Wednesday, December 29, 2010

rest assured

"God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy.

This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey. The God of love who gave us life sent his only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel lost in our struggles but always can trust that he walks with us...”

~ Henri Nouwen, Gracias.

On Christmas Day, I went to an exquisitely beautiful place that is just at the edge of Portland- called Gilsland Farm. This is an old favorite place of mine, and throughout the week my wish had been to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of this Maine Audubon Society refuge. Days without schedule or demand offer opportunities to wander- and my steps invariably take me to the ocean. In this part of the world, there are multiple meandering and convenient ways to walk down to the sea. At the Gilsland sanctuary, river waters meet the Atlantic, and so the walkways offer many perches in a domain frequented by small birds and great herons alike. Rolling terrain permits for straight-ahead views of open skies. The combination of expanse and intimate inlets remind me to draw in plenty of deep breaths of fresh air. Pines, sweetgrass, and sea- all together on the same canvas.

Places that are significant to our individual journeys become our personal historic sites. Returning to explore- to simply inhabit these spaces- cultivates depth of perception. Now that I think of it, I’ve enjoyed the quiet of Gilsland for the better part of two decades- by bicycle, on foot, and by car- in every kind of weather. It’s where I’ve watched owls from very close. Gilsland is one of those nearby places I choose to visit for sorting matters out, regathering, or for seeing things anew. Even without the memories, revisiting any place reveals insight with each landing. Being out-of-doors, surrounded by nature, simply observing the panorama sizes down the accumulated doldrums to their appropriate proportions. Stopping in a place that represents a withdrawal from what promotes and perpetuates restlessness allows me to go further than just catching up with thoughts: from there I can extend that attentiveness beyond thoughts and listen for the Creator Spirit. As with the ancient Psalmist, the lamp within is rekindled amidst wide-open, limitless spaces for my steps and eyes.

At the surface, repose may be perceived simply as physical rest. In greater depth, rest manifests as peace of heart. While walking the Gilsland trails, for example, the woods, waterways, and quiet provided a soul respite. There are no demands, no cause to strain any senses. Moreover, on a holiday, there was no agenda. It wasn’t even all that cold, so I could pause to write at leisure. A fine and rare occasion to let things be, and to blend into the landscape. My years have made it possible for me to form a personality that is prone to forcing things into existence. It continues as a kind of recurrent old background chatter that says I have almost no resources and must build from scratch at every turn. At many times, this has been strenuously true- but I’ve learned to challenge that thinking. The breaks and the blessings must not be forgotten, and a good hike in the woods helps right the ship. Nature reminds me that I’m not running on my own power as I tend to believe. After all, do the trees will themselves to their heights? Can tides refute the moon phases, or refuse to freeze at rivers’ edges? So I walked along a frozen salt marsh and stopped at a dock to write, “grace is not contingent upon human effort, though I toil at a constantly arduous pace.” But no straining at Gilsland on Christmas Day. A gift to keep in mind.

If spiritual fortitude isn’t limited to situations of stoppage, then I might rest assured while in motion. Reaching a highland, and looking around at the hilltops around me, it occurred to me that times of forging ahead must be balanced by times of groundskeeping. Profound progress can be made by letting go of the control I purport to have. And in letting go, I become better aware of the grip of grace. Lately, I hear the expression, “it is what it is” an awful lot. Yet another term that straddles the superimposed worlds of business and sports- and common usage- that expresses a resigned reckoning with exasperation. It can’t be helped, tough luck can’t be reversed: “it is what it is.” Noticing my infuriated response to the shrug, I now imagine the words taken more literally. What happens when that which is beyond one’s single-handed control is left to “be what it is?” Isn’t it presumptuous to think I can change everything? Perhaps, then, the admission that something is what it inherently is, makes a situation easier to engage. The best of that expression is an observation about refraining from striving. It might be a useful way to perceive not trying to grind something into what it isn’t. Resting assured expresses faith in the certitude of sustenance.

