Saturday, December 30, 2017

for a future

“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.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017


“In this quiet moment of a changing season,
we are called to remember:
Never stand still but move with one heart.

The colors of this hushed autumn morning
will all too quickly fade
into the still winter silence.”

~ Monks of Weston Priory, Move With One Heart.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


“...the narrow way which ascends the high mountain of perfection
requires such travellers as are neither weighed down with any burden
as of interior things, nor with higher things
in such a way as should embarrass them, since this is a journey
in which God alone is to be sought and attained.”

~ San Juan de la Cruz, The Ascent of Mount Carmel.

Having been intensely self-driven and self-sufficient, due to necessity for so many years, I’ve also had to be one to seek out experienced advice. I appreciate hearing and reading the insights of others. In the shorthand of my journals, “I want to know what I don’t know.” My survivor instincts insist upon betterment, fulfillment, growth, and participation. Status-quo is as insufficient as it is tenuously fragile. A friend who is a social worker recently observed that my circumstances over the years amount to a “crucible” that defies explanation. Perhaps not the most helpful thing to hear, but worth a thought. Struggle tends to be a humming din beneath the surface, though occasionally the mechanisms rattle and distract. The cumulative effect can paralyze the strongest aspirations, and that is unaffordable.

These times are more desolate than usual. As the mind continues to work and look to better things, it is only natural to try figuring out the meaning of this crucible. Why the persistent lack of career fortune, why the instability, why the merciless rejections, why the unrequitedness of life in general? Perhaps this is some kind of indefinite, exhausting test. Indeed, I can operate through days and months on “auto-pilot,” yet all the while aware of living the biblical metaphor of a light smothered under a bushel. I would rather not be self-engrossed, but ambition is for the individual to manage. Of course, and as many do, I am looking for significance. Hopes and circumstances stand in opposition.

In darkness, it is difficult to know whether there is something close at hand. Discerning substance and its details is impaired by obscurity. Turning to the experienced works of San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross, 16th c), there are some directives. He poetically and thoroughly wrote about the soul’s Night of the Senses, and the Dark Night of the Soul, reminding the reader to cease excessive intellectual operation and reasoning. He goes further and says not to ask why, but to simply detach from the injurious aspects of sense, question, and memory. The intellect was created to see the Divine, but it is incapable of that sight, said San Juan, unless God grant it the gift of infused contemplation. The metaphor of night was also quite physical for San Juan, as these concepts came to him during his unjust and protracted incarceration in a dark Castilian dungeon. He did not know if he would survive, though he managed a night-time escape from the cell. His description of the Night of Sense begins with detachment. It is a night, because San Juan said the soul travels in darkness on its way to union with God. In very brief, he wrote that the soul experiences three stages: the Purgative, the Illuminative, and the Unitive. For San Juan, light and dark are not always in opposition; in the Night of the Spirit, the inmost soul is pared-down, illumined and purified.

The works and biography of San Juan de la Cruz have become my daily studies during lunch breaks. I make sure to leave the building and be away from interruptions, so that I can soak in the ideas that seem very far away from limitations and barricades. Just as it was for the congregations he addressed and counseled in 16th century Spain, this is life-giving consolation and food for more thought. I’m able to return to work somehow equipped with some renewed fortitude. Over the years, I’ve tried to read his works and have set them aside. But now the poetry of illuminating night speaks squarely to my condition. Comprehension is built up with time and experience, even if it’s about the peeling-away of self. I’m grateful for the enduring studies which I’ve pursued at my own pace. When this is done around consuming schedules, only small distances can be covered. Just as well for the savouring. When I study philosophy and theology, I don’t always immediately understand what I’m reading. But I follow along, many times swept up by the images in the words and what they cause me to consider. When I revisit the texts later, understanding more of the concepts, I realize how little I grasped on the first pass. Evidently, cultivation is a patient process, and the crepuscule remains.

