Tuesday, November 18, 2014

after eight

“Eight days a week
is not enough to show I care.”

~ John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Eight Days a Week.

La Vie Graphite, the blog you presently see before you, is eight years in progress, and now into its ninth year. The actual anniversary is in June, but this past year has been an unusual one. Among the many adventures documented among these essays, my long sojourn at Oxford- combined with a return to Wales- led to the recent string of fourteen essays. My determination to complete the cycle of writing delayed the annual recognition of my online writing continuum. Dreamlike and dream-fulfilling as the experience was, the time of exploration, substantial study, and expression was highly concentrated and not easy to describe. After returning, I’ve been trying to regather my forces through intense exhaustion. The usual output has curtailed, but I have every intention to resume my pace.

As always, gratitude is at the forefront with each milestone. I am grateful for the reading audience- especially considering the autobiographical nature of most of the content in my essays. My thankfulness also continues for the opportunities thus far in my adventures with the written word, the life of pilgrimage, and simply for the ability to write. Amidst eight years of essays, I’ve written from various countries, many retreats, countless indoor and outdoor perches, and during a couple thousand workday lunch breaks. This format is almost as portable as the always-handy pencil and notebook.

For me, blogging began as an outward version of my written journals. I wanted to reach beyond a blank bound book, composing some completed, more polished thoughts as essays, using photography- which for many years was my livelihood and career. And thus the production has proceeded, through travels and motifs, with readers and fellow writers, gratefully as somehow part of an ethereal fellowship in the blogosphere- even the Typosphere. Indeed, I continue with my daily handwritten journals. About ten years ago, I began the pattern of maintaining two journals: one that has structured observations written in ink, and another that is simply a place for fast jottings in pencil- which I’ve long referred to as la vie graphite. The latter tends to be a pocket-sized notebook which accompanies me as easily as a wallet. Pencilled observations, like charcoal sketches, can be smudged, drawn-over, and redrawn, due to the amenable nature of graphite. Blogging adds yet another useful dimension, aside from online presentation: a commitment to production. The “date stamp” of blogging is a constant reminder to continue. I can’t sit on my hands- or lean on my elbows- if I want to be a writer. At the same time, I must live the experience as a participant in life and as a practitioner, and write, if I want to be a writer. Commitment and authenticity help to counteract ignorance. In some memorable words of written correspondence, Flaubert described this passion very well, invoking Pierre de Ronsard:

“Ronsard advises the poet ‘to become well versed in the arts and crafts- to frequent blacksmiths, goldsmiths, locksmiths, etc.- in order to enrich his stock of metaphors. And indeed that is the sort of thing that makes for rich and varied language. The sentences in a book must quiver like the leaves in a forest, all dissimilar in their similarity.’”

Flaubert quoted the 16th century poet, in a letter he wrote in 1854, and here I have added this to the blogosphere in 2014. It is wonderful advice, and I have found such perspective extremely useful in my observations and reflective writing. Listening for the vocabularies of mechanics, scientists, and engineers- as examples- has opened descriptive doors I might not have found otherwise. In this way, journal-writing is something of a journalistic adventure. Returning to my gratitude, observing and writing seem to continue for me quite naturally.

Above: Portland Road, in Oxford, England.
Below: Portland, Maine.

Now to look forward. Even after having traversed these years, there are still many words and themes yet to assemble. There is much more writing to do than there is time available. It is as though a very lengthy path has a very short span of daylight. A personal journal is an ever-unfurling manuscript, mirroring the places and times of the writer. From the point of writing- the present- we can exercise our forecasting, while producing an archival record for our future reference. The recorded word represents a quest, and in such cultivated pursuits we may find our applicable philosophy. In his commentary upon the works of Saint Bonaventure, John F. Quinn observed how the intention of moral philosophy centers on the practice of compassion. Revolving around that intention, our moral action consists in

“...an unremitting search for beatitude, or happiness, founded on a general knowledge or innate awareness of the principles of natural law and on a natural or instinctive desire for the one and only good that can satisfy a human’s proper longing for spiritual fulfilment.”

With prow to the waterways, Year Nine proceeds with hopes for more octaves to follow. I also hope to find more new recommendations for blogs to read, as well as more readers with whom to interact. The pursuit remains worthwhile. Some of you have asked me about the writing process and about the materials of our craft. I’ll try to balance some of these practitioner’s notes, alongside the journeys and observations. Here’s to eight going on nine!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

i’r awyr

“The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day,
So it must have been
after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place,
the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.”

~ Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill.

skyward (i’r awyr)

Menai Straits.