An old hymn refrain returned to my thoughts, that goes: “My God is a rock in a weary land, shelter in the time of sorrow.” Yes, it was one of those work-weeks; one of those strings of long days filled with serving a notably needy representation of the public. Perhaps a reflection of the season, and the sense of urgency that it impresses upon many- but at the blunt end of it are those who equally serve the rude and the courteous, the shrill and the calm, the smug and the genuine- all with the same alacrity. One evening, walking home the long way, I remembered that hymn- which I hadn’t heard in a very long time. There’s something in those lyrics that speak to me, I thought; but wait- only in the time of sorrow? How about the times of confusion, of shipwreck, or when computers malfunction, or when I can’t find both gloves, or when someone says something resentful? That’s when the risk is greater of losing sight of the rock in a weary land: when the sorrows are deceptively small- almost too subtle to identify with specific words. It could well be that the human soul is the weary land. Yes, I think it is. It’s the ground that comes from the earth; the land that longs to be rooted, especially when all there is to hold fast to is the Rock and stronghold of consolation. Terrain can be weary, too, and the mind can regain its productivity when it is nourished from still more productive sources. During a recent wakeful night, at about 3 o’clock in the morning, I pencilled these words in my notebook: “don’t be angry- they are what they are.” Mine is not the business of changing what people do. Rest assured. The Gilsland trails provided the untethered moments I needed such that it was impossible not to be grateful for spiritual assurance.

This new season paralleling the start of a new year invites new insight. As I write these words, there is a swirling blizzard outside my windows. Surely, the trails I’d just traversed are now covered over with snow. Trails dotted with shreds of dried leaves and patches of residual ice, perfectly phrasing the meeting of autumn’s end and winter’s beginning. Settling upon exterior surfaces, hard edges are now canopied, traffic sounds are muffled. Back in art college, I had a teacher that would say, “we’re snowed in; that means it’s time to get in the darkroom and print.” We’d all head into our studios, armed with our reams of film- undoubtedly plenty of images from sunny days past. Now I must assure non-practitioners that printing in darkrooms is not a gloomy thing to do at all. For us photographers, it is integral to the creative process. It’s very much the process. As with journaling, conceptualizing our questions demands that we write them down. Put the impressions on paper, so that the words may face up to the light and air. Scribed marks can be re-read; they may be commented upon. Words and images rest assured and boldly upon our creative surfaces. What ensues will be what it is, will be reckoned with, and will be navigated, as the continuum moves forward with confidence.

Friday, December 24, 2010


"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.
I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.
The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.
I will not shut out the lessons that they teach."

~ Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

im perceptible

“The mind of Man is fram’d
even like the breath and harmony of music.
There is a dark invisible workmanship
that reconciles discordant elements,
and makes them move in one society.”

~ William Wordsworth, The Prelude.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

in visibility

“I have turned around.
I’m walking back to join the choir.
Leaves are flying through the sky.

There’s a hidden life,
there’s a life that no one knows,

there are things that can’t be told.”

~ The Innocence Mission, I Left the Grounds.

Consider the meaning and significance around the idea of the non-monetary kind of credit. Getting the credit, taking the credit, denying the credit. If our memories serve us accurately, we can all remember how this thread plays through all the contexts of our days. It may have begun in the vicinity of a broken vase in a long-ago parental living room, if not in a grade-school classroom. There is credit that we want, and credit we don’t want. We want to be noticed at our best by team captains, teachers, and bosses- and by those we find attractive. But then we wish to be unnoticed by bullies, would-be muggers, and those casting blame- even if it’s justifiable. The attribution of credit, of notice, of credibility, is a great power that looms over our evolving years. Those whom we think own that power begin to look like interchangeable versions of the same few people. The quest for validation is something to be outgrown, despite ways our institutions tend to perpetuate their own versions of reward and blame. This meditation is not about the rights and wrongs of law, ethics, or decorum. Rather, it is about the human mystery that views survival as something between visibility and invisibility.

From childhood, we hunger to be noticed, but we also want to hide. Wishing for glory and credit fuels many a drive in the direction of self-preservation at any cost. Self-distinction may be a primal impulse, and thus one for which an individual must come to terms. But then, when notice comes upon us, we are often unprepared.

In my habit of closing a book or shutting off a media source when the loss of a vital thought seems imminent, one night while driving the roads, I turned off the car radio to save an idea. A radio preacher, whose delivery resembled that of a country auctioneer, asked the rhetorical question; “what would you do if you suddenly got everything you’ve wished for?” I cut him off then and there, because the thought was worth saving. I could predict he was leading up to something about ingratitude or our insatiable material appetites. Aloud in the car, I thought about payed-off student loans, perfect health, and a really good job. Afterwards I imagined walking through such idyllic settings, pinching my own arm in outright incredulity. Then I thought about being noticed. What do we expect- and when we are acknowledged, will we shrink back in disbelief? We long to be known, as much as we long to know. At the same time, wishing is more familiar than seeing a wish come to pass. If this is true, what is really expected? Perhaps the vital acknowledgment has already been made, and if this is so, there is no time to back away.

