Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Oh what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.
Is there hope for the future?
Cry the brown bells of Merthyr.

Who made the mine owner?
Say the black bells of Rhondda.
And who robbed the miner?
Cry the grim bells of Blaena.

Even God is uneasy,
Say the moist bells of Swansea.
And what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.

~ Idris Davies, Bells of Rhymney

In these harsh times, my thoughts turn to seeking the sense of what is seen. Of course, I want to know. And quite naturally the immediate fills my sights. But the undisciplined eye sees limits at all hands. More is asked of fewer that remain standing in recession economies. In my still-young working life, I’m well-familiar with the conscious gratitude of walking and working among the employed- seemingly defying the odds. “To whom much is given, much is required,” is a biblical text often in my thoughts. But there must be more than simply punching a time-card. This has always been clear to me, though opportunities are rare or often drowned out by thoughts of what may have already been missed. Another fine reason to self-berate; another action producing no results.

Looking beyond self-confinement breaks out of drawn limitations. And it becomes necessary to be sensitized to perspectives that my own notions have not considered. Perhaps for post-moderns, a “career” is defined by what has been eclectically assembled- more than the old-fashioned multiple-decades at one company that sees an individual move up through ranks. We find our own ways to redeem the time. Given some morsels of earned time off, I go on pilgrimages. If it’s just a day, there are excursions that present refreshing changes of scenery and new points of view for my learning. Within these verbal exchanges and visible vistas, there are messages for me to derive. Countless times, over the years, conversing with friends has provided that vital forum for commiserating and stock-taking. Listening to others’ approaches to their situations subtly reminds me of how the voyage cannot prosper without kindred souls. It may be akin to the accord of dulcet chimes, or to the impact of tower bells. With some conscious focus, I become able to hear what is needed. My antidotes to dead ends are continuity and refinement of vision.

Lately in my journals, the question, “what is real?” has provided a good writing exercise. The year and this decade are concluding, and the question permits for some retrospective along with forward-looking thought. What sense- and what nonsense- have I been carrying along among the cargo? From within sounds a percussive alert- a reality check. It is a questioning of what unfolds immediately before the ship’s prow, and whether my intended course has been faithfully maintained.

Sources of reality checks can be as simple as posing questions that reconsider how things have always been done. Or, for that matter, experience causes reconsidering attitudes toward people, ideas, even institutions. There can be surprises- from anywhere between offices and street-corners. On all sides, so long as there is breath, it is never too late to revise points of view. One might imagine that all it takes to maintain openness of heart and mind is plenty of solitary contemplation. Not quite. And not without some varied activity, either. With no means of reality check and balance, an intense inner life lends too well to detrimental isolation. My favorite windows let in fresh air and light, as well as offering an outward view from inside. When my writing runs short of words and ideas, I realize how much I need to look outside of my own resources. Words and ideas replenish with reading and observing. And I am thankful for my bolder friends, whose pointers can burst my bubbles of self-absorption. This idea of exercising a broad view came to mind yesterday as I used a wide-angle lens on my camera. A 28-millimeter lens encompasses both ground and sky.

Awareness of perspective is no more than a sensitization. There continue to be times when I am called to navigate through darkness, At times, it is a plain yet pressing heavy-heartedness that disrupts my sleep. Hard times and closed ends, convincingly insurmountable, may be more permanent than previously thought. Or perhaps it is better to accept my inability to figuring everything out. Nights of the soul and long walks that are needed to be able to see and to sense can be means by which new understandings are reached. In a spirit of sincere inquiry, darkness reveals as much as light. Strolling past rows of decorated houses, along icy streets, I wondered how far my steps have drifted from the truths I’ve been pursuing. If I truly believe the words, then I “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world,” then I must be convinced I am not at the end of my road.

Turning my steps away from unappealing avenues of bitterness, music returns to my thoughts. So many tunes and words committed to memory reappear and remind. My hope now is for sharper focus- toward compassion and away from entrapments of the mind’s realm. There is a music of hopefulness, and this occurred to me while listening to vespers last week, and later during performances of folk music I hadn’t heard in years. The tones, twists, and lyrics conveyed life-giving ingredients. That which gives life is able to re-ground, encourage, and offer new vision. As a sounding bell from within, signaled turning-points are identified.

Following a mid-day service, several days ago at King’s Chapel, I asked to see the bell up close. The sexton simply opened a very narrow wooden door, after seeing me off at the organ loft. With deliberate care, I ascended the ancient series of ladder-like steps, all the way up through the bell tower above this 17th century Boston church. Standing astride the massive bell, signed by its maker Paul Revere, I thought of how such an instrument rang to alarm and warn, along with a history of ringing out in festive celebration. From the tower’s snowy louvers, the sight of busy Tremont Street below had me wondering about how the scenery has changed through the centuries. Perception can alter one’s sense of reality. Leaving the ready and quietly-nestled bell, I slowly descended through the building and then out to Beacon Street. The bell’s resounding gift to me was neither foreboding tocsin nor weekly Sunday chimes: its silent steadfast witness had spoken to my soul.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

for peace

"O hush the noise, ye men of strife,

And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,

Look now! for glad and golden hours

come swiftly on the wing.

