Wednesday, June 30, 2010

June 30th

“We have saved our days the whole year.
We will wear our summer clothes.
Walk for miles in the sun
and remember every one,
and say we know this place,
we know.”

~ The Innocence Mission, Geranium Lake

Growing up in New York City, June 30th always had the connotation as being the last possible day of school. It was so liberating, despite the nervousness of report cards and averages. Today’s sundrenched cool air reminds me of those annual sendoffs from homeroom (and even the earlier elementary days when all subjects were covered in one room). All that was necessary, on June 30th, was to show up. There was no more homework left to cough up.

We’d report in for the last day of school sans heavy book bags. School itself- the institutional hallways, the grey window-filtered diffracted light, and even the vague acquaintances outside predictable circles of friends- all suddenly endeared. It’s when one steps onto the docks of terra firma that the decrepit old boat gathers fondness. During the traversal and those endless stretches of distance, abundance is ascribed to curses and divisions among the crew. Many of us see similar templates far into our adult working lives. We’ve always known we can’t influence much of anything beyond our reach, but we rarely give up trying. June 30th of this year, yet another calendar’s round-trip away from asphalt schoolyards left behind, hasn’t got the air of ammonia-scrubbed floors and desks but instead the aromas of my Atlantic harbor home.

One thing of which I never grow weary is to write in the openness of fresh air. Even in winter. Sounds of seagulls and scents of the ocean precisely call to mind where I am. The old things are past, and behold- this morning all things are become new.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


“‘The Book of Ecclesiastes would be fine. Where was it?’
‘Here,’ Montag touched his head.
‘Ah,’ Granger smiled and nodded.
‘What’s wrong? Isn’t that all right?’ said Montag.
‘Better than all right: perfect!’

Granger turned to the Reverend.
‘Do we have a Book of Ecclesiastes?’
‘One. A man named Harris in Youngstown.’
‘Montag.’ Granger took Montag’s shoulder firmly.
‘Walk carefully. Guard your health. If anything should happen to Harris,
you are the Book of Ecclesiastes.
See how important you’ve become in the last minute!’”

~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Trying to broach the subject of being able to see my circumstances and times as they are, is my present endeavor. Each day is stooped over with grim news. It seems there is enough drama and conflict for the media addicts, and enough overwhelm for the exasperated. And it all blends together on the internet. It’s easy to want to run away from the “fair and balanced” of reporting outlets and fear merchants that pervade broadcasting. Even from this relatively quiet corner of the continent, it is all quite daunting. Larger markets are challenged more intensely. But whether there or here, the adage of “testing the spirits” always applies.

When so much that needs help- and far away- cannot be done by a person of modest means, frustration ensues. I have to apply creative ways to donate resources and offer prayers, while having to remain where I am and at my daily employment. And beyond that, perhaps I do join so many others that reflexively pursue diversions to deflect the constant bad news of the “real world.” Well, then, what is reality after all? That is something to always take to heart, at every step- especially when portrayals appear or sound skewed. Must there always be a villain? Or is the fault really between the conflicting parties? Are things actually as cut-and-dry so to fit between commercials? Why even think about such things? Because losing a foundational sense is equivalent to compromising it away to untested notions, catchphrases, and worst of all- fear. Test the spirits. Reconsider perceptions. While pondering such present-day anomalies as contemplative vocations and lives crafted through creative expression, I wonder if an anomaly like me should view this amnesiac world as still more anomalous. That iconic London headline comes to mind, “Fog in the Channel : Europe Cut Off,” reminding me that vantage point is indeed the eye of the beholder.

Anomalous or not, heights and roads are stretched before us to engage our pursuits and contribute our signatures. Immersed in the flow of time from yesterday through today and into tomorrow, one cannot remain unchanged. Perhaps progress implies looking in several directions during forward steps. When imagining an archives of the soul, the idea is one of a living collection loved into existence, trimmed, indexed, and expandable. In some form or another, we are each curators of our gleanings and what we’ve made of our environments. It is for us to comprehend what we’ve gathered, to preserve or release. Our time, with thoughts to fill only so many shelves, is for us to redeem.

