Friday, May 28, 2010

striving and striding

“Walking around,
You know I’ve had enough of this trouble
following me high and low.
Now it can go.”

~ The Innocence Mission, Walking Around

As with most weekday mornings en route to work, the postmaster and I exchanged greetings. “How’s it going,” I asked. This time, Jim replied with “I’d complain, but I won’t.” My immediate response was, “we each have a place to go.” A bit of work is a slice of sustenance. Having a place to go draws implications beyond the utilitarian trudge. As one’s work is a destination, so is a walk. Some people tell me going for a walk with no purpose is pointless. I must differ; indeed a meaningless stroll has great purpose. Less is more. From carefree jacketless jaunts to heavily-equipped winter expeditions, I remain deeply grateful for my mobility. Rather than appearing as obstacles, weather and terrain provide ingredients for the adventure. The paths of my upbringing wove through large, multidimensional cities. As a child, my grandmother and I would promener (go walking) together through our Arrondissement (the 17th); she would soften day-old bread with water for us to break off morsels to feed the birds.

Going for a walk, of any length, is a break out of the box. A taking to a trail away from the rutted roads of repeated routine. A means of escape? Perhaps; but if so, this is the necessary kind to re-engage the marches of time. A good walk comprises motion to slow things down. Just as going out with a camera to create a sense of a scene that draws your attention. An observation stops the pace, changes vantage point, and preserves an image. Teaching photo students, I’ll often say, “be a tourist in your own town.” Notice places familiar and changed. Turning corners and traversing roadways, thoughts will change- even opinions. As the mind diverts, what is cherished comes to the fore. Simmering the questions, strolls test and revise perspective. Blending the mind’s ingredients, an outdoor walk resembles the randomness of dreams. Notice how birds glide from tree to tree.

With paces preferring manageable paths, balance comes to mind. Striding and striving, often forcing matters becomes counterproductive. To strive, in this context, is to unnecessarily struggle and overattempt. To walk is to entertain patience. Aperch on a bench, amidst a city thoroughfare, the elements remind me to not be irritated by things removed from my control. Excessive striving is no friend of a good effort. We get accustomed to being so compelled as to force every detail into shape- and then to vigilantly guard these interests. How about an endeavor not to excessively exert? “Be paced, poised, and avoid burnout,” I mused while waiting to cross a street. Varying views change frames of mind.

There is middle ground between leaving things to be as they are (or as they develop), and constantly looking to adapt them (even compulsively). The latter viewpoint fixates upon the next thing. I’d be the last to advocate complacency; at the same time there is a worthwhile awakening in the consideration that one cannot get blood from a turnip. The preferable path sidesteps resignation, yet knows repose. The ancient gem, “study to be quiet,” originated in Paul’s criticism of materialistic and empire-building emphases among elites of ancient Greek society.

“Our dignity is tied to our ability to be thinking beings,” wrote Pascal. For me, this translates as the capability of conscientiousness. To think for oneself is to do so unabashedly- without façade. Technology and tools to be as gladly used as put away, giving priority to simplicity. Getting outside, away from the “virtual,” encourages continuation of cultivating skills that require thought and dexterity. When it can be done, easing the pace opens a view to observe treasures immediately at hand- and the trove may be that very midst itself.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

typists need apply

“I told him what I came for,
when he in a rage did fly,
‘No!’ he says, “You are a Paddy,
and no Irish need apply.’

Then I gets my dander rising
And I’d like to blacken his eye
To tell an Irish gentleman
‘No Irish Need Apply.’”

~ John F. Poole (1862), No Irish Need Apply

At the Boston Athenaeum

Public Libraries in Boston (above)

and Portland, Maine (below).

* link to typist news article in NYC

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

new leaves

“Enter! the pavement, carpeted with leaves,
Gives back a softened echo to thy tread!

Listen! the choir is singing; all the birds,
In leafy galleries beneath the eaves,
Are singing! listen, ere the sound be fled,
And learn there may be worship with out words”.

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, My Cathedral

Brighter light and lengthened days witness the trees reclothed. Thankfully, this can be appreciated- even after a long work day; shirtsleeve weather and twilight- even after seven. From my apartment’s front stoop, the view upward is one of renewal. Fresh crops of leaves are waving from the maples along sidewalk paths- so very new, these greens and maroons have a tinge of the yellow of unripeness. Even the sunlight has this aspect, gleaming with the fresh paint of an almost-season. From this top step on the grey granite, the view is enough to cause me to stop writing about other subjects. This is a fine kind of interruption. It’s the light; beyond the brightness is its effect upon strata of diaphanous outgrowth which canopies and deflects air currents. Not long ago, these same trees were glazed with ice; before that, shedding their ruddy colors. Time is the difference, and observing these changes permits for an enjoyment of rebirth. To be sure, this isn’t a retread of last May- or the one before. The front stoop is still where it’s been, and my presence continues- but it is by observance and perception that a soul can tie timelines together and be able to recognize connections unseen.

Noticing transition, I am brought to ponder time and context. Occasionally, driving my errands presents glances of things past. Noticing a window of a former home, a storefront that once housed a favored venue, or a familiar corner of a campus, subtext of place is reawakened. These locations are unchanged, yet somehow foreign. Iconic yet inconsequential. The passage of time never ceases to amaze me, being the witness that can connect disparate occasions holding given places in common. Consider how context can change a subject or person. Once an institution or person held powerful sway- then suddenly their currency became worthless. Harsh streets become neutralized by the constant flow of traffic. A grade, an honor, or a title lose their volume as they lose their context. What once loomed largely becomes laughably diminutive. Thoughts and recollections attest to the lives and stories beneath surfaces. Our unique witness can thread places and times together, observations becoming solid phrases, individual transitions measures of interior evolution.

