Sunday, February 20, 2011

look, listen, live

“Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream

~ John Lennon, A Day in the Life

Consider how well you know the sound of your own voice. In unstrained tones, without restraint. And recall the appearance of your unhurried handwriting. These manifestations attest to our observations and developments of thought. Vital signs of the soul’s engagement with reality require light, air, solitude, nurtured with vigilance. A string of 11 days comprised 10 workdays, during which I’d greatly looked forward to the respite that followed. With a bright early start, bookbag, coffee thermos, and my typewriter on the car seat next to me, I set off on the road. First the news and weather forecast, then I switched to recorded music, over which I began to talk- prompting me to shut down the sound system. Apparently there was a lot for me to discuss, wavering between a recap of the week, collected quotes, sights, and sundry observations- all connected by my witness. In his memoir of his childhood at sea, Frank Bullen wrote, “I grew up with a habit of providing my own company, holding long conversations with myself aloud.”

As highways unfurled before me, my voice connected all the subjects and matters that had saturated recent days. Noticing other drivers on their various cellular devices, it occurred to me how they resemble those who talk to themselves. Maybe that’s what they’re actually doing. Generally, impressions related to those who speak aloud without a detectable counterpart draw reference to mental imbalance or antisocial behavior. But perhaps all those cruising bluetoothers are doing us self-talkers a favor- as long as we can’t hear them. And that’s just it: solitude along a trail or in one’s own vehicle provides context for an interior oratory that is very much like journaling. Developing an inner line of communication makes for a broadcast that is more interesting (to us) than much of what’s on the radio. Talking to oneself in the car is the perfect opportunity to be extremely tedious. Just think of all the tedium our minds absorb through an ordinary week! Then once the mind is de-saturated, the discourse works down to more enduring thoughts. The more uncompromised the privacy, the more honest our observations. Indeed, it is more than in our human interactions that we can reflect upon what we’ve noticed in our inflections. For years, I’ve peppered my journals with paragraphs that begin with “I heard myself say...”

To be able to hear the voice within- let alone the Holy Spirit’s call- there must be some form of silence. Away from commotion, clear recollection happens quite naturally. But it means changing the pace. During my years of repairing photographic processing machinery, I’d note how the best and most efficient processors had an “automatic standby” switch. This meant that when there were no prints fed into the machine to develop, all the cogs and roller-transports would pause- even the water pressure dropped, preventing waste; but all the liquid temperatures held, ready for new material. The mind’s automatic standby takes shape as “breathing room,” and I’ve derived this from travels, meandering walks, and even glancing from a window. And journaling. Liminal spaces are well worth defending.

A few days ago during a stretch of travel on a Boston subway train, I looked around and noticed many passengers engulfed in their smartphones and palm-sized texting components. At the point when the Red Line emerged from the tunnel to traverse the Longfellow Bridge, revealing the sparkling Charles River, I saw how phone-engrossed all these people were. Flashy little electronic tethers divert so many from allowing their minds to muse and wander beyond practical dimensions. Those liminal spaces for open-ended thought are endangered as they erode- such as on subways, or even in elevators. These are brief and transient situations when the mind has a chance to stand by. We may be looking out through a subway window, or at an elevator floor, but the mind’s processes are digesting. Perhaps there had just been an animated conversation- good or bad. Maybe the elevator ride followed a layoff- or a hiring. And that little setting of temporal time and space is where the mind can do its version of breathing. One person’s obsession can surely become another’s obstruction: many of us have walked behind gadget-possessed pedestrians who waver and halt at centers of sidewalks and streets. (Much has already been said about “distracted drivers.”) Those who are lost in phone function mode are neither looking nor listening, and are unconscious of what’s happening around them. Trading stories with a colleague about popular communication-device-dependence, she observed, “in this culture we’re in a constant state of fight-or-flight.”


By contrast, I recall strong impressions after my first-ever visit to a Quaker meeting for prayer. Being a graduate student with a 200-mile commute, amidst employment, teaching, and field work, the silent ambiance was extraordinary. Describing the shared extended contemplative stillness in my journals, I referred to the experience as disarming and confrontational. There is nothing to hide behind; not a single ritual or ceremony to be learned- save for the discipline of attentively quieting oneself. I’ve grateful kept in touch with the community, visiting them occasionally, and always in awe of their literature.

