“There is a reason, well known to Job, why
even good men must drink the bitter cup of temporal adversity:
in order that the human spirit may test its mettle
and come to know whether it loves God
with the virtue of trusting faith and for God’s own sake.”
~ Saint Augustine, Civitate Dei, Book 1, chapter 9.
Wakeful nights are generally unlit. The grainy grey crepuscule misses the advantage of critical navigational visibility. Pacing my darkened apartment, I notice the dormant windows of the nine-storey building across the street. Or perhaps they are not all dormant. Others might be awake and about, in their respective shadowlands. Amidst the carbon dimness, snippets and scrapbooks of the mind reopen. Decades of scenes and words return to my thoughts in astonishingly categorized compendia. Being threatened on a New York street during a work day of delivering groceries when I was 16. Rewording what I should’ve said during a lecture I gave last week. Noticing the books I’ve collected and wondering where they will go when I’m gone. Opening a drawer of pencils and pens, slowly.
Years ago, I worked with a former Navy photographer who had a million stories. One that stuck to me was about another photographer he worked with, a fellow who worked tirelessly, and eventually died on the job in the print room. My twenty year old self found the death horrifying, but John thought the setting was even more shocking. A frequent recollection comes from a more recent job, at a college. I often ate lunch with the chaplain, who was hilarious, yet grimly serious, and extremely energetic. Admiringly, I asked him what kept him going; he instantly responded, “Fear!” By that, he meant a fear of being unable to accomplish all that was required of him. A fear of inefficiency and failure. Achievement is frequently synonymous with survival.
Having recalled and gleaned collected anecdotes, the dusky scrapbooks close, and my steps circuitously return to more attempts at repose. Marveling at all I’ve seen and experienced, my sense of intact self-survival is offset by doubts about misdirected turns. What have I learned? As I wonder about surviving, my thoughts turn to preservation and how I’ve been tenaciously conserving archives and books as a career. My colleagues and I go to great lengths to safeguard the conveyance of past and present into the future. Archives are assessed for their informational value, and thus interpreted in their indexing. We want these artifacts and their respective contextual documentation to survive.
Why preserve knowledge? Does it have a future in this throwaway wilderness eviscerated by impatience? Do I genuinely survive? The wakeful questions persist. A vital aspect of an archivist’s work is to assess material for its authenticity and relevance. The invisible side of painstaking conservation is what our profession calls “the fine art of destruction.” Both parallels demand scrupulous conscientiousness. Imagine a human mind’s “records retention policy.” In order to survive, and survive well, there are burdensome excesses to discard and otherwise surrender in favor of what is worth preserving. Perhaps that is built into the continuum of personal survival. But as with archives, the process must be worth the vigilance.
What is the purpose of survival, and what good is it? Persistently, achievement does not surface, and things appear to be adrift. I’ve found stagnation to be synonymous with erosion. Seeing no dividends from the promises I have tenaciously banked, naturally I am brought to question my investments. What is their worth? Will they mature in value and remunerate? It is easy to absorb the contagion of a popular culture that obsesses over “metrics,” “outcomes,” and “monetization.” Definitions of what is “redeemable” change with the rapidity and fickleness of software upgrades. Wondering about the value of survival also causes me to question the effort and its emphases. Why endure, when cost and “collateral damage” are so steep- or to borrow another corporate nugget, “unsustainable?”
Goals must be re-examined, to justify all it requires to get there- let alone to tread water. Perhaps this perspective demonstrates my exposure to that very outcome-based culture that causes me to bristle. Ancient and profounder wisdom teaches me to savour the journey. The insomnia-riddled present questions all my tireless striving. Why excel and exert as I have all these years? Amidst the piles of wakeful thoughts are musings about why I’d done so well in school and worked so hard at all my jobs. What of that “permanent record” we were all warned about during 12th grade? Countless exams, research papers, projects, and presentations; where have they brought me? They are no more of a foundation than last week’s time-sheet. Can a mind weep over what was- and what might’ve been? Where does the road turn?
survival is longing
Only a few minutes’ reflection brings esteemed survivors to mind. I have personally known survivors of wars, the Holocaust, near-fatal illnesses, severe accidents, and various traumas. Their examples and insights have made deep impressions upon me. Thinking of these individuals brings me to recognize that built into survival is a driving sense of longing. Perhaps the forces that fuel the spirit of survival contain hope that is certain as to the transcendence of misery. Survivors entrust their aspirations to an innate knowing that their trials do not have the last word.
My days witness endangered treasures. Facilitating and teaching history, I’ve versed myself in the critical dates and sites of destruction, repurposing, and transition. On my daily errands, my mind’s eye sees what once stood upon today’s empty lots, malls, and cheap sheet-metal postmodern structures. Privately, I see the deterioration caused by ailing health among loved ones and colleagues. Even parents, whom I habitually continue to perceive as mighty and everlasting, look uncharacteristically fragile. Memory has come to include places and people that predate me, affecting a past as powerful as the dynamic present itself. An archivist that is spiritually awake is never off-duty.
Striving, and thus surviving, my abiding ache is to see fulfillment. It is as much a personal as a professional longing, and long overdue. Yearning indeed drives survival. Experience and knowledge sown must come to fruition. I have inherited portions of the survival legacies of many, and for that mere sake the squandering of such treasure is an unbearable prospect. A notable survivor, St. Augustine, wrote in the late-4th century with insights that read today as strikingly modern. The north African Christian leader and philosopher wrote through his own survival. Trying to make sense of the highly complex mystery of layered thought, he distinguished the realm of mind as differentiated from that of memory. Augustine observed how we can remember sadness with a mind that is gratefully glad. In exemplary Eastern fashion, spirit is shown to reside deeply within the viscera:
“Surely this does not mean that memory is independent of the mind. Who could say that? No doubt, then, memory is as it were, the stomach of the mind, whereas gladness and sadness are like sweet and bitter food. When they are entrusted to the memory, they are as if transferred to the stomach and can there be stored; but they cannot be tasted.”
How or whether I survive to see better circumstances may be a question from which I’m best off disengaging. Perhaps the very aspect of the unknown as it concerns the future, its very open-endedness, will help me survive for whatever length of time is necessary. With my sense of what archival records-management means, choosing only to preserve what is vital, a great deal of faith is needed. Better than to survive is to survive intact. I know merely to press on, in spite of poor visibility. Part of that unknowing is my astonishment at how I’ve survived this far. Through this mortal life, alas, the simple answers are outnumbered by complex questions. There isn’t a wakeful night or an essay to solve them all, but as the sun rises there comes another try.