“Because my heart was enkindled, my reins also were changed.”
~ Psalm 73:21
tenuous to temerity
There is a strange selectivity to perceiving the interminable, and it’s likely our use of the former to identify the latter. Indeed, the desire to preserve what is cherished seems eclipsed by the persistence of the odious. Or so it appears. While time is mercilessly indiscriminate, matters as solid to us as tastes, affections, and value are not. Reckoning with what really looks like a disparity demands detached perspective. But mortals like me are not formed that way, and I’m increasingly reminded of this. I want the good things to permanently prosper, and I want the bad things to quickly dissolve. As with a misaligned game of exquisite corpse, the components cannot be coaxed into lining up as they should. Apparently, it is an indicator of maturity to cease expecting the puzzle-like sections to smoothly dovetail. Yet still, despite decades of disappointment and that supposed sense of better judgment, I continue to anticipate.
And thus I wake very early every morning, energetically taking on complex and long workdays. Those dusky hours before the slippery slope of servitude and sold time are guarded for journal writing and reflective reading. My everyday habit of many years in an old building has been to begin filling the bath immediately after waking, brew coffee and round up necessary clothing- all at once. With my coffee cup on the bath ledge, I ready myself to be a clean slate for another day. Perhaps it bespeaks a penchant for punishment, but I tend to listen to the radio, while readying in the bath with the day’s first cup of coffee. Sometimes it’s news- just enough; sometimes classical music. I try to find some inspiration via preachy broadcast programs, almost all of which are banally sophomoric. Though admittedly there are some worthy nuggets- any of which will outdo a typical staff meeting- I’ll often reflexively turn off the radio. In recent months, as I quickly shut down whatever has invaded the peacefulness of the morning, my thoughts instantly turn to prayers for a future. Through the soft salt-lamp light and bath vapor, I look from the silenced radio to the clothing stand. How I wish for a future. Prayers are staked on faith, on my persevering anticipation and hope for a future that exceeds past and present. Like the news and seasons, trendy words, employment, and running water, my time is temporal and tenuous. I need to know I’m heading in the right direction, that goodness really is in store.
gaze fixed, yet unknowing
Diligence, industriousness, and carefulness are all pointed toward the future. By this, I mean a good future; an arrival upon shores of stability, better employment, and some form of compensation for all I’ve been enduring all these years. I believe many starve for something like this, and work very hard toward such goals. Though in a less material sense, belief in a good future is essentially faith. Spiritually speaking, a good future refers to union with God, clearly beyond and above the routine- yet through it. Speaking as a worker and a Christian, my contention is that a good future is both goal and means. Ideals are rarely attained. For me, however, the choice is to risk the full commitment of applied life in a forward direction- reaching forth for the prize. Doing so does mean believing in the effort as much as believing in the goal. That’s an enormous amount of full-tilt striving.
Paradoxically, with forces fixed upon skills and sustenance, I am intensely enjoined to live in a spirit of detachment. It is a paradox among the many that oscillate between momentary and eternity. We invest that which is ephemeral and visible toward what will be abiding and yet unseen. Regardless of level of material wealth, there are intentions to invest- or to squander. I like to emphasize civility toward neighbors whenever possible; you never know who may be pushing your car out of a snow drift. Uphold a sense of decency, amidst prevailing meanness.
The path of detachment and depletion is a very steep, narrow, and rugged climb. This was experientially known to San Juan de la Cruz, whose Ascent of Mount Carmel meant unfettered focus on the Divine- even as the voyage leads into densest, darkest tunnels.
“In this detachment, the spiritual soul finds its quiet and repose; for since it covets nothing, nothing wearies it when it is lifted up, and nothing oppresses it when it is cast down, because it is in the center of its humility; but when it covets anything, at that very moment it becomes wearied and tormented.”
(The Ascent of Mount Carmel, book 1, ch.13)
He added, in Book 2, that “the less the soul works with its own ability, the more securely it journeys, because it journeys in faith.” To say the least, this is an interesting mindset with which to pursue a career; the dozens of approaches I’ve tried have not caught the proverbial brass ring. San Juan’s night of sense teaches simultaneous passivity and forward motion. He urges his readers to hold fast to the practice and pursuit of agapé, while releasing one’s grasp of “objects of understanding.” Threaded within this wisdom is an instruction to hold fast to trust, while purging away self-aggrandizing notions. Even as desolation extends to the horizon, believe in the journey’s purpose, dare to visualize resolve, and take stock in the solidity of the interior road. During drives on unlit highways at night, as well as through snowstorms with whiteout conditions, foregrounds and distances are undifferentiated. These conditions force me to keep very close watch at what is immediately in front. Sometimes the sole points of steering reference I’ve got are hints of a guard rail and bits of painted lines. Thirsting to advance means attention to the immediate. Such scenarios are parables of prayers for a future, looking ahead without losing what is proximate, leaving past to historic citation.
Writing with such frequency about patience and waiting continues to be true to the moment, providing plenty of documentation for future retrospective. That, itself, is a bold statement of faith. Though I practice patience with individuals, groups, and my diverse work procedures, I’m terribly impatient for better days. Life is very short, none of us get younger, and I intensely dislike time-wasting, treadmill-running, and misapplied talent. I’ve endured too much of that. We are designed to face forward and to move ahead. Treading water spends too much valuable physical and mental energies. Striving and waiting make for a painful grind.
There have been increasing reasons for me to revisit these persistent and convicting thoughts. Struggles that unfortunately lend to self-centeredness have been recently punctuated by the passing-away of three friends whom I knew from three different spheres of my life. Two were close colleagues; I gave the eulogy for a co-worker and friend of more than a decade. All three were wonderful, brilliant, and cultivated. In their collective wake, people like me can only wave from the shore, keeping memories to talk about and write down. Speaking for myself, I am very much in the land of the living. As long as I continue, there is a future. My years have been very much centered around readying for the future. Academic life is steeped in the concept of preparation. The amassing of knowledge, along with being equipped to compete, and readiness to provide. Always a next thing, looking to a future that exceeds the present. Built into this are strenuous self-improvement efforts. Good outcomes would justify what I’ve survived; it’s a motivating factor.
Recently returned from some tiring holiday travels, I dutifully went back to work. There’s nothing like a hiatus to accentuate all that glaringly needs to be improved- along with appreciated. The longer the absence, the more clearly this is evident. My workspaces have but one window through which I can occasionally glimpse the outside world. When I pass through the hallway with the window, I glance down to the intersection below, and up to the skies above nearby rooftops. Looking at scurrying pedestrians, I’m reminded that a great many people struggle. My earnings are less than my state’s per capita median, and I’ve just been hit hard by a rent increase in a woefully gentrified city. But there are surely the less-fortunate. Looking from the window provides some reminders. I also picture those passed on, that I used to regularly meet along the streets beneath the window.
I go to this same window during my occasional breaks. The glances have time to become gazes, and then- quite naturally- prayers. For a future. For the health of loved ones. For better days of better work, better conditions, and better housing. For fulfillment. For justification of all this hard work and forbearance, balancing out the chain of substandard situations. Indeed, there is an element of justice in my hopes. Striving and ambition are paralleled with the passive paring-down of San Juan’s night of the soul. Liminal space isn’t much of a place for residency, and certainly not for comfort. Similar to being a tenant-at-will, studying with library books, and provisional employment, I can say I have nothing while also everything. By writing I may be no-one as much as someone. By reading I may be depleted while also filled. Still, true to the ephemeral, tomorrow morning’s prayers will rise through the steam and the grainy salt-lamp light. Within the darkening night, embers of intention burn for a good future.