But our times both parallel and collide with the broader continuum within which we live, move, and have our being. Anomalies are not without context: as otherworldly as our aspirations might be, we must still live in this world. If societal currents threaten to depersonalize, the power to commit to memory remains with the individual person. It takes some work, but what soul is not worth the effort? This challenges where we place our faith. Hope held fast becomes an eye threading storms that encircle. Engaging and enduring, immersed in this culture yet gazing upward, subjects a soul to everything that can disable. But there is also everything that can strengthen. Still, the marathon must persist through swirls of grim forecasts, terrors, popular fatalism, and closed doors. Remaining hopeful sounds too passive; perhaps with language more like embodying profoundest hopes, a more applicable thought will accompany my steps.

By living our prayer, we can persevere; by persevering, we can live our prayer. This is in itself a present consolation, yet also a bond toward future consolations. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, written almost sixty years ago, continues to offer both allegory and commentary. Consider how the novel’s mural-like “family on the wall” interactive screens in every home foresaw today’s ubiquitous social networks which millions use to avert their solitude. But the Montag character finds something of a network when his escape from armed pursuers brings him to an encampment of individuals who memorize books. Like the ancient apostles who had no printed volumes, these book-people were messengers with entrusted words stored in their hearts. The book-people tell Montag of many others who do what they do- even whole towns whose individual minds constitute whole libraries of literary works. True to the lessons in his novel, Bradbury has Montag personify the book of Ecclesiastes: the wisdom of King Solomon. Granted, our society doesn’t employ firefighters to burn books, nor are we forbidden to read or write- as in the story. But many do wonder aloud as to the present and future states of the intellectual life. Finding roads of kindredship, aspiring to be a positive influence, and cultivating a sense of discerning and analytical knowledge demands tenacity and dedication. And confidence. (I like to translate the French word confiance as confident trust.) Indeed, many more than we realize are out there writing, expressing, mentoring, and walking their sincere prayers.

Various social commentators compare the present century with the era that followed the dissolution of the Roman Empire which Petrarch called the "Dark Ages." Surely there are less simplistic ways to make sense of these times- yet still some parallel aspects are somewhat understandable: warfare in incessant, urban society is fragmented by varieties of isolation, and learning that transcends job skills is increasingly marginalized. But if we entertain the comparison for yet another thought, there have always been exceptions at small and large scales. I like to imagine such endeavors as those of Alcuin’s court (8th century) were among many that may have been undocumented. Once more, with a strained voice of hope, there is brightness to acknowledge and affirm above oceans of darkness. Following through with such an ideal, on a practical level, is a setting-forth toward wilderness. We are far enough away from the early medieval centuries to not only rise above those times but also to learn from history.

If this isn’t a revisitation of the Dark Ages (and it's not), these times might be called a negative age. An ingredient in Postmodernism is to define something by what it is not. Individuals often describe what they aren’t, or what they don’t like, before you hear them tell you who they are. Perhaps in the wake of deconstruction, much focus is assigned to what is excluded, what one opposes, rather than a forthright affirmation of what is definitive- or simply what is. Fear of failure is heaped upon the rest of the menu offerings of purveyors of pessimism. One can just wonder what follows, when such perspective finally becomes too old and tired to perpetuate. Like the book-people, we’ll have to be fluent enough in forgotten disciplines to tirelessly give of them. Newness is intrinsic to thriving trust.

“... if the men were silent it was because there was everything to think about and much to remember. Perhaps later in the morning, when the sun was up and had warmed them they would begin to talk, or just say the things they remembered, to be sure they were there, to be absolutely certain things were safe in them. Montag felt the slow stir of words, the slow simmer.”

