process, perhaps times of disappointment and despair are growth pains. Looking back, those hardhearted environments I’ve endured, in both childhood and since, have left the inadvertent by-product of sensitivity to others. But the more dangerous waters to avoid are replayings of harmful earlier chapters. Such awareness would attest to having truly learned something. To be watchful and to be spirited calls to mind Gilson’s imagery of that moving memory of moments, converging the rays to understanding. By pursuing this direction, even as the voyage traverses points without return, there will continue to be images to exceed those which have been seen, retained, and finally released.