In the conflict between desiring recognition and anonymity, possessing the one, the other becomes more appealing. Thirsting to capture everything merges with the also very human trait of overwhelm. Imaginations are drawn by mystery and elusiveness, yet discovery can throw us off. Either we are diverted by expectation, or overwhelmed at the challenges of our findings. A nature accustomed to striving wants what it used to have, as well as what it cannot reach- yet rarely what is already accessible. Emergence and disappearance long for one another. Even the ancient Psalmist knew the exuberance of overt rejoicing, as much as the Divine presence as sheltering hiding place. Often, I hope for significance to my days and recognition- at about as many times as solitude, my steps drawn to concealing places that permit me to banish my troubles.

We do need our times of invisibility. An old friend for whom I once worked refers to the the jobs I have as my “tent-making” work. He reminds me of how the Apostle Paul made his living. Our paychecks help provide what we need so we can pursue our passions. I still believe in the juxtaposition of vocation and avocation. Indeed it was Paul of Tarsus who described with astonishing detachment how he observed another disposition in his baser self which waged war against the disposition of his conscience. Coming to terms with the inner conflict of striving with ignominy- while athirst for concealed space- begins by admitting too much of either is damaging. Means and ends mustn’t be confused.

In an understanding of the spectrum of living, knowing to be both abased and abound, the equilibrium of holiness is discovered. The realm of God manifests silently and discretely as grains of ferment that cause the leavening of bread. The Advent is gradual, at times difficult. Invisibility comes into being. But as with the magi, the Divine is perceptible to those who are sensitive to the signs. Yet still, there is little that we mortals can actually hasten.

Perhaps the elusiveness- even the hiddenness- of the sublime attests to the eternal as incorruptible and boundless. The Unseen Companion who briefly appeared to the Emmaus pilgrims, known to Paul as “the image of the invisible God,” taught his listeners to express their prayers in shuttered solitude to the One who knows the innermost heart. In this, invisibility is a necessary precursor to visibility. The tent-maker toiling in a deserted place, as all hard-workers enduring anguished isolation, must see such labors as preparatory ground from which to capably bear the gospel of compassion. Blessed are the overlooked, for they are lovingly recognized by their Creator.

Invisible though apparent, God’s presence is treasured deep within. Earthbound as we are, the cravings remain for the visible and for visibility. While scribing some notes the other day, the newspaper under my journal revealed one of the society pages. Those celebrities of fathomless abundance cannot blend into subways and restaurants as I can. Perhaps they wish they could. Many non-celebrities among us make efforts to be “seen.” A local paper used to poll readers about the “best places to be seen” in this small city with a “scene” of its own. A school friend used to say, “maintaining façades is too much work.” Many of us do wind up deciding what’s necessary and what’s worth our energies and time. And that brings us to consider what is of greatest value to the inherent, invisible self. And in that consideration, reinforcement is found.

Do we ever really know our strengths? It is easy to forget the powers and potential we have. That intrinsic fortitude is often threatened by what a lot of us have had to endure en route to and through adulthood. We brave through exclusions, judgments, and threats long before we can ascribe clear and forceful words to our attempted refutations. But indeed those who survive must never forget their voiceless crucible times. Today is for potentials to unfold, even if portions will remain invisible.

Now a reckoning. Conflicts may be identified and explored, but without some resolve, the terms remain barely more than if they stayed unspoken. Recording a life as it develops, my thoughts begin by taking stock in the learning experiences, being able to apply some retrospect while looking ahead. Come to think of it, the idea of blogging a personal journal is in itself a paradox of seen and unseen. Definitions of “visibility” evolve away from preoccupations with crowds and myself. I see the extremes a bit more reconciled, more content to stand apart from self. Part of that unification is in reckoning with the value of both recognition and retreat, along with a realization that reward is less and less a driving force. Outdated self-views become stale and burdensome. Possessions I no longer use are only good to give away or throw out, resembling old, recurrent, and outgrown frustrations. As with perspectives, tastes evolve. Back in high school, my father once told me that tastes change as we get older, “you’ll see,” he said; we start craving more salted and bitter things than sugary sweets. It’s a great metaphor, but he was comparing an adult’s beer with a child’s strawberry soda. Indeed, I see, as I often relish obscurity. But I innately know that I’ve also been very gradually called forth out of that obscurity. Venturing to predict the future’s details would not be worth the trouble. There are things that can’t be told. It seems wiser to temper the striving against prohibitive currents, and gratefully engage the settings I’ve got to work with- however modest the results. The hidden life takes root, and living roots are rarely visible at the surface.

