Friday, February 24, 2012


“Talk of mysteries!
Think of our life in nature,
daily to be shown matter,
to come in contact with it;
rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!
the solid earth!
the actual world!
the common sense!
Contact! Contact!

Who are we? Where are we?”

~ Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods

Subtle encounters with nature do much to point out our whims. We must always be able to see that our environments extend far beyond the clamshells of our laptops. In vastness is captivating intricacy found. But it takes some cultivated perspective- and the ability to perch oneself at conducive vantage points. My tastes draw me to edges and confluences: shorelines, precipices, and mountains; as edges these have much in common with streetcorners, front stoops, and windowsills. The mind must keep an awareness that horizons are surely farther away than an armspan. It seems the meetings of depths and surfaces provide places for reflective repose. Writing requires a good perch.

Promontories with interesting views are as compelling as they are distracting. But that goes with the territory. One perch is selected in favor of another due to sheer intrigue. A pleasant diversion can serve as needed writing spice, broadening tastes and views. One afternoon at the Boston Athenaeum, a beloved perch of mine, I glanced up from my journal and books surprised by a sizeable red-tailed hawk on the terrace railing.

Such birds of prey find plenty to do between their nests atop office buildings and open spaces such as the Boston Commons, or the Granary Yard which is behind the Athenaeum. Of course I put down my writing to have a good look at the hawk. From its railing intermission, the sleek raptor surveyed the landscape. We looked at each other from our respective perches, and in a few short minutes the hawk flew off to glide above the canyons of Downtown Crossing.

I’ve long referred to the act of writing as the taking-up of a perch. Similarly to perching birds, a writer’s pause to recollect, record, and look ahead to the next flight of fancy is momentary. A suitable perch merely needs the furnishing of a sturdy surface. It can be a chair, a flat section of rock, a dock, a low brick wall, or a well-inclined hill for some back support. Just about the same list may be employed, if a table-surface is needed. Being birds of our own feathers, we each find the landing places for our thoughts. Around the places in which we temporally situate ourselves are the elements of air, light, and either sound or the cessation of sounds. Essentially a preferable perch is a place of reflection. And from that figurative branch with beak between books, victuals, and curiosities, words sing forth.

For this occasion, these words are assembled at the coffeehouse nicknamed in more than fifteen years of my journals as The Familiar Perch. The shopfront is now under its 3rd manifestation as a café, prior to the mid-1990s it was a perfume shop, and these transformations surely follow numerous uses since the rows of brick buildings on Exchange Street were built in the late 1860s. At the base of the narrow street, at the heart of the Old Port, this is an ideal location for its contemporary purpose.

At first, I’d come here to do my homework, preferring the convivial continuum for writing after spending extended silent reading hours in my apartment. Then as semesters progressed into graduate work, constant weekday road travels made any sort of nonacademic writing a rare luxury. The Familiar Perch became a base for my ritual of Saturday morning coffee and journaling- regardless of the previous weekdays’ chaos of coursework and the years of employment-juggling that followed. But it is indeed always a perch. Sitting here to write, I’m a bird on an extended branch scratching recollections on leaves. Some are bound, others are loose folios. Sometimes the words are pecked by typewriter. Over the years, I’ve accumulated additional favorite perches in various cities, states, and countries. These are cherished island oases amidst an expanding ocean, making it necessary to have places to perch though arduous journeys.

Still, the Familiar Perch is distinct with personal history and ambiance. Most of my New Year’s Eve “year in review” journal entries have been written here. During the previous name-change of the café, the new owners set the glass tops over the table linens that remain there now. Writing surfaces have intrinsically mirrorlike properties, and I’m always pleasantly startled when birds in flight high above the mansards across the street are visible in the glass tabletops. Just now a cormorant has darted, it seems, from under the saucer and across to the next table. Sometimes the coffee itself becomes a reflecting pool. The sensation is one of noticing the sky while looking down to write.

Birds intersperse their flights with perches, as there must be pauses to strengthen and observe. Hence the perching writer becomes as a branchseated bird, noticing the world of sights and wind currents, retrieving and sending forth song from within. After reckoning with the moment, a launching toward the next way-station. Perhaps you are aperch right now, or you may be on your way to an inviting ledge of your choosing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


“Whistling in the dark,
I see the lights all over town,
And I keep walking up and down,
While I am whistling in the dark.”

