Tuesday, January 22, 2013

gift words

“the word spoken by angels
was steadfast.”

~ Hebrews, chapter 2

Swirls of words swarm our days. Screens, phones, printed media, and spoken directives inform and distract. For the most part, the information is excessive, and the distractions tend to derail. Through barrages of verbiage and clichés, the mind is astonishingly able to extract key words. Amazingly, we are as capable of sifting and sorting, as we are prone to missing the point. Words formulate assemblages of letters and sounds that connect souls to concepts, and ignite our responses. Communicated and internalized words carry potential as pivot-points toward our gratitude as well as to our fears. Indeed, what is comprehended either in writing or by voice conveys a message. The words themselves are ethereal structures, yet they may have their own iconographic properties. What is the worth of a word, as a value denominator?

Rather than to look at the broader subject of words in general, my thoughts turn to the word as gift. Holy Scripture phrases universally encompassing magnitude as God speaks life into being. Before all things that live and generate, there shone the Word, the uncreated logos, all at once both ancient of days and ever new. From the panoramic expanse of creation to the humility of human hands, an affirmative word signifies action. Yet still, without physical dimensions, gratefully received words can be cherished as artifactual treasures. In a mystery that is uniquely human, this is possible. The spiritual gift of memory is able to retain more than words themselves, but their contexts, and the tones of the soothing spoken voices that first accompanied those words. With careful curatorial cultivation of the soul’s archives, our highly personal gift-words can be at the ready when we need them. Gift words represent needed strength to sustain the soul through dark times and to make strides in fair weather.

As it admittedly happens, during a rambling church service my attention turned to my palm-sized New Testament which I keep handy for such eventualities. The tiny book is filled with years of my own pencilled notations. Opening it to Hebrews, my favorite biblical section, the words faced up to me as the gifts they are. Each assuring word, and it happened to be the second chapter, reminded me of a weathered yet shining inheritance. Pearls of greatest price have landed in my hands as the brightest orange autumn leaves, wafting through open air to nestle precisely where I can receive them. Then I thought of the ways I restore documents and books, as a paper conservator preserving the written word. Even the bindings and flyleaves have histories to tell. Yet I returned again to the strength of spirit undergirding those tiny, thinly-printed words in my small book. There are many millions of these editions in the world, but this snowflake reached my hands as though authored and printed expressly for me.

For those of us who consider, construct, and comprehend with words, there is an added sensitivity to the verbal message. If we seek, we notice. What makes a word a gift, even something that points to the wellsprings of life? One aspect that comes to mind is that gift words are those pointed directly at me- fashioned especially for me, and spoken to my very condition. Another aspect is how my re-recital of these life-giving words effectively rekindles their intentions. But we sense far more than we can see, and I’ve come to believe that longings surface long after they have been rooted within. Part of this mystery is a longing for good words that reinforce, yet catch us by surprise. Words from our friends that know us best are often the messages that are most striking to our hearts.

The Spirit assures as well as alarms. Two personal examples which I never talk about have their places in this reflection. Very late one night, back when I was 18, I was interrupted from studying at my desk. I was living on a quiet street with large spaces between houses, and was very much awake while the rest of house was asleep. From outside my nearest window, I heard my name, called out several times in a brass-sharp tone. It sounded close to my windowsill. Of course, I went to the window to see who wanted me at that odd hour. Living on the ground floor, I ran quickly outside. Nobody was there. No footsteps, no vehicle, and not a subsequent sound. Just the night sky.

On another occasion, much later and in a very different place, there was a similar shock of an experience. Walking across a plaza in Boston, a section of pavement gave way underfoot and I fell through. I remember the pedestrian directly ahead of me was a blind man with a guide dog. It was an abrupt fall that I hadn’t a split-second to break, and the impact effectively shut out my lights. Long after the rescue, the bandaging, and the recovery, two aspects would not leave my thoughts: firstly, I wanted to know how long I had been unconscious, and secondly I wanted to make sense of something I “saw” during however long that span had been. I would return to the accident scene, bordered with yellow tape, and wonder about how long it took the medics to arrive. I had been reading Saint Augustine’s “City of God” on the subway, and I later had to clean my bloodstain off the cover. The book had been picked up and put on the stretcher with me. But I saw something, and I can describe it precisely. On a black background I saw two words, centered and all capitals in white: “IT’S YOURS.” It took a few years to comprehend something so unusual for so completely sober a person as myself. But the meaning came to me, and it remains to remind me that the life I have has been given to me. Though unknown and without influence or wealth, the gift of living can yet thrive. Several years ago, while running the footpath around Portland’s Back Cove, I looked to the sky above Casco Bay. The “It’s Yours” that had come to me became my “It’s Yours” that I suddenly understood to give back. Sprinting along the salt marshes, I said, “my life, God, it’s Yours- all of it.” The gift of “it’s yours” is to be given constantly.

What I "saw" when unconscious looked very much like this.

