“The reach must always exceed the grasp.
The heart must forever be throbbing for an attainment
that lies beyond any present consummation.
It is the ‘glory of going on,’
the joy of discovering unwon territory
beyond the margin of each
~ Rufus Jones, The Inner Life
Each day is unique and should be a fresh start. This morning’s front page is not yesterday’s. But do we have distinguishable news items, and is it fair to expect and find ameliorations to our daily stories? Yes, it is; and it is also well worth cultivating a discipline of observation. The way to work has only so many variations on the basic route. But in a real sense, just as the day is unique, it is not the same way through the same places. During the lunch hour of noting words in my journal, I chose an old familiar perch. But the day varies context and backdrop. From the second floor window of the coffeehouse, sheltered from the rain, pedestrians’ umbrellas appeared as twirling spoked mushroom caps. Varying my vantage point permits perception practice. The street below revealed textures I hadn’t noticed at ground level. Looking north between office buildings, I recognized a steeple four neighborhoods away, standing at the horizon.
Discovery isn’t simply finding something entirely unfamiliar: it’s also noticing newness in the usual. Surely terra incognita is immediately in our midst. Perhaps you, too, can pinpoint some of your own historic realizations. Our discoveries are for us to store in our hearts and fuel our fires. Last week I enjoyed the double-privilege of residing with the Quaker community in the Beacon Hill Friends House and studying the 17th century works of Richard Baxter at the Boston Athenaeum nearby. The Friends live in the same building as their sanctuary. When I had my first look at the space, with sunlight and verdant colors streaming in from the back garden, my impression halted my steps. I was immediately reminded of my first-ever visit to Taizé, France- which followed two days of traveling, preceded by months of planning: from dusty summerbaked roads, I entered the Taizé monastery’s church and was swept by the combination of beautiful colors, the ambience of the space itself, and the fact that I had really arrived. Discovery has ways of finding us. The Friends’ environment has a similar eloquent simplicity, however in a much smaller and purposefully unadorned space. A new lived experience in a very familiar place.
A week of new horizons in well-known worlds provided respite and insight alike. Between daily visits to the Athenaeum I could stroll the hilly streets unencumbered, having a neighborhood place to leave bags, books, and typewriter. And I could visit with friends, without calculating a same-day return to Maine. There was plenty of time to listen well. Even my handwriting slowed down. The Athenaeum’s rare books room, open only on weekdays, was yet another place of discovery in a library I’ve known for a dozen years. After reading all I could borrow of Baxter’s in circulating collections, it was time to meet the treasures he published in his own lifetime. Requesting to use the special reading room paralleled my query for staying with the Quakers.
More occasions of quiet wonder, with tomes opened for me by scrupulous curators revealing pages printed more than 350 years ago. From the London printer Thomas Parkhurst’s hands to mine, a 21st century bookbinder from Maine, I could barely imagine the readers in between. And could those writers have imagined what New England would become? How about a Quaker Meeting House sharing a neighborhood with Congregational, Catholic, and Episcopal churches- and a synagogue? All this, and a separation of church and state. Baxter would’ve marveled at that. The books- and a 17th century style of protracted-sentenced English- filled many of my daytime hours. I took numerous notes in permissible pencil. A few of these books are also accessible in scanned form, but I found the originals so much easier to navigate. I could glance quickly between prefatory notes and texts. The paper itself gently reflects light. Another area of fascination is the marginalia; little markers to confirm steps in the forest.
Serendipity manifests in ways such as when we realize new acquaintances share similar friends and affinities. Simultaneously our worlds draw nearer while doors open. The serendipitous can also find its way into the bookbindings of printed words. After a solid week of Baxter’s writing- and sensing more of the spirit in the words- I signaled for the last of the books I’d requested. Recognizing the tome as being a bound collection of pamphlets, I looked for the contents list as a finding-aid for the volume. On my way to the Baxter item, in this bundle of random 17th century items, the item immediately preceding Baxter caught my eye. It was a captivating polemic by one John Alexander, something I’d never have found if not for the serendipity of perusing books. With special permission, I photographed the title page. In fact, Alexander’s words, along with how I began imagining Alexander as a person, upstaged the last Baxter piece, and my last few hours were absorbed by this personal discovery.
Time passes astonishingly quickly on sojourns like these. It seems there is a special time zone we inhabit when we are enthralled, and it runs quite opposite to the ones that prevail in schools and employment. As the week drew to a close, I brought a mutual friend of the Beacon Hill Friends House to visit me there, and another mutual friend back in contact with the Athenaeum. And I took a good long walk, finally away from Beacon Hill, my thoughts filled with all I’d intensely read. Back Bay, the Public Gardens, Copley Square, and Commonwealth Avenue- all well-trodden by my old steps- were suddenly easier to enjoy with my leisurely paces.
Beacon Hill has sent me back to the fray with some new strength. I’ve learned how Valley Street can wend up to higher ground. Places of respite are way-stations. These are places in which it is possible to stop, gather, and rejuvenate so that the pilgrimage of trust on earth may be taken up again. Intermissions seem all-too-brief, but it is consoling to know of many refuges that are easy to reach. Last week reminded me to notice discoveries in all forms. The Quaker community, through many spirited conversations, reminded me of kindred spirits. When you think you may have become as jaded as this culture appears to be, you can discover that it is still possible to experience wonder, and that is helped by seeing wonder in others around you. I’ve found myself reading and writing in silence more than before- and to write more slowly. On the northbound return train, my thoughts turned to friendships, newness and excavated finds in the old and familiar. New directions on the old way home.