Friday, November 26, 2010

vermont field notes

"The miracles in fact are a retelling in small letters
of the very same story which is written across the whole world

in letters too large for some of us to see."

~ C.S. Lewis, Miracles, essay from God in the Dock.

New beginnings are discovered in many shapes and forms. As varied as our individual tastes can be addressed, so are we each inspired such that our souls are spoken to directly. Upon taking to the roads for long-awaited time off, I packed the usual provisions for two weeks away. Among the clothing, provisions, and reading, I added a blank notebook. A small, pocketable, single-signature memo book, appropriately commemorating my westerly destination: the State of Vermont. I’ve made two trips there, in the recent six weeks. My change of scenery from my home on the Maine coast is to sojourn to the Green Mountains of Vermont. And pristine new pages indicate travels to be engaged. There will be something to write about, something new to begin. I try remembering the wisdom of seeing the wider journey as a trusting motion, humble as it is, that advances from one beginning to another.

The action of taking to the road has its own connotations as a new beginning. Weather and surface conditions are more ingredients than detriments. The retreat begins by celebrating open roads that lead to hearts’ desires. If daily doldrums warrant writing, how much more are adventures means for documentation. I’d brought the larger journal with me which I’d been writing in since the middle of the summer, along with my typewriter. With the small Field Notes book, I began by dropping in slips of paper and jotting notes at stopping places along roads, forest trails, and the Weston Priory.

The little book began to look like something of a scrapbook, then as a kind of handbook with needed maps and itineraries. Adding it into pictures, the book resembled a passport. The working, unfinished document en route to becoming an archival document. Archival records begin with their “useful lives,” when the documents are needed in a person’s or organization’s daily operations- until the records become “noncurrent,” and thus “evidence” of that which they document. Now I see my document as artifact, and through the pages I can recall the mountains, rivers, and skies that surrounded my steps.

A gather of fresh pages provides a clean slate. New canvasses are neutral until we begin to make them our own. It is up to our creativity to discover and add meaning to the life given and its resources. Perhaps you, too, made picture albums and decorated your notebooks with stickers, back in school. We make things our own by adapting and altering materials of daily life. Look at how many motor vehicles are intriguing rolling scrapbooks. The manufactured car becomes “my car,” as a wooden table with a drawer becomes “my desk.” Then there are living, breathing places. If you live in New York, what is “your New York?” It will be distinct from the millions of others who might say, “my New York.” A great topic for your journals could be a list of what your (fill in the place name) is, in your own words through your own experience.

As for me, I would need far more than only one Maine memo book! I daresay my “Maine field notes” threads together all my journals since I began writing. But that’s no deterrent to trying. My Vermont begins with mountain roads, rolling landscape, the Long Trail, friendly towns, and pine air. Places that inspire writing. The outdoors in all seasons. Looking back sixteen years and to the present, the heart of “my” Vermont remains the Weston Priory, the Benedictine monastic community that is never far from my thoughts.

Above: I make sure to note the times of prayer at the Priory.

Below: Inadvertently, I unusually marked the location of the Priory

with an appropriate non-cartographic symbol...

If it isn’t their stewardship of their environment, or their wise and inspiring words, or the countless friends I’ve met there, it’s their melodies that accompany my steps wherever I travel in this world.

Place can transcend physical space, when it becomes our “own.” We experience the places we write about, and our recorded interactions go forth with us. When I reached Weston this recent time, I gave one of the brothers- who writes beautiful poetry- a Maine Field Notes memo book. We had a good laugh about writing in books that represent the other person’s home. Brother Augustine immediately recognized the motifs of old-fashioned agricultural notebooks, later stopping to talk about how it conveniently fits in his jacket pocket. This got us talking about how writing is integral to our work days. A great many of us do this, applying ideas from one facet of life to another. Pencils shorten in succession, as strings of words extend their trails. I completed the notebook, shortly after getting home from a second trip to Vermont- this time to help a close friend who is a college chaplain with a community event.

Winter now at our doorsteps, my little autumn chronicle is complete. The writing exercise is something I’d do again and highly recommend. Completing so compact a project, closing this small loop, has been surprisingly gratifying. I’ll remember Brother Augustine encouraging me to keep on writing, “with a good sharp pencil!” It’s all grist for the graphite mill. Indeed, the sums of our sojourns are subsumed by our inner odometers.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

stay this moment

“Look on eternity as near at hand.

While I am thinking and writing of it,
it hastens near,
and I am entering into it
before I am aware.”

~ Richard Baxter, The Saint’s Everlasting Rest, ch. 12.