Wednesday, November 18, 2009


“It’s not true I had nothing on.
I had the radio on.”

~Marilyn Monroe

When welcoming a houseguest, I try to share as much of my living space as possible. For most of my adult life, I lived in 2 ½ rooms. More books meant less furniture, but it was always neat and tidy. Guests always got the room with the bed surrounded by bookshelves, and I’d take the dining area. Recently with a visiting family member, I followed the same custom of creating a welcoming space. Yesterday, I thought of how monastic houses balance shared and private spaces. I remembered how the common spaces are entered and passed through, with a warm sense of deference. I set aside the morning essentials from off my desk, before bidding my guest goodnight. Early the following day, I noticed myself quietly camped on my livingroom floor, with coffee, journal- and radio. The always-faithful wireless: iconic and useful, with the ready steadfastness of a portable typewriter. Radio often reminds me of who I am and what I am. I comprehend, therefore I interact with this world. With selections and references of my own, I listen.

broadcast presence

Despite all the scientific explanations, the very idea of radio signal reception remains magical to me. The little rectangular box usually perched on my desk can be dialed to faraway broadcasts transmitted through the air. On shortwave, sounds from continents away visit my writing surface. So much is conveyed with seemingly very little. The little box of batteries, numbered dials, speaker, and transistors accompanies me around the house- and out on the front stoop. Radio retains many of its time-honored attributes, and is still somehow an intimate form of media. The operas, the pop tunes, the narratives, the cheering fans, and the chimes of Big Ben (at the top of each hour)- all mingle in the stratosphere.

My mother likes to humorously point out how we tend to look at the radio as we listen. We gather around the sounds that visit our habitations. Long predating the Web, radio is freely accessible 24 hours a day. Live programming is immediate, and does not require reloading a page. Commercials can be turned down. The best sportscasters are assigned to radio, which is only as effective as the human ability to articulate is successful. Intrinsically neutral, the broadcast medium presents both troubling and calming voices. The format lends itself to use and misuse. We can engage the airwaves to find what speaks to our sensibilities.

personal connotations

Beyond the radio as an object, it is a subject replete with profound connotations. As an archivist, cataloguing a manuscript requires that I describe the item as well as the subjects pertaining to the item. What does the object mean? Radio broadcasts are accessible through other avenues, along with traditional receivers. A few years ago, during an immense blizzard in Vermont, I stopped at an inn for a break from my treacherous drive. The British innkeepers had no guests that day, and served tea while nostalgically recalling their beloved BBC. I showed them how they could listen through their computer. In their ecstatic gratitude, they offered me a place for the night- and moved their desk computer to where they could listen to the “Beeb” with their tea. Radio is still radio. A vacuum-tube Marconi from the 1930s can bring you next year’s World Series.

Radio listening has an inherent time-travel aspect. Not simply via music and archival rebroadcasts (both sources of enormous wealth), but also in current programmes in a style of another time. Mystery Theater and Twilight Zone Radio represent new manifestations of a long tradition of thrillers in the “theater of the mind.” National Public Radio’s lively quiz shows and the much-loved Prairie Home Companion endure with off-the-cuff literary wit that has long-since disappeared from television. New Englanders are regularly regaled by the seasoned voices of Jordan Rich (WBZ), and Steve LeVeille (also WBZ)- both of whom are endeared to their countless listeners. They represent a demeanor from an era that fused spontaneity, directness, and a high regard for decorum. Rare and not shrill. Encouraging and not alarmist. Good listening is an exercise of memory, as well as an understanding of significance. Weighing ideas is an opening to interpret the world. The spoken word without pictorial footage lends well to imagination. An amusing juxtaposition would occur during early-morning commutes in rural Maine, during which I could pick up frenetic Boston traffic reports. Turning off the sound, I’d glance again at the dairy farms and pastures around me. Truly, the newswatch never stops, and radio reminds me to remain awake to the present, reference the past, and participate in life’s developing story. Always making notes- mental and otherwise, I continue to collect words, sounds, and anecdotes.


As personal essentials are determined, it is easier to know what travels along. Radio goes with me on every major travel, be it in or out of the country. With every locality, there is always something to listen to, reminding me of where I am. In Europe, it’s a cornucopia of languages. On returns from cross-country road trips, I move across NPR (or Radio Canada) affiliates, until I get within range of my New England favorites. Familiarity comes by sound and cadence. Radio has accompanied me at all my jobs, studios, apartments, cars, and has echoed through every darkroom I’ve worked in. It is a medium without moorings. Being a postmodern, radio has always had a suggestion of being something a bit antiquated. As a teen, my parents offered to give me a television of my own. To their surprise, I gratefully said no, and asked for a table radio instead. I still have it, and the sound is as rich as ever. After one of his enthralling monologues, I wrote a letter to Gene Burns- with a matted landscape I printed for him- to say thank you. I told him that his programme was something of a graduate education in the liberal arts. He wrote a memorable letter back to me. Assuredly, my life’s influences include some of those golden voices inspiring worlds of words and oration. To be immersed in depths of musical and verbal sounds also inspires a life of listening.

“Hello, Mr. Radio, you friendly station,
So glad of your company, your morning music...
Your voice comes riding home across the air,
You travel 'round the world, but still you're here”.

~ Jeff Lynne, Mister Radio

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


“It won’t be pretty when they cut the tether
sometimes you lose your address
to find your shelter.

Why is joy something I must steal?

Starving skeletons looking for a meal.
Out in the graveyard the church bells peal
Earth has no sorrow, heaven can’t heal.”

~ Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love, Earth Has No Sorrow Heaven Can’t Heal

Thursday, November 5, 2009


“To build the future is, primarily and exclusively,
to think the present.
Even as the creating of the ship is exclusively
the inculcating of a trend
towards the sea.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands, ch.89

for the day

We each develop our own self-styled ways for preparing to enter the day. Choosing to pull together some words in the early morning of an ordinary day has suddenly made this moment extraordinary. Awake at 5:30am, I’ve had my bath and now slowly savor my coffee poured from the percolator which has stopped sputtering. Only shoes remain needed to send me out the door, between this moment and teethbrushing. The next hour or so offers the respite of unstructured liminal space. Over the years, friends have referred to my “rituals,” while I’ve seen this as a way for me to own my time. And the practices adapt with every environment I’ve inhabited. Silence; with some words written and more printed words to read. As the morning progresses, I’ll add a look at the calendar and a listen for news. Always radio, never the shrill screen. Gentle lighting. A lengthened morning is also a way to ease the pace.

Last winter, the topic of preparedness came up in workplace conversation. A snowstorm was looming and I said, “as long as there’s some half-and-half in my fridge door, I’m all set.” Readiness for the elements and their offerings seems also to begin with that ubiquitous caffeinated beverage. Ways to gather forces and wits vary with situations and circumstances. Preparation is a many-threaded theme. Both sizing up the workday and gearing up for travels involve constructs of provisions to agree with plans. Tools and the appropriate raiment; something to eat, wallet, and keys. Sometimes an umbrella. A thermos of coffee (there it is, again). Cargo space is always allotted for writing materials. Then there is recollection of conscience. I try to use my mornings for mental preparation. At times, it’s an interior narrative, to tell my stubborn mind things like, “don’t let that bother you,” or “why not try that?” Even just to remind myself that things needn’t repeat themselves. Change never ceases. Just walk to the waterfront, and notice the tides.


Preparation of mind and spirit is as real as any material parallel. It is surely a discipline for a personality type such as mine to keep a steady keel in all things, while also being prepared for the unexpected. Maintaining a consistent inner peace implies a steady connection with one’s foundation. I try to remember the ground of my being, the source of all that lives. In unfettered silence, the longing soul can breathe the bare invitation, Veni Creator Spiritus.

In his book, From Fear to Faith, Martyn Lloyd-Jones mused about remembering foundations in imagery that surely reflected the textures of his home in Wales:

“When, walking on moorlands, or over a mountain range, you come to bogs, the only way to negotiate them is to find solid places on which you can place your feet. The way to get across the morasses and the places in which you are liable to sink is to look for footholds. So, in spiritual problems, you must return to eternal and absolute principles.”

Returning to absolute principles combines taking stock with preparation. Side view mirrors adjacent to a clear windshield. In regrouping there is gratitude for the “givens” in our midst. Somehow it remains more natural to take stock in what is trusted rather than to count fears. Darting across Monument Square, from lunch and back to work, I bumped into an old friend from art school. After we asked each other about how we’re doing, our responses began with being employed. As if that’s the first blessing to count. And this added more to thoughts of preparedness. It began to rain, and neither of us had umbrellas. We kept talking and walking. Perhaps by grounding ourselves during chaotic times by attending to the contents of our basis, we can prepare ourselves to remain calm in the present and through the unexpected. This is central to the life of faith. From the simplest yet most solid aspects, a good launch is possible.


As concerning spiritual progress, my hope is to be ready for unpreparedness. Reading Saint James’ ancient directive to be “swift to listen, slow to speak, and slower to anger” is a reminder against carelessness. We are all much more connected than we realize. This represents the timeless challenge of pondering actions before making an impulsive move. We’d all prefer that in theory, but this culture provokes an “act now” attitude. It is easy to be conditioned- and caught up in feeling forced to grab- so as not to be left out or go hungry. To succeed, one must be quick and smart; the loudest and most ostentatious are heard and noticed. I wonder at how true that is, and how to claim space and time to prevent from being reactive. Even slow speech is deemed a weakness. And slowness to judge?

Oddly enough, the supplanting of phone communication by "messaging" is open to some consideration space between received message and response. Even 5 minutes’ worth of interpretation and sizing things up can produce a more multi-dimensional reply than a defensive reaction. Now to be prepared to instantaneously respond without defense. Perhaps the way is to walk baggageless through days and tasks. Observation is itself a form of preparation- even a fast reflection. There needn’t be much time to be able to regain perspective. Habakkuk the Prophet, in the 7th century BC, documented his restless exasperation- and his struggle to wait and keep watch:

“And then God answered:
‘Write this.
Write what you see.
Write it out in big block letters
so that it can be read on the run.’”

Of course, I relish the Divine directive to write the vision and state it clearly. Prominently and portably. Even better, the prophet’s name translates to “the one who embraces.” It is for us to imagine all relevant implications.

One can over-prepare, to a detrimental extent. With all this in mind, it really is mental preparedness by being fully awake that is of most effect. When I think of excess contrivance, it gives me the image of being loaded-down. Tiring to even think about. The running thread tying together these thoughts is the training of trust to traverse the wilderness. Preparation is not really living, just as hits during batting practice are not computed into statistics. That doesn’t mean training is unimportant. Its purpose is its implementation. My favorite professor in grad school told me to, “read with an eye on application.” Perhaps applying the fruits of contemplation into living is in itself a kind of practiced readiness. I hope to reach the place at which recollection and application are intertwined and simultaneously advancing. As with unceasing prayer, I’d even have to make an effort to interrupt my breathing-in of the Holy Spirit. A hope. Hoping to be ready to be unready; to be cultivated for the unknowing and adaptable for the unseen- without my own terms.