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.


Bill M said...

Very wonderful post. The photo of the reflected building in the coffee is great! I too like to sit upon a perch. At one time I was able to find a nice high place in the mountains. I had a few favorites where I could sit and think and meditate, but never took a notebook. Now I would need a rock like Samuel since where I live it is flat and sitting on the roof is not an option either.

Heather said...

When I was in university I used to walk up on the hill above campus to write. I could look down at the city bustling about below me, and up there in the wind and the fresh air I had a clear view all around to think and to write. I think that for me writing and finding a perch at which to sit are similar in this way - they both involve getting a wider viewpoint and perspective.

Anyway, thank you for this post! Your photo of the red-tailed hawk was also great, by the way. You were lucky to get such a close look at it.

crofter said...

Great photos, and another well crafted entry. Thank you.

lissa said...

it's been a while since I visited, as always, wonderful viewpoints and thoughts that perhaps I had thought of but never written down.

as you said, "a writer’s pause to recollect, record, and look ahead to the next flight of fancy" is something we all do even non-writers. I enjoy settling somewhere to write or not to write or just enjoy being around people.

life is quite slow for me these days. I find myself doing nothing but watch people & the changing surroundings. hope you are somewhere enjoying a calm atmosphere with your thoughts and whatever you fancy at the moment.