~ Bert Ambrose, Whistling in the Dark

Sunday, February 5, 2012


“Hands that make each day begin again
and bring to light
our distant dreams.”

~ The Monks of Weston Priory, Hands

For the written word to reach the legible surface, an idea must be held buoyant from its depths. Then we form our phrases as they are written down. From eternities and immediate reflexes alike, our hands perform the recording in our own language of thought. The individual is unique and potentially a point of original perspective. Stopping to think about it, I recall the whirlwind of sights, sounds, interactions, and imaginings. A certain slant of light returns parallel seasons past. A radio song on a winter night conjures the hot summer day of its first listening. A turn of phrase from a passerby today brings to life bygone words of a departed soul, and today I’ve handwritten the notes to preserve them.

Through mysterious combinations of intuition and urgency, both conscious and subconscious decisions follow the determining of which ideas will be gleaned for exploration. The process continues, even during moments of setting words to paper. It seems that any in-process apprehensions that ensue are due to notions that the initial jottings cannot be changed and recomposed. Of course they can, and that very thought should encourage further writing. Documentation provides a basis for expanding thoughts and aspirations. The written page becomes something of a reflection pool. Human hands miraculously serve as the intermediary instruments between soul and writing implements.

Hands are the finest, most intricate, and amenable of tools. Instruments capable of making instruments. Our hands were created for us; we haven’t made them. I’ve long thought of my own hands as inheritances from my artistic forbears. There isn’t far to look for me to notice the painters, photographers, furniture makers, tailors, and musicians that have preceded me from both sides of my family. At times, my hands remind me of the family members I most closely resemble- and of those I’ve been told I resemble. Those glimpses usually happen when I notice how I draw, or prepare food, or repair books, or handwrite. A few years ago, it occurred to me how my penmanship merges the styles of both my parents equally. My mother had taught me to write, and that made me impervious to absorbing the official writing style taught at school. Gratitude, in this regard, isn’t so much for a peculiar orthography of calligraphic vertical loops and dotted capital I’s, but more about how the letters and their application form an individual’s development.

By cultivating the human touch to concept and action alike, the soul can creatively venture out. Beyond what is crafted by hand, instruments and visual media can become extensions of operating hands, demonstrating an individual’s comprehension. But beginnings are drawn from the transcendent sensed from within. We animate the materials of our creativity and we can reshape them as well. Keeping that in mind, I’ve noticed how creative methods and tools carry their own respective and intrinsic syntax. Remembering how changing cameras affects and alters my interpretations of subject matter, I’ve found the same phenomenon with writing tools. One writer’s hands shaped to craft with different instruments will write a consistent vision from respectively different vantage points. The individual’s touch begins with formulating thoughts, but is made manifest through commanding the various materials of documentation. Not only have I found subtleties between how and what I write in pencil as compared to pen- one being more ephemeral and pressure sensitive than the other- but I’ve even noticed syntactical differences among the various typewriters I use. An awareness of what I consider “orthographic syntax” helps to free my thoughts from writing standstills.

In these pages, I’ve often clarified how instruments are means for creativity and not ends in themselves. Perhaps a similar argument can be made for human hands, if not for all material. Of late, my thoughts often turn to differences between what may be considered “sufficient” versus heights that compel conscience to engage. Fine tools and trained hands are given their justice in their dedication and use. There may even be results. Winter reminds us of life’s course, with short days of longshadowed bright sun. A life of ideas and journeys has barely enough hours for appropriate words.

Let us bring out those enshrined writing implements and set forth the manna of our best ideas. Eat on the holiday-only fine china with the good silverware on a Tuesday morning. This world of “virtual reality” can use some more counteractive and authentic expression of encouragement. Let us not permit the inheritances of our souls and hands to be lost in waves of autocomplete. Retrieve and recultivate your handwriting. Spell and sculpt your own narratives. Type on a manual machine from your shoulder muscles. Imagine visiting a town of prefab drab squared structures filled with hoarded beautiful housebuilding lumber, saws, planes, fixtures, furnishings, and chandeliers. Indeed, it is the Spirit that gives life. How about a show of hands?