~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Monday, June 14, 2010

travelling companions

“Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand”

~ William Blake, And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time

(abolitionist preacher's diary, Maine & Vermont, ca.1860s)

Friday, June 4, 2010


“And the world keep on turning
and the sun keep on burning
and the children keep learning
how to grow up big and strong.”

~ Mark Heard, How To Grow Up Big and Strong

It’s been stated before in these pages, how much we can learn about ourselves by taking note of our own words. Many an exploratory essay can begin with I heard myself say. Yesterday, a close friend noticed my exhaustion and asked me what I needed most. My response came from depths beneath chattering thoughts: “Stability. I can use some tranquility.” Many human desires center on this universal yearning. Recognizing change as the one constant is head-knowledge. It’s not always the most pleasant thing to hear. Yet somehow just as a holding pattern is acknowledged, that’s just when the ground begins to shift. “Permanence!” shouts the mortal voice into the wind.

Still, the pursuit of certitude pulls at the soul. Straining to see far ahead seems a natural impulse, yet it isn’t always the wisest or most assuring action. Anxiously attempting to overreach loses the present and forgets useful past references. But perhaps there’s something necessary in recoiling and launching, hints of aspirations to aim higher than what is presently seen. The spirit needs to deepen and grow, or else it will stagnate. Turning a corner, discovering perspective, combines a wonder of new terrain with a facing of fears found. The desire for progress will interrupt the safety of sameness. On a practical level, one cannot advance without motioning forward.

When pacing nighttime floors, trying to comprehend life’s demands, I try to remember having surmounted many trials. There isn’t a set formula for trouble-free survival; but somehow a great many of us get by. Trust is as essential as realistic perspective. Those regrettable times of uselessness were real, as well as some good old days. Fears have ways of turning the mind back to longing for simplicity. A clear memory is enough to remind me there’s never really been an age without flailing. Time’s accumulation persists, and so must the crafting of vision. A prayer remains, for direction and paths on reliable ground.

There’s still much for me to learn about provision. If I try to imagine “enough,” it is surely more than I could procure. Sufficiency seems a moving target in this culture of consumption. The margin widens between necessity and what might be deemed as security. The “what ifs” surprise the unaware, and hunting for elusive stability becomes grasping at clouds. What purports to be “enough to live well” looks more like a mirage. Acceptance of uncertainty may be the best release that opens the mind to creatively persevere.

What of stability, if the playing surface has the fluidity of game pieces? Now I must apply the cumulative value of what is being learned and check the fears with reminders that my aspirations will come to something. Something qualitatively better. Even if I am not certain, hopes that originate far beyond me are those of certitude. Head-knowledge meets heart-certainty, and the encounter can be something of a struggle. Innately, I must know by now that I do not walk this road alone. Assessing what would be enough precariously lends to wanting what is missing, while not appreciating what is present. The ideal of “enough" is fantasy, and is as stagnating as dwelling upon what missing ingredient is lacking. With trust, the investment of time may embolden by default. As an elderly man, Brother Roger of Taizé focused much of his writing upon the setting forth from doubt towards faith. He wrote that in so doing he invoked, "I believe, help my unbelief," and "in growing older, faith becomes less arduous, certainty prevails." It seems that faith means moving forward without enough resources.

Though we may stall for time or wish it away, the advances of days, seasons, and years cannot be altered. Change is constant, and the attempt to freeze time is no easier than the old habit of trying to speed it up. Should it be possible to turn back the clock, wouldn't it be preferable to relive younger days with an older mind! But that, too, is as unreal as perfectionism. So today presents the stage upon which time can be sculpted. Without transitions and surface changes, meaningful developments cannot take place. Preoccupations about things too far in the distance must not subvert the vital stability that embraces what is. Inevitably, how much am I really in control of things? Day-sized parcels of hours: that’s even the way time is dispensed to the privileged and prominent. My own privilege and honor is to remember the journey with God is one of accompaniment and transcendent sense of home.