O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!"

~ Edmund Sears, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

A peaceful and blessed Christmas season to all.

Friday, December 18, 2009

deux fois cent

“I take a long look
A long look
It's a hard climb that takes a long time
I can see where I'm going
And some places I've been
I take a long, long look”

~ Sandi Patty, Long Look, from Le Voyage.

Today's entry to this blog is my 200th, and thus an occasion to consider the draw of writing to record thoughts. The world and ways of words and wonder comprise my movable feast. When I think of this verbal vocation, it is with gratitude for what has become a means for continuing discovery. When I was a printmaker, the work was inextricable from the need for printing presses. In my first career, photography, there had to be studio and darkroom space- not to mention the plethora of tools, papers, films, enlargers, chemicals, and hosts of hardware for both film exposure and for printing. By contrast, written observation requires almost nothing. A pencil or pen is applied to paper as footsteps reaching a new meadow. Pages rolling through the typewriter map my city streets, coasts, and country roads.

Materials and tools are to be animated in their application. My photo gear continues with me as part of my bookbinding equipment- and as means to accompany written thoughts. Those utensils which respond to the stirrings of the creative spirit are at the ready. Just downstairs from where I note these words- at the Boston Athenaeum- is a collection of Benjamin Franklin's books. Of these, my favorites are his volumes of Diderot's Encyclopedia. They are as Franklin had left them- with bookmarks, folds, and marginal notes. Well-used tools of the craftsman.

Indeed, my gratitude for the writing impulse has been expressed before. Now, the purpose beyond the craft itself deserves its due. When journaling became very important to me, increasingly more of my time was set aside for this. I remember hearing myself say to my friends that I wanted to write through my culled ideas and hopes. I described the process as "doing the long division," rather than to simply calculate for instant answers. My elementary math teachers required that we "show the work," demonstrating how results were reached. By giving place to thoughts, otherwise voiceless words are distinguished- even if humbly so. Expressing the inner life by configurations of letters and images becomes a pursuit within the grander voyage.

Navigating days and distances as a writer has revealed some unexpected liberties. Regarding content, form follows sincerity- and the idea of "poetic licence" is an encouragement to explore forms of expression. The liberties I refer to here are related to the freedoms opened up by writing. When I traveled as a photographer, my purposes and intentions were often questioned. Traveling as a writer- albeit a journaling scribbler- prompts gracious and courteous treatments in public venues, inns ("this'll be a fine room for you to write in"), restaurants, on flights, and in museums. (Aren't museums places for musing?) Penciling words into notebooks permits me to freely move about the aisles of this world. In addition, that idea-scribing penchant has bailed me through banal meetings in the past, dull events, and aimless lectures. More importantly, creative projects provide constructive ventures other than employment travails and perfunctory obligations.

In several days’ time, the next essay will begin taking shape. At this moment the topics are as yet unknown to me. But there will be something, as surely as there will follow another day of journaling- through my coffee breaks and lunch hour. For me, it is a privilege, and never a tiresome task. In a discourse about her love of gleaning through jotted ideas, Elizabeth Berg wrote:

“Nothing matches this feeling. Nothing brings me this particular kind of joy. And I need it. I crave it. When I don’t have it, I suffer. I feel like a drug addict with an exceptionally wise drug of choice.”

The need to continue writing is equivalent to the necessity of perseverance. In a world replete with instability and static, the critical need to keep balanced and finely-tuned is all the more urgent. The word vocatio translates as a summons. It is a call to persist- not simply in letters and imagery, but in faith. A reminder not to forget to dream, and to go forth with a solid aspiration for better days. There are blessings now, and there is room for improvement. Each day is a step. Alongside the paths of steps, carefully-recorded written words attest to what happens- and how the movements are interpreted. When I organize groups of manuscript records, the basic steps are known in the field as arrangement and description. To do this well, the materials and their respective contexts must be comprehended, otherwise the composite collection will not be coherent to future researchers.

Retrospectively, there is a broad view that presents both ends of the active lives of noncurrent archival records. By contrast, journaling lives in the here-and-now, notwithstanding distant recollections and anticipated aspirations. An archivist’s view of a continuing journal would be that of observing the active life of a current chronicle. Without an end-date, it is an ongoing documentation. There are yet more words to arrange, more journeys to describe.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

lights and places

“Then the star appeared again,
the same star they had seen in the eastern skies.
It led them on until it hovered
over the place of the child.
They could hardly contain themselves:
They were in the right place!
They had arrived at the right time!”

~ Matthew 2 : 9,10.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


“I’ve seen by the highways on a million exit ramps
those two-legged memorials
to the laws of happenstance
waiting for four-wheeled messiahs
to take them home again;
but I am home anywhere
if You are where I am.”