After having considered the elemental presence of the landscape and waterways in north Wales, this trilogy culminates with the skies. As well, this essay also completes the series of 14 reflections from my sojourns at Oxford and in northwestern Wales, this recent year. While hiking at a variety of surface elevations, I consciously noticed the skies and made sure to photograph changes over ocean and mountains. Texture and fluidity of formation caught my attention. Mountaintops and sky interlocked as form and counterform. At times, both sky and landscape appeared equally solid.


Along with these eventful skies, seasides and heights are accompanied by aromatic air. Being a Mainer, the assuring scents of pine trees and salt air have a familiarity equal to my home environment on the North Atlantic. The Welsh coast gave me plenty of reminders, with rain clouds and strong wind currents. Like the Maine weather, the skies above Wales are quickly changeable: rainstorms give way to brightness. Attuned to the subtleties of natural elements, and having time to appreciate them, it is possible to sense fine perfumes such as those of trees, earth, water, and distant woodsmoke. Even sunshine; the sky itself seems to have aromas. Moving air currents generate sounds, especially on windswept hills and mountaintops. An old favorite sound experience is that of wind currents sifted by tree branches; the effect can be astonishingly similar to the sound of ocean surf.

Snowdonia, near Penmaenmawr.

seeing the infinite

Noticing skies reminds me to exercise broader perspective. Matching the contrast between intricacy and vastness, the seen and unseen, is the distinction between lightness and weight. Gaius Glenn Atkins wisely observed how life’s course imposes “the immense burden of finding somewhere beyond its restlessness and contradictions healing regions of unity and stability.” As kindredship with the ocean and landscape helps provide context to my steps, gazing skyward gives reference points to finite paths. Ironically, the heavens give ground to our souls.

As expanse and proximate interchange, making note of sky and air finds a deeply personal connotation in that of one’s very own breathing. My deeply-embedded upbringing and life experiences in densely urban places has influenced the way I tend to perceive scenery. I remember an occasion during which I was able to see art gallery walls lined with my photographs. It surprised me to see the forest scenes and city views had in common vantage points between 2 and 50 feet from the subjects- looking straight or down. It seemed I had been recording motifs along the Appalachian Trail as though I had been looking across streets in New York. That amusing observation caused me to vary my angles of view. Over the recent years, I’ve learned to look upward. The skies are not to be missed. There is great value in seeing beyond our close confines; that is an abiding lesson demonstrated by the mountains and ocean. From very close and structured quarters, knowing to make note of the sky reminds me of transcendent immensity.

Isle of Anglesey

Looking to the skies, and knowing to do so, is part of my training to be undauntedly hopeful. And, indeed, perseverance is easier to say than to successfully practice. Steadfastly looking forward and upward, without seeing results, is hope’s trying crucible. The biblical apostle Peter bids the readers of his first letter* to look heavenward to blessed hope. He begins by referencing historic predecessors who aspired to holiness, guided and aided by the Holy Spirit. In poetic perspective, Peter adds that “angels long to stoop and look into these things.” He then returns to his reading audience, exhorting us to “fix our hopes calmly and unfalteringly” upon the grace that comes to those who hold fast by faith. In affixing our hopes deep within, we express certainty in finding purpose to our many rugged steps and days.

Above views: Isle of Anglesey,
Below: Blue Sky Café, Bangor (Wales).

Perhaps when we gaze skyward, we see the same skies the ancients saw. They noticed the same sun, spheres, and constellations we can see now. When I teach architectural history, I instruct my classes to approach historic buildings with interpreters’ eyes. “Look up for the past; look down for the present.” This is to say that by looking to upper levels they will see much about when and how the building was built, and by looking at the sidewalk level they will see today’s commerce. Many throughout history have considered wide open space as forbidding and empty of life. By contrast, when I look skyward to uncontainable vastness- even to the nighttime void- it is consoling to behold something so much greater and grander than the reach of a human being. Looking to the timeless offsets the habitual fixation with the temporal.

intimate vastness

Isle of Anglesey.

Bringing these elements together, my travels back to New England traversed land and water, via air. As with many westward transatlantic flights, my return trip spanned daytime hours, allowing for views above and through clouds. Iceland was damp and heavily overcast. The Gulf of Maine and Massachusetts Bay were calmly welcoming.

Above: Iceland.
Below: Massachusetts Bay.

From my busy Oxford residency to my retreat and return to north Wales, I understood among many things not to let my thoughts narrow or become too earthbound. The ancient Psalmist whose words** translate as “look to God and be radiant,” may as well have said, “look skyward and be assured.” To be awed by what is grand and unfathomable is at once fearsome and sustaining. Accepting mystery in the forces of creation remind us of our participation as mere ingredients in an immeasurable continuum, pursuing knowledge, beauty, and grace.

Bangor Cathedral.

Penmaenmawr, with Dwygyfylchi in the background.

Bangor Pier, on the Menai Straits.


