Wednesday, March 25, 2015

survival


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“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.

surviving

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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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purpose


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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?”


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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?


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survival is longing


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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.


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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.



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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.”
~Confessions, ch.10.


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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.


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Monday, March 2, 2015

everyman


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“Everyman, I will go with thee
and be thy guide,
In thy most need
to go by thy side.”


~ Knowledge, speaking to Everyman, The Summoning of Everyman.

My intention is not to write about disillusionment. There are more than enough reasons for discouragement, and so I will resist the temptation of enumeration. For the moment, it suffices to merely acknowledge adversity and the existence of troubled times. To hopelessness, I say to it that I can see it; I know where it lies, and I know how near to my boundaries such threats lurk and encamp. And I continue writing, pencils sharpened, aware of threats and vulnerabilities, along with the blessed mystery of open ends unknown.



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As well as being a steady companion, writing is at once historic witness of things past, and reminder of what is hopeful. The phrase, “the unobserved life is not worth living,” attributed to Socrates by Plato, is surely subverted by those who write of their lives. We may say the written life is one that is accompanied, and acknowledges that very accompaniment. Sojourning among mountaintops, valleys, and protracted stretches of surface, reflective writing does not waver in its importance. Persistence as an active observer through disillusionment finds a parallel with perseverance in belief.



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Over the years, I’ve seen many individuals define their identities by their adversities. Indeed, not one of us can avoid being shaped by that which affects us. Somehow just the other day, when a colleague talked about street crime, in passing I mentioned having been mugged four times in New York. In subtly embedded ways, such ingredients find light of day long into an unpredictable future. Relatively small grains of time potentially leave undiluted impressions. Assaults, confrontations, and betrayals span from youth through adulthood- all with a first-person narrating protagonist in common, all with the threat of disillusionment, all with some sort of incidental instruction. It seems I retain a foothold in the territory of childhood, as I continue to see and recall as I had many years ago. There remains an idealism that affirms a belief that productive work will lead to advancement, and that it is of greater consequence than cronyism, even when success does not materialize.



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Writing proves to be a witnessing documentation, no matter the level of accomplishment in an individual’s life. Disappointments and fears have their places for acknowledgment, truthfully within our contexts. But not all points of reference serve well as focal points. A costlier pitfall than failure is that of cynicism. A rarified form of perseverance is an outlook that is free of bitterness. I would rather be identified by my aspirations than my defeats. To write honestly, both aspects deserve their place; it is for the journal writer to determine their emphases.



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Through my years of studying medieval history and philosophy, I’ve long appreciated the Everyman quotation. Books printed by the publisher Everyman’s Library include the phrase on their front flyleaves. The source is a morality play, in which the characters are named after various traits- an aspect also found in such classics as Piers Ploughman and Pilgrim’s Progress. Everyman struggles with temptation, making an arduous pilgrimage of reckoning. He carries his “account book,” or ledger of his deeds. We might say he keeps a journal. Among those he meets along the way is his friend Knowledge, who pledges to be Everyman’s guide in this odyssey en route to eternity.



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An underpinning for this blog is the perspective of an everyman. I’m an everyman, a writing soul that documents a pilgrimage of trust. In my blog photographs, I do not fully face the camera, and I use a pseudonym. The pilgrimage is the grand, overarching setting for an ordinary life. In spite of anonymity, there abides something unique even in an ordinary worker’s life. Common and fragile as a reed, as Pascal observed, yet no less than a thinking reed. A weathered, vulnerable plant that can distinguish significance, being, and articulation. An anyone that writes, insisting upon my own meaning, despite having been denied it at many points in my history. Thinking, or speculatively observing, along with writing, entwines as an unfolding testament to hope. Essentially, creativity is aspiration.



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An everyman (or, an anyperson) that is demandingly individual. Do these terms conflict? The contrast may find its sole exception within the complexity of a human’s life. Though dust, and to dust shall we return, each sojourning soul has potential as a creative instrument. Temporal and eternal, the wavering reed and the rock of eternity, exist together. A humbled everyman, I am distinct enough to write my journeys. Journal-writing is an affirmative to living, a declaration of meaning- albeit held privately. But the pursuit must not be self-obsessed. I prefer to think of reflective writing as an interaction with my environment, a mode of communication that combines contemplative recollection and exploration. Writing gives place for acknowledgment of what my soul witnesses and experiences. With the freedom to contemplate and write honestly, even if just for my own eyes, I’m able to respond to any person, thing, or event- now, near, or far.



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And indeed, with a medium such as the one through which you see these words posted, we have the fellowship of writers’ and readers’ crafts. That means writing, even journal-writing, allows me to participate and contribute in the direction of something larger. Part of this contribution is encouraging others to write their observations, and thus sharing the craft- from the documentation aspect to the arts of handwriting. Learning and observation must continue. These days, in between my work and caregiving responsibilities, I am writing to find some new goals. A life of short projects causes my ambitions to look too modest. Beyond my occasional “busman’s holidays” to Boston, fine as they are, there must be something grander. My hope is for this to materialize as I continue writing and reading, which thankfully happens without much effort. Let Knowledge go alongside this Everyman.



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