With the idea of vanishing liminal spaces in mind, it amazes me to see how many churches subvert environments meant for prayer with unrelenting sound and visual overstimulation. Never knowing quite what to do in these places, and being a polite guest, I’ve been glad to have a notebook and an imagination to preserve some thoughts. Otherwise, the experience resembles that of fast-food, complete with feigned abundance and ephemerality. Hardly a threshold moment between the earthly and the limitless.

But, alas, few of life’s avenues bypass daily dietary demands for flashing screens, incessant news-crawls, and white noise. Damaged attention-spans become unable to settle in front of great works of art that invite our gaze and can actually bear up to scrutiny and dreaming. As with the Quaker meeting, I’ve often pulled one of those little wicker chairs up to Rembrandt paintings at the Louvre, savoring the artist’s presentation of transcendent mystery. Surely, this is no anti-high-tech rant, but rather an affirmation for those of us post-moderns who dare to ponder and muse. Blessed are the pensive, for they shall inherit subtle perception and an ability to read between lines.

Inevitably, each of us must confront self and Source. There’s every good reason to do that while at the heights of one’s energies and form. In this regard, due to my own circumstances, I’m grateful for my very early start. All that attentiveness, adventurousness, and jotting comes in handy. Facing his unjust incarceration, the ancient Boethius bested his irrevocable fate with philosophy and faith. His Consolation of Philosophy, enduring across millenia, attests to how a well-rooted soul can be raised up and “freed from the darkness of deceptive emotions and enabled to recognize the true light in its splendor.” Boethius was among those who found consolation amidst suffering, and the strength to bear it. For us, the living, the ladder of contemplation raises our sights above little devices and space-fillers, toward blessed vision. Pursue the path to the end. Be consoled by life-giving words, imagery, and ideas. Begin and recommence by noting your own voice.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

collecting points

“If I try to describe him here, it’s so I won’t forget him.

It’s sad to forget a friend. Not everyone has had a friend.
And I might become like the grown-ups who are no longer
interested in anything but numbers.
Which is still another reason why
I’ve bought a box of paints
and some pencils.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

a few collected places.

a point of recollection.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

duly noted

“When we despair of gaining inner transformation
through human powers of will and determination,
we are open to a wonderful new realization:
inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received.
The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours.
The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside.
We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God;
it is a grace that is given.”

~ Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline.

Looking for new encouragement, I’m remembering some old words. Times of seemingly endless struggle demand consolation. It does not suffice to simply keep going without good reason and purpose. Straining to see far ahead has a way of diverting from taking stock in the present. The here-and-now is a moving point along undefined timelines; thus it is fluid and ever-changing. When I find myself bewildered with crossroads and closed doors, I reach for words stored deep within that taught me. Perhaps this occurs to you, too. Be strengthened by the good things you’ve learned; they continue to teach.

In graduate school, the finest and most brilliant educator I’ve ever met imparted much more than technique and ability. By the time I graduated, he became a friend with whom to exchange insights and books, and offered advice I needed to face a perennially depressed job market. Last evening, I remembered Professor Anderson’s celebrated course in Reference Services (exceeded only by his inspiring courses in management theory). In our studies that trained us to unambiguously respond to research queries, we were taught about ways in which questions manifest. What is asked is a “wanted,” and what is already established is a “given.” If a question is unclear- and indeed, there is a skill at being able to ask a specific question- we were taught how to draw out what AJ called the real question. Our research assignments involved long lists of intensely complex and arcane reference questions, and we were all turned loose to solve them. But it was not enough to come up with the answers, we wrote detailed analyses of the sources we used, narratives of the hunt for the answers, including our “what-learneds.” The genius in this was that we each had to specifically describe how we proceeded- all the fits-and-starts- and what we learned in the process. All of this information was in addition to our having answered the reference questions. Clearly, the teaching rationale had deeper goals than to superficially train data-brokers. We were being taught to synthesize queries, sources, information formats, and facilitate guidance in ways that would be appropriate to those we serve.