In this solitary wilderness time, I’m compelled to provide my own direction and defense. The arrivals of reinforcement and granted prayers are unknown to me, yet that cannot be cause to stand still. I’ve learned to be resourced enough to provide residual energy. It’s the proverbial spare battery in the desk drawer. Sometimes the fuel reserves can be pulled from personal history. During my 14-year career in commercial photography, I was immersed in a profession that valued available light. We measured light in lumens and footcandles. Most of my workweeks were spent in complete darkness, producing imagery under intense pressure. Just today, I thought to myself, the present abyss must have some places for available navigational light. I cannot really provide what is needed; it’s never entirely adequate. But since I’m never at liberty to stop and procure the full picture, I still must proceed with whatever I can scrounge up. In this Dark Night of the Soul, as San Juan de la Cruz described, the conditions of the passive depletion and active renewal run parallel for a span of time. He said the soul must become accustomed to the loss of solid signs, as it transitions from meditation that relies upon the intellect- to contemplation that relies on naught but the Spirit.

Indeed, the metaphors are surely appropriate to me, but my life is not that of Juan de la Cruz. He didn’t have employment tribulations, or deal with dissonantly cold online application processes, usurious student loans, or have to concoct the perfect résumé. Granted, he did suffer biases and cruelties, and had to live by his wits. The darkness of his cramped dungeon had a crack in the stone wall through which just enough sunlight could enter, by which he could read his breviary. Such things endear people like him to me. As for the dark nights in my context, I suppose I’m something of a clock-punching Juan Lunchpail in northern New England.

Just as my inspiring studies become provisions in this indefinite desert, I’m reminded of the necessities for the voyage. How did San Juan de la Cruz resource himself? As a monastic, primarily living in communities, he had his basics covered- austere as they surely were. It seems his critical resources were his insights, his sense of judgement, his tact, and his ability to persuasively communicate mystery to novices. He retained and applied his studies, while he continued writing. A powerful and discerning mind is an instrument of inestimable value. What else is needed for survival? During my decade as a photography teacher, I used to assign what I called the “Spaceship Project.” I told the students to imagine they were going to be sent into space for an undetermined amount of time, and they could only bring 12 photographs. Each student produced images of what they felt they’d need to have with them; each dozen marvelously unique to the creating artist. There was scenery, people, light patterns on objects, cats, essentially images of beauty. Go up into the void with imprints of beauty.

As San Juan de la Cruz would recommend, as we choose what is holy and life-giving, we also determine what must be avoided. For me, there is surely imagery, and there are books, keepsakes, and writing necessities. The Night of Sense is summed up as detachment and readiness for the darkest strata. San Juan said this is passive, and the soul finds that it must allow for the simplification to happen. It surely does not feel passive, as he described. Purgation is wearisome, monotonous, emptying, desolate, and obstructed. He lived through it and left us a guide, quoting his guide the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s Lamentations, that in the purgation it is as though God has cut loose and cast aside the anguished soul. But the soul perseveres with just enough faith that the darkest night will become light. “Enter the silence, when burdens are at their heaviest,” wrote Jeremiah; “Don’t ask questions, wait for hope to appear, confront the trouble full-face.” And I do so, responsibly every day. Among my vital provisions are the spirited words of adventurers whose footsteps are documented. There is just enough available light and thirst for me to continue reading and writing.

“The soul is like one who has begun a cure, all is suffering in this dark and dry purgation of the desire, by which it is healed of many imperfections and exercises itself in many virtues, in order that out of its care and solicitude for God it grows in desire for God alone.”

~ San Juan de la Cruz, The Dark Night of the Soul.

Monday, September 4, 2017

labor days

“You run and you run and you run
And you never stop
And you work and you work
Until you drop
You're in over your head and the pressure just don't quit
But you can't escape the reach of love.”

~ Michael Been, You Run.

As the general and historic commemoration of Labor Day is a recognition of workers and organized labor, the occasion can certainly have its personal connotations. For practical purposes, and in my personal history, Labor Day has been something of a new year’s day for me. The holiday coincides with the start of the academic year, the closing days of summer, and both have combined in heralding new ventures. I began my self-supporting life at 17 years old, moving to Portland, Maine from New York City- enrolling at Maine College of Art. I came to refer to Labor Day Weekend as Arrival Weekend. As a member of the labor force, that began at age 14 for me. Through high school, I worked in inner-city New York grocery stores, stocking shelves and delivering purchases. I continued working a variety of jobs in Portland, various other parts of Maine and Boston, in an odyssey continuing to this day. The venues have included factories, offices, stores, warehouses, commercial darkrooms, studios, colleges, museums, and libraries. Indeed, Shakespeare was quite right: all the world