With a deep breath of chilled air beneath stately trees, my preference remains with the present rather than past. As much as we can look back at what we've enjoyed, we can be surely reminded of what we've survived. The here-and-now becomes a wonder, a cause for gratitude; the trees stand as enduring sentries. As folios of foliage, the leaves’ pagination ascends with time. These wafting, turning pages draw attention to their source. Tilting upward to light, they live and breathe with circulatory vessels of words drawn from trunks filled with troves collected by standing through torrents and beating sun alike. Components to an entirety as letters to a tome- minutes to an eternity. New leaves meet my outstretched hands.

Beneath what is visibly new and evidently resultant of trained branches, is the unseen journey. Around the core are rings which know the years. The rich, draping greens are hints to the eternal- but not to be overlooked: imagine if we did not have these visible signs! Journeying onward is possible when there is a clear drive from within. In other words, the way ahead is through a descent through the heart. Johannes Tauler once wrote about a thriving inner life as the route heavenwards. But the unseen is often misunderstood and underestimated. Where we meet the Divine, Tauler described, is considered an emptiness to the intellect, yet a fulfillment to the heart. In that still space, God guides the soul to the foundation of being- to the substance of what is. Still space needn’t be cause for unease, even if it takes time to realize this.

Nowadays, looking to the trees causes me to wonder at the passage of time. And instead of the connotation of fall- with its closures- the growing leaves carry notes of the life within. The books that are with me flutter with the gusts. Two have printed words, one is my notebook. Wooden pencils bounce off the granite steps and muffle onto the grass. With a thirst for continuity, growing leaves and pages turn- to reveal more, offering time to write more. As with an ability to know the unseen journey, it requires faith for me to trust that my efforts will amount to something. With the cycles of time, and limits of influence, there remains hope for redemption of the locust-eaten years. It is better to aspire than to regret what may have only appeared to be missed chances. And I must remember how the appearances of places and situations do change as the road broadens. Verdant drapery will shade and later cushion the paths ahead.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

wayside steps

“Thus says the Lord:
‘Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is,
and walk therein,
and all of you will find rest for your souls.’”

~ Jeremiah, 6:16

Near to the close of my present retreat, during the extended silence following Lauds, I wrote this prayer in my notebook:

For strength and endurance,
but with a savor of this place
and this

As the last of four days away from the fray, I’m now imagining the way home and forward. Although these occasional intermezzos are not able to change the situations I momentarily step away from; they do affect how well I can deal with them. Knowing to do this has been as much an acquired skill as learning how to divert into contemplative silence. And the whole idea is something that has come naturally to me. Pursuing quiet times has been part of my life since childhood. And there aren’t any expectations- at least none beyond rest and the ability to listen to sounds other than demands or the fragmented din of popular culture.

Choosing to work a holiday enabled me to take a day off at the opposite end of the week. Having only a few days meant choosing a close location. Driving across only two counties allowed for the leisurely sojourn immediately after work. Sure enough, the days leading up to my carved-out time of silence amounted to a chaotic obstacle course- so much so that my drive through a rainstorm was actually relaxing. Arriving at the Alfred Shaker community, the one Brother still awake directed me to my room. Affixed to the door was a note of welcome to me.

A place had been set for me, in an expression of the meaning of sanctified: distinctly dedicated. Carrying in my effects and closing the day in a deep sleep, it was an assurance of being just where I needed to be. In these recent few days, the idea of sanctified time returns to mind. Having fought through traffic as it were, toward a clearing, perspectives must now be amended. As the circumstances now permit, I have to be able to slow my own steps.

In something of an irony, it is taking an effort to relax. “You know there is one rule of retreat,” Brother Robert proclaimed with an airborne index finger, “and the rule is to rest!” Stopping everything cold is a worthwhile culture shock. That coveted silence finally arrives, and I wonder what to do. The idea is to not do. Repose is surely not the sort of procrastinating puttering I tend to build into my days. Time sanctified is fine-fibered paper upon which to scribe.

My camera and writing materials are with me, so there is some activity to my inaction. Indeed, I’ve been hiking some trails, as well as taking part in the Divine Hours. Wayside rests are scattered places of patient acceptance. A chance to observe and absorb. Setting aside gnawing frustrations, it is easier to recognize those “incidental blessings” that have been in the works all this time- however unnoticed. In a moment, stopping along a pine-canopied path, in swirls of cold air, this long voyage became newly apparent to me. The life of pilgrimage has taken me very far and yet surprisingly near. The default mindset tends to be one of struggling for traction. Although often a series of beginnings, some major distances have been covered. This time, the observation does not overwhelm; there is nothing now, in this place, to interrupt a thought.

As what is now seen represents that which is yet unseen, there is “incidental mystery” in simply breathing this cold forest air. The reawakening woods respirate with the spring. A season’s conclusion is another’s commencement. Easter’s fulfillment, the life within, is strength for the long journey. Yet as the heavenly manna of yore, the indwelling Divine spirit is not to be hoarded. To continue drawing in fresh air, it is necessary to exhale. Receiving and giving take their turns.

With this is an understanding for me about wayside respite. These intervals are invitations to think of what we are, rather than of what we do. Instead of being portioned out in manufactured measure, the Holy Spirit is fully given- and is thus to be fully set forth. The breath of life is entire and complete- more than I can presently know. Though temperaments vary, I must remember I’m not partly alive, but fully so. Simply being is about all I could do with the gift of these few days. And in that acceptance is great inspiration to resume the road and be an encouragement.