Saturday, December 24, 2011

joyeux noël

"All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all the rest of the year,
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor and the peer!

Good fortune attend each merry man's friend
That doth but the best that he may,
Forgetting old wrongs with carols and songs
To drive the cold winter away."

~ In Praise of Christmas, (18th century England)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

en attente

“True silence
is the rest of the mind;
it is to the spirit
what sleep is to the body,
nourishment and refreshment.”

~William Penn, Quaker leader and author

Pulling away from Portland on a southbound track, the Boston-bound train picked up speed. My window view of trees and salt marshes began to blur and blend with the sky. Blurring and stirring in a swirl of sunrise light, form and color marbled into its own ephemeral texture. The journal writing I’d begun, before the train began rolling, was distracted along with my afterthoughts about previous weeks’ anxieties. Departing from the Sewall Street Station was the start of a retreat I’d anticipated for months. Such diverting landscape tableaux were gratefully received. The journey settled into a soothing overcast. In the buildup of worldly cares, economic trepidations, and general dead-ends visibility tangled into disproportion. With so many hopes sinking into swamps of thwart, I continue to try taking stock in the good that exists, while aching for the better of my wishes. When do my prospects improve, and will they ever? What do I await? My thoughts turned to the notion of continuing to hope for outcomes for which no evidence is detectable. A retreat is a chance to let the treadmills turn without me. The pursuit instead is for respite and hope. But patience is required to be able to unwind and rest. It takes time, though it is a worthwhile investment. Beginning to recover requires a slowing of paces. The gift of an entire week just starting, the train’s rhythm returned me to the present and toward the good fortune of a sojourn.

In between compound tasks and commitments, I managed to fit in my travel preparations. As the train-trip-eve drew closer, more ingredients were gathered at the floor near my desk. Snippets of late nights and early mornings permitted additions of writing, clothing, and photography provisions. Being able to see the accumulations, over several days, also permitted me to eliminate the extraneous from the essentials. There would be plenty of reading at my destinations, so I resisted loading-down with more than two small books. And the recurrent question of what I expected to do, prevented me from overpacking. Those who write and travel can attest to the discipline of balancing tools, trappings, and tastes when gathering gear. For such things, the priority goes to simplicity.

Beacon Hill Friends House sanctuary.

A journey into days of sanctified reflection implies pausing the pace, breathing in the immediate, and paring away inconsequential thoughts. Transcendent of setting, the place must simply be conducive to repose. All that is necessary is an open-ended freedom to be silent. For contemplative time to be what one might call “constructive,” there must be a slicing away of excesses. Unfettered, a soul may center down to its core, to the beyond within. In so doing, the reflexive grasp on external definitions is released. Even gripped retained experiences can be loosened away. I have learned, however, that one release is rarely sufficient; often a habit, or perspective, or an accumulation must be jettisoned many times before such things leave my thoughts. Simplification involves a clearing-away that is both physical and mental. Some material may be good enough to give away, otherwise it is best thrown out. Casting off and letting go may extend from such things as physical items- to ideas, concepts, expectations, connections, and even dreams. Though en route to meditative places, there were surely tastes of peaceful release as the train advanced.

Above: Beacon Hill Friends House, Boston.
Below: Beacon Hill Friends House courtyard.

My aspirations toward simplicity were met by the ethos of my gracious host community for the week, at the Beacon Hill Friends House. Quakers have, for more than 350 years, founded their spiritual practice in emphases upon simplicity and patient perseverance. I’d spent a restful week at the House only six months ago. This time I experienced the courtyard in late-autumn, with shorter and colder days in the neighborhood. With time and increasing bonds of friendship, the welcomes are ever warmer and treasured- among communities at the House and at the Boston Athenaeum. Between the two places, I found rest, nourishment, great conversations, and time to write, read, and walk the ancient little peripheral streets.

Above: Boston Athenaeum Library.
Below: View toward Charles Street, from Revere Street.