* 1st Peter 1:12,13
** Psalm 34

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

dyfroedd byw

“With what deep murmurs
through time’s silent stealth
Doth thy transparent,
cool and watery wealth
Here flowing fall
And chide and call.”

~ Henry Vaughan, The Waterfall.


Varied and abiding impressions remain with me, drawn from my experience with the terrain in Wales. Parallel to the element of the land is that of the water. The north coast comprises shoreline, rivers, islands, and mountain waterways. There are as many reminders of home on the Maine coast as there are distinctions uniquely north Welsh. The latter is surely exemplified in the Snowdonia region of mountains, steep hills, and narrow passes.

Llyn Idwal

Intimate spaces and valleys can somehow lend themselves to vastness, due to their proximity to the sea and openness to the skies. The juxtaposed presence of waterways came to mind while hiking the trail along which the Abergwyngregyn falls are reached. Streams and a river trim and traverse the path as it ascends toward two lofty waterfalls. With their sound and spray, falls make themselves known from a distance; at a downward bend in the trail, the presence became suddenly more evident.


Arriving at the base of the falls, a feast of boulders, crevasses, and cold spray rewarded the navigation. Pools of collected and distributing water reminded me of the tidal basins from my home coves across the Atlantic. From the chilled depth of Aber Falls, I gazed skyward to the heights of the source. Though not quite to the massive scale of larger falls I’ve visited in North America, these waterfalls present common aspects. I was reminded of Montmorency, Niagara, and especially my Appalachian Trail adventures. These living waters attest to an endless persevering continuity. They never run dry. All day and all night; even when we’re all back at our jobs. The moving waters are a constant presence, assuring our finite senses of the emergence of creation from unseen depths. Perhaps it is an incalculable mystery as to how long these rushing waters have been tumbling over the cliffs of Snowdonia.

wonder of tides

Afon Glaslyn

On both sides of the ocean, I am compelled by the same traits of these living waters. One such is the timeless appearance of the forces of nature. Waterways and bodies of water are a constant wonder. Beneath reflective surfaces and still lakes are forceful currents, waves, and rapids. Capable of soothing calmness and devastation, waterways have been a mysterious presence throughout my years. Having lived my whole life near coastlines, going to the water means withdrawing from troubling burdens. Simply looking at sea currents and flowing waters is enough to assure and intrigue all at once. The fluid movements are as temporal as they are eternal. Watching the waterfalls brought to mind how a mortal person, at a fixed time, can bear witness to continuity itself. I wondered about the countless poets, thinkers, and observers through many centuries that stopped to gaze at the same mountain waterfalls that captivated me.

Anglesey, North Wales.
Above: Puffin Island. Below: South Stack.

Living with a connection to the water- especially the Atlantic- has bred a built-in reference point within, through which I relate to my context in the world. Following a couple of months of travels, I found myself at South Stack, in Anglesey, looking westward and thinking of Penobscot Bay, which has matching cliffs to those of northwesternmost Wales. The water’s edge is a demarcation of finitude. These margins are thin boundaries to keep in mind the proximity of physical and spiritual worlds.

held by the source

Nowadays, I look at the ocean, Maine rivers, and nearby cascading falls with the imagery of Wales in mind. In many aspects of life and perspective, a sense of familiarity draws together places and experiences. Beneath the physical features of waterways and shorelines are the concepts of continuity and clarity. But the profoundest unifying factor is dearness to heart.

Above: Looking west toward Maine, in Penmaenmawr, Wales.
Below: Looking east toward Wales, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

I’ve described physical features which tie to rich metaphors in the life of thought and spirit. Seeking and continually returning to the water is directly related to going to the wellsprings of trust as though to a lifeline. In a culture that truncates and pushes tasks and spans so closely and immediately, thereby eroding liminal spaces for recollective thought, the limitless sources of creation provide contrasting respite. Vastness, depth, and untamed forces of nature are spellbinding while also wondrously comforting.

Grander than all which has been tabulated and distilled into bulleted points is the compelling mystery of the unknown. My views of waterways are changed. In true pilgrimage fashion, I have re-approached my home with enhanced perspective. Adventures cultivate a deepening supply of insights and comparisons. Awe-inspiring sights and experiences help to soothe undetectable personal progress. Waterways and their constancy evoke timelessness. They maintain their forms and forces, while turbulence occurs inland, away from shores and riverbanks. It is as though bodies of water speak timelessly to the rapidity of the passage of time. Fluidity may imply changeability- even instability- yet an individual soul may decide to be equally pliant. “Loosen the grip,” I thought, while immersing my hands and self into the cold waters. The moving currents cannot be grasped; infinite flows through the finite. Like our ephemeral slices of time, the living waters become our possession by our participation and our reverence.

* dyfroedd byw, means living waters.