One pointer from AJ that I’ve always cherished is, “read with an eye to application.” A marvelously affirming phrase that describes how I value my studies with respect to how they can be applied. Through implementation, we can find out how much we’ve really learned. Further, the prospect of becoming able to embody what is learned, my reading and listening are actually enhanced. There are things to comprehend and practice, hence there is much to be distilled and taken to heart. And still further, the learning need never cease. Through this, we’d all like to think we grow wiser with the passage of time. Age is generally thought to be equivalent to an increase in wisdom. But is this true? Perhaps adaptability is the best testament to cultivated wisdom. How attentive and consistent is that sense of application through transitions of living? Going for walks through and around places trimmed with remembrances causes me to notice changes, and reminds me that time never stops. The same trees are different now, the same buildings have new shops and paint colors, and this same person walks with this year’s shoes.

qual parts of vigilance must be assigned to both constancy and innovation. This is to say perseverance to keep on going, alongside a watchfulness to make opportunities. Duly note while giving due diligence to possibilities for betterment. I can only hope for an improved level of perceptive alertness that empowers me to alter my own course when necessary. More things are changeable than we tend to realize. When I was very active in the field of commercial photography, I learned to customize every new piece of equipment to accommodate getting the job done. Those lenses, easels, tripods, and camera backs were merely raw materials when unpacked from their boxes. As we increase in our knowledge of the crafts we practice, our sense of refining our basics continues to heighten. In addition, experience gives us an ability to anticipate results to correspond with efforts, ingredients, and time allotted.

Here in northern New England, winter has cycled down into customary deep freeze. This is the flip side of summer’s “dog days,” in every way- from shortened days to dormant forests. Seasons notwithstanding, continuum rolls on. Motion is never fully stilled. And with such consideration in mind, embarked upon this new year, I hope the progress of my steps increases and does not stagnate. Applying principles as they are learned will counteract emptiness of word and action.

Several nights ago, I was awakened by remembrances from a job I once had which resembled a sports highlight video- except these were the low-lights. A barrage of my most regrettable moments, strung together, from an inconsequential number of years past. Gathering my wits, I reminded myself of the uselessness of replaying buried and otherwise nonexistent events. Thus, lying awake at 2 a.m., I lulled myself back to sleep by very deliberately giving thanks for what had been positive about that job, and for all I’ve learned through the years. When I woke, it occurred to me how recollections must be forged into constructive tools, rather than anchors.

Make the present what the past hadn’t been. History can indeed be used for changing patterns and taking forward action. We can all look back to our own historic intersections at which we chose higher roads. No doubt there will continue to be such crossroad experiences.

Rather than attempt at generating an inventory, I’ll simply recall my gratitude for the times I chose not to engage a goading, and for the better decisions I’ve made in realms of projects, travels, creative pursuits, and relationships. I once worked with a man who had burned his bridges to such a detriment that on the occasion in which he had to be hospitalized after a grisly traffic accident, I was his only visitor. Although he had stolen property from me, it was painful to hear people make fun of his condition. So I went to bring him cheer. It was the right thing to do. On another occasion, years ago, I might have easily nominated myself into a grant-funded project to follow an initial assignment at a certain workplace- but declined due to questionable ethics I’d witnessed. Completing my work and moving on to better affiliations, I did the right thing. As I comprehend the cultivation of diligence, I appreciate the skill of sizing up a situation. It is unwise to be drawn into settings that are counter-intuitive, but it is wise to notice the appropriate occasions to walk the extra mile. Part of that is knowing when and how to adapt with the present, dignifying and implementing the goodness that has been absorbed.

this long and complex journey, the written chronicle serves as an indispensable witness. If resilience attests to the what-learneds of life’s pilgrimage, then faithful and honest journaling is the voyage’s testament. My writing continuum flexibly moves between description and exploration, the only guideline being that of candor. In so doing, the words are my own reportage- a unique form of journalism. After all, reporting the journey generates an investigative primary account. The documentation and its topics exist together in the same provisional dynamism. Reading back in time to past entries, much as those walks to familiar places, is its own time-lapse photography. With each carriage return, scroll, and margin-release of my typewriter, with each round of syphoned ink, and with each whittled-down pencil, the written record follows time’s perpetual motion. That which is seen and heard- the experiential (or, in 17th century parlance, the experimental)- registers in our inner reference tomes. When I was 16, an octogenarian neighbor taught me to end each substantial meal with something sweet-tasting; this way the appetite is properly sealed for the next repast. I still do this, following his effective advice with a morsel of chocolate or a cereal bar, while remembering my elderly friend’s marmalade toast.