~ Rich Mullins, Here in America

It took a lot of driving for me to begin collecting my thoughts. In fact, the changes began once my wheels left New England and took to the beginning of a 400-mile stretch of the New York State Thruway, en route to Chicago. Departing the Berkshires, the terrain gradually flattened as I continued westward. A prelude to the Midwestern landscape of fields extending to horizons under seamless skies. The smooth and broadened highways appear equally limitless in their reach. Necessary stops concern paying tolls, refueling, and taking breaks- not the deficiencies of road surfaces themselves. But just as the ocean forms the sea-navigator, road adventures shape drivers and lend character to the beaten track. Traveling through unfamiliar or less-familiar places allows for an ephemeral detachment that easily finds wonder in newness. Within that are the stories of travelers, and listening to these is part of the adventure.

Unlike local roads and expressways, interstate highways present a truncated world. At faster speeds that tempt higher extremes, it is a fleeting milieu of ramps and signs, occasional waterways and overpasses, and names that reveal traces of regional histories. And of course, radio broadcasts that vary with the travel’s progress. Somehow, through the standardized predictability of interstates, the lure of the open road emerges. And without wanderlust, my appreciation for my home town wouldn’t be quite as strong. An appetite for travel and for changes of scenery strikes a contrast with routine. Within that contrast is the cherishing of mobility amidst a restlessness for reaching rest-stops of repose.

Compared to my northern New England roads and streets, superhighways are not endeared to me. Of course, they are purposely uniform to span the continent; that’s the idea. Roads around where I live follow the sloping bending contours of terrain and water. Interstates were blasted through rock, not to be compromised by earthbound obstructions. Many straightaways were designed to double as level ground for emergency plane landings. Perhaps tollways are exempt from our aesthetic assessments. They get us where we need to go, and back again- allowing us to do that with the least travail. In cruise control. And the sameness of the roadside stops and motels are supposed to offer a sense of comfort. Some states refer to their service plazas as “oases,” as if throughways are deserts!

Highway systems, airports, and “intermodal terminals” remind me of how we want to cover distance as fast as humanly possible- and of how our conditions demand that we maintain the pace. It may be impossible to revert to the smaller and slower roads that traverse municipalities. Many towns have lost their cores of commerce due to sprawling development. As the larger, faster, newer, more predictable, and measurable become what is sought after, do the humbler places cease to matter? Is the memory of the unseen negated? Traversing and admiring the vast landscape on the way to Illinois, my thoughts were reminded of the many Main Streets I’ve seen when making the voyage by train. Towns and cities are bypassed by interstates, and are indicated only by sign. My vehicle is small and often solitary in the universe of thoroughfares. Fixtures and structures are few and far between.

Roads and places are stories in themselves. Listening is essential. Considering the discipline of attentiveness strikes a comparison between the patience of observation and the impatience of challenging speed limits. By traveling, it is possible to meet those who have sojourned even more. Seasoned travelers like to talk, and my random survey is to ask such people about their favorite places they’ve seen. One career Merchant Marine offered a vivid description of sailing into Manila harbor. He said it was the most beautiful sight he’d seen. Walking and talking in Chicago with an 88-year-old family friend permitted a chance to bring up my continuing query. Asking Manny about his favorite places from his road sales years caused him to re-enact his recollections for my listening ears. Now I have his stories to reflect upon- his word pictures of roadside fields of sunflowers in North Dakota, all bright and waving to the sounds of trumpeting geese. “Just like a horn section,” he said. He told these stories slowly, as though presenting a gift to me. Manny’s sense of patience is refreshing, and his demeanor reminds me not to hurry or wish away time. The long highway trips are so much about wishing distances away. “How many more miles to...” is the pervading concern. And it will surely manifest over and again in my thoughts, in drives to cover as much distance as possible- hoping to rest later.

Being able to reflect back upon travels and holidays indicates the advance of time and age. My elderly friend encourages me about how most of my years are ahead of me. Now I wouldn’t dare deny such encouragement to someone who is 88! I mustn’t let the advance of time become an excuse for pessimism. It is a fact of living. Remember that as students we are supposed to graduate; that is the goal of formal education. Thus, if one aspires to graduate, it is effectively a wish to mature and grow into the pilgrimage.

In my wonder at the ways faraway points may be connected by navigating highways, routes, tracks, and paths, the road begins to represent hopeful ways forward. Journeying becomes a tangible exercise that observes distance, difference, and proportion. As such, sojourning is essential for a life of learning and understanding. But at the same time, it’s something of an invitation to displacement. Consider hiking and camping. It forces the issues of how to be equipped, how not to be equipped, and what must be done without. But the venturing is pursued by many of us, even enjoying the simplified limitations- which permit for exploration. Indeed, there is spiritual geography as surely as geography may be part of spiritual practice.

Returning east a couple of days ago presented the resuming of mountains, valleys, and at last the mist of Casco Bay. On the way, I thought further about the “hopefulness of the road,” and what that signifies. It’s a present hope for what is too distant to see right now. As well, it is an advancement forth from what is past. Taking to the road is an act of trust in the destination, the means of transport, and of navigation. The vehicle has what it requires to get there, and my understanding of the roads and my sense of direction are sufficient. Even the desire to go forth is an engine in itself. With movement there follows motivation. And in launching out of the onramp, even into the night and across boundaries, the hope of the road endures.