The literature I studied in the Athenaeum’s rare books room included treatises on grace and the companionship of the Holy Spirit, written by members of the Religious Society of Friends in the 1600s and 1700s. I saw much to enlighten my thoughts about anticipatory listening and awaiting- and eloquent simplicity. These writers had been persecuted for their belief in the direct relationship between God and the human individual, without intermediary or ritual. In silent expectancy is God received in the heart’s recesses. It is almost indescribable, yet the authors found their own ways to encourage their readers with testimonials and discoveries. Having time to read through such poetical discourse- after acclimating to the old style language- it occurred to me how it is a great gift to have time to read an item to completion without interruption. Much as it is to dine slowly on savory victuals, I could read and take notes- then go out for ruminative walks. Weaving the lanes on Beacon Hill, I asked myself about what I expect in life. My unreasonable tendency is to expect better, regardless of apparent limitation. How much time constitutes too long a wait? Surely an aspiring kind of anticipation is quite unlike ways we wait in traffic, or in queues, or in waiting rooms. The wait for God is not in vain.

The season of Advent is one of glowing and expectant waiting. As the darkness of daylight’s diminution progresses, so conversely do hope’s embers intensify. Early-arriving evenings provide contrast for small, bright Advent lights displayed in windows. I began to notice them, along my afternoon walks. Guiding stars keeping vigil remind those in transit of the transient darkness. We wait not in vain. Having the opportunity to view a simpler expression of the upcoming holidays, Advent emerges as a season of hopeful expectation that anticipates fulfillment. As with the austere worship of the Quakers, the Holy Spirit is both evident and imminent, which is to say close at hand. Parakletos translates as consoler, comforter, the at-one’s-side, and the summoner to freedom as expressed in the gospels.

The Church of the Advent, Beacon Hill.

To silently await attentively upon the Creator Spiritus- as part of a large congregation- is as substantial as it is mystery. Somehow, in a perfectly congruent serendipity, first thing each morning I participated in morning vigil at The Church of the Advent- just a few minutes’ walk from the Friends House. Reciting the Psalms aloud from a lectern, toward the echoing heights of the large and elegant sanctuary, was an experience of spoken prayer in ancient footsteps yet with my own voice: No less extemporaneously, from row-house to cathedral, the Spirit moves. And just as seamlessly, the places and experiences of a week blended together as they settled within for the train trip home. Imagery of winding gaslit lanes, places of prayer, bright faces, ancient books, church cats at The Advent, and my chilled outdoor-writing hands filled my closed-eyed thoughts as the Downeaster rolled north. Rather than to look for any great resolve from this retreat, my hope is simply to do justice to these treasured experiences. For me, this means being faithful to the hopeful signs I have met and seen.

The lectern I read from daily at The Church of the Advent.
The motto translates as:
"Lord, let Your servant go forth in peace,
according to Your Word."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

der blaue reiter

“Blue champagne
Purple shadows and blue champagne
With the echoes that still remain
I keep a blue rendezvous.”

~ The Manhattan Transfer, Blue Champagne

journey and journal

Gratitude increases with accumulated mileage, as my travels are accompanied by writing. Images and words gladly correspond with places visited. And I try to include sites that inspire the exploration of ideas, paralleling the places visited. The written continuum of journals provides a paper playing-field for the recording of locations, events, and gleaned words, drawn together from immediate environments. Like photo motifs and camera, wise words received require ready writing materials for their recording. Viewing errand as adventure provides an antidote to sameness. “Every day is a mini-project,” my father likes to say. Years ago, an elderly co-worker at a night-shift job I had used to tell me to vary my routes to and from work- to keep it interesting. My grandmother advised that I eat a variety of foods, “otherwise your intestines will get bored.” Such snapshots are enshrined in writing, woven through journeys of streets, workplaces, mountains, waterways, shops, and kitchens alike. Documentation becomes the abiding record of the journey.

discovery and treasure

Discoveries and treasures are authenticated by words and images. They are joined to our living histories. Collected gems remind us of where we’ve sojourned. And the returning individual is always- even subtly- changed by the travel, however humble it may have been. Ah, but to embark upon a journey of taking pictures and taking notes, some preparation is needed. Depending upon the extent and mode of transit, basics include notebook, pencil, pen, and camera. Then there are peripheral reinforcements such as extra ink, a sharpener, a tripod, a spare ribbon- when a typewriter is along for the ride. A few books, too: with every retreat, I bring The Cloud of Unknowing. When writing ideas are jumbled, that means it’s time to read. If I’ve just begun a new journal, I bring along the previously-filled volume. Our own words can also be worthy companions. A portable book or two and a pocketable Bible go with every adventure- even an average workday. This is simply to be prepared; provisions must not anchor. After all, some room must be left available for found treasure.

commerce and collegiality :

joon of new york

Although I brought sufficient sustenance for the journey, an enjoyable side of traveling is the ability to try new wares. New York has some great sources for the adventurous writer. In this era of anonymity, with the banality of big-box, it is refreshing and heartening to listen to experts in their retail fields knowledgeably discuss their wares.

My friend James works with the great folks at Joon of New York. Recently, James and I have been animatedly chatting about... ink. Yes, ink. But James’ descriptions of inks resemble those of a wine connoisseur. Our common ground is in the use of the tools- and our love of the written word. After regaling James about blue inks I’ve found through my travels, he offered some suggestions of his own. Blue shows especially well against warm-toned paper (just as sepia does with cooler and whiter tints). The boldest blue inks tend to be too thick for fountain pen use, and thus I’ve found two favorites for dip-pen writing: Daler-Rowney indigo- which I bought in Canada, and Winsor & Newton royal blue- from Bob Slate’s in Cambridge. Both are perfectly opaque, but their content would destroy the conduits of pens with plumbing. Fountain pen blue inks look weak and watery, compared to the pigmented calligraphy inks, and the best compromise I’d found was Aurora’s blue- bought in Maine. James patiently and jovially brought out a variety of blue inks, referring to saturation and boldness.

James helping me choose the right blue ink, using a dip pen.

Displays at Joon for Faber-Castell (note their salute to their graphite roots) above, and for Caran d'Ache below. Joon has been my resource for the Caran d'Ache fountain pens I use daily.

Sampling the Mont Blanc royal blue, which has the solidity of Aurora- though nicely on the violet side, I settled on this as the found treasure for the road. The moment James brought out the Mont Blanc bottle, I immediately thought of the Rocher Percé, which is in the peninsula region in Canada called La Gaspésie.

Above: Mont Blanc ink bottle.
Below: the massive Percé rock in Canada. To get a sense of how enormous the rock formation is, have a look at the photo I took below my long shot immediately below. I took the bottom photo during low tide; notice how tiny the people look!


arthur brown

Later in the week, I stopped in at Arthur Brown- another favorite purveyor that has kept me armed for the battle for a long time. Art Brown has a dizzying variety of journals- along with writing and drawing materials. No less than three of their brilliant salesmen brought out looseleaf books of ink sample swatches, and we pleasantly talked shop as though we were in a hardware store in New England. One of the gentlemen talked about the coverage of types of inks. “You can’t really compare pigmented calligraphy ink to fountain pen ink,” he observed. “Imagine pouring toothpaste out of a drinking glass, or dispensing water from a toothpaste tube.” He gave me some great pointers, but they will wait until I’ve emptied my new supply of Mont Blanc. Indeed, as the abundant opportunity presented itself, I purchased a few journals, adding to my found treasure for the road.

libraries and museums

Above: window at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Below: Tiffany ink-wells (and yes, that's a gold pen) at the "Met."

Beyond sources for artisans’ materials, large cities offer immortal works of art to reward the souls that seek them out. For the purpose of this writing topic, it will have to suffice to mention that sharing the Metropolitan Museum with ancient manuscripts and artifacts are enormous chambers filled with classical paintings, sculptures, and numerous extended structures to house the best-of-the-best of fine art. I call the Met “the Louvre of the western hemisphere,” and treat it as such: visits are targeted to specific sections, thus avoiding sensory-overload. Amazement remains inevitable, particularly among the Rembrandts, El Grecos, and Holbeins.

pierpont morgan library

Downtown, and a few blocks east of the New York Public Library, is the stately Pierpont Morgan Library. The Morgan has always been my favorite New York museum, with memorable shows such as Beatrix Potter’s original illustrations, Degas’ and Ingres’ sketches, music manuscripts of the great composers (including the original handwritten Messiah of George Frederick Handel), and their unforgettable exhibit of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s manuscript- with the watercolor illustrations- of Le Petit Prince. My introduction to the Morgan was through their William Henry Fox-Talbot show; with wide-eyes, I marveled at the glass-topped table displays of the first-ever photo negatives with their companion paper contact prints. Their collections, largely focused on paper-based works pre-1800, include medieval illuminated books and- not one, but three Gutenberg Bibles (1455).

Above: The East Room, (C)by the Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum, used with their kind permission.

Below: Since photography is not permitted inside the Morgan, I sketched Charles Dickens' travelling ink well. The ink well is included in one of their current exhibitions called "Dickens at 200," which is filled with manuscripts. The ink well has a glass chamber with a silver lid, and it pivots into a wood frame.

new york public library

The famous New York Public Library, guarded by sculpted lions, includes vast research collections, great reading rooms, and an unusual assemblage (2 photos down) of pencils and typed pages. Now there's a thought!

The front courtyard of the NYPL is a great writing-perch. I noticed how my sentiments are shared by others.


More writers- this time at the Caffe Reggio, in Greenwich Village. Indeed, I made the opportunity (below), with my Caran d'Ache "Ecridor" filled with Mont Blanc ink.

Reminding us that we are always upon our way, whether close to home or far afield, waystations are integral to the voyage. The French word relais explains this well, referring to a temporary place of rest. “Une étape entre deux points,” is a stage (as in a milestone, or a landmark, or a stopping-place) between any two points. If conversations, exhibits, and long walks represent reading, the waystations represent writing the connections between jots. We determine our relais, and- I hope- when they are favorable or necessary. These are the counter-forms among our typographic symbols. When the occasion arises that an étape can be along 5th Avenue, I can gladly recall such places when my midweek coffee breaks take place on the Portland waterfront. This surely works vice-versa, as my senses longed for Maine while I peered out for water views between the office buildings in Manhattan. With treasures to write with and upon, there is a winter for me to eagerly embark upon- and more anticipated travels.

(a little further reading, "blue ink and blueberries.")

Monday, November 21, 2011

pilgrim steps

“...that small, interior world widened
as I learned its names and its boundaries;
as I discovered new refuges...”

~ Dylan Thomas, Quite Early One Morning.

My elementary school, Public School No. 13

Above: Saint Patrick's Cathedral- a place of quiet respite on 5th Avenue.

Looking at class photos and trading stories with the current and retired principals at P.S. 13. I had read a portion of my journal to a group of school administrators. The photo immediately below shows the P.S. 13 schoolyard.

Entering one of the classrooms in which I'd been a pupil, to speak to the children.

Taizé at a New York City church : the view from my music stand.

Dylan Thomas, visiting from Wales, read and staged his works at this theatre in Greenwich Village.

The Minetta Tavern was a favorite of many writers, including Thomas and his good friend e.e. cummings.

The Church of Saint Luke in the Fields was the place of Dylan Thomas' funeral (1953). The church's first pastor, in 1820, was Clement Clarke Moore, the original namesake of P.S. 13.

“And one man’s year is like the country of a cloud,
mapped on the sky, that soon will vanish into the watery,
ordered wastes, into the spinning rule,
into the dark which is light.
Now the cloud is flying, very slowly, out of sight,
and I can remember all of that voyaging geography.”

~ Dylan Thomas, The Crumbs of One Man’s Year