As much as words received can be traced back to their points of emanation, that which we internalize will draw us to our sources. Gift words do bring us to the sources of what strengthens us, and what gives each of us our own historic context. Consider how we find our ways through our days with symbols and words, noticing the nutrients as we seek them out. Indeed and realistically so, not every word and message will nourish. The gift words are the rarities that tend to be exceptions to the rules, yet surely not impossible or limited to few. Such words and sequences that enliven are discovered as they emerge. We notice as we seek, and we seek as we notice. Gift words, either spoken or in letter form, provide turns in the road that divert away from meditating upon miseries. Perhaps you, too, have your reference archive of gift words or even musical accompaniments, calling forth your truest self- that which is historic, evolving, and rooted.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

songs in the night

“He said within himself-
Surely, if men be tried and troubled exceedingly,
it is because, while they think about their troubles and
distress themselves about their fears, they do not say,
‘Where is God my Maker, who giveth songs in the night?’”

~ Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Songs in the Night

Winter winds have returned recollections to me that highlight reminders of many late nights ago. In the process of becoming a self-possessed high school student in the early 1980s, I developed a habit of staying awake late into the night. Being the only soul awake in the house, I’d perch at my desk with school art projects spread on the surface- with the radio nearby. The volume was kept low, out of respect, as well as to enjoy the quiet. Even New York City tones itself down very late at night. My tastes have always tended to times long preceding mine. History and depth were always understood to be intertwined. After all, une histoire means “a story,” too. Elder teachers, family members, and neighbors had the most captivating stories with matching dramatic recitative voices. Coming of age at a crossroads was somehow clear to me, and I would ponder this during my midnight musings, already longing for more warmblooded times. In the graininess of night, books, outer clothing, and satchel rested still as granite, but the radio was on. Before AM broadcasting became fully infested with political pugilists, much of the programming gave airspace to local commentators. New York’s abundant airwaves were resplendent with stories, reminiscences, and musings- in between round-the-clock news stations and music. Perhaps the older radio personalities also thought themselves at crossroads.

Listening to calming tones eases the environment and creates an oasis in time. Indeed, as sound is involved, spoken and musical content must soothe, lest the frequency be changed to another station. In my farthest memories- and there still exists some of this today- I’ve enjoyed live broadcasts during which the radio hosts reflect with anecdotes, or converse with guests, or place verbal interludes among music selections, or address the audience as a counterpart. “How in the world are you?” was how King’s College president Robert A. Cook would begin each of his radio offerings. The more interesting commentators display a signature style. Some have been able to make their commercials into entertaining extensions of their shows. Art Raymond, on WEVD, would advertise sponsoring eateries and tell the audience what to order at these businesses.

During dark and solitary hours, the earth and all its life forces continue unceasingly. I knew this from my window, at my desk, with the radio on. Such diversions are able to distract individuals away from making life’s boundaries into something as narrow as a table surface. My radio imaginings would include picturing the sources of the broadcasts. Studios are ensconced in large downtown office buildings, with announcers and technicians awake through the night hours. Some of them tell us how cold it is outside, and about traffic patterns on the roads and bridges. Through all the textbook diction, I could detect local accents. I remember how I could hear Richard Gladwell puffing on his pipe amidst gentle narratives within his classical music show. To this day, I often look at the radio while listening; perhaps many others do this, too. The gesture is similar to that of respectfully eyeing the person speaking to you.

This Philips radio from France has the perfect home in my apartment, with a slanted back
that exactly matches wall's angle.

Among our treasures we find our own iconography: gifts, heirlooms, and the finds that for us mean more than their surface appearances. Indeed, material is inherently temporal, but meaning is transcendently enduring. Only through personal experience can the iconographic aspects of places, things, sounds, and even thoughts be discovered and realized. It is for each of us to comprehend meaning and grasp that which is solid in our spirits. Radio is at least as endlessly fascinating to me as it is to see a photographic image manifest in a tray of developer. Even after all these years. There are technical and scientific explanations for these processes, yet the magic of retrieving sound signals from the air exceeds rationalization.

A radio’s purpose is to clearly receive a range of frequencies, and it must be tuned and positioned to make reception possible. And the goal of the radio’s purpose is for a person’s ability to listen. Radios have no memory. They do not store their commodities. Like cameras, they are instruments designed to register the moment. If such objects are considered in an iconographic context, we can ascribe our personal memories to these instruments. You may see a Realistic Chronomatic 9, but I always see the 15th birthday gift from my father. He offered to buy a television for me, but I said I’d rather have a radio. Over the years, I’ve added a few antiques, and find it remarkable how well they continue to work daily- thus defying the culture of manufactured obsolescence.

Providing company at work. The G.E. radio (top right),
a gift from my lifelong best friend, has accompanied me
through schools, studios, apartments, and many workplaces.

From my nighttime desk, the warmth of quiet music emanating from my radio aperch by the arching lamp, the new year stretches out before me. True to ascribed iconography, the small Grundig on my desk is understated yet far-reaching. It reflects this very instant, having neither past nor future. Yesterday’s news, scores, and statements are forgiven. Brightly through night hours, sounds of Mozart sweeten the horizonless abyss. Its life is a constant update; times and temperatures are always of the moment. The parable of the radio is one of receptivity and discernment, with static cleared away. Winter’s deeps remind us that above reportage and ads are angelic messengers bearing words of assurance. Mystery steeps our midst, and we’ve but to merely acquiesce.

A bright morning near the radio at The Palace Diner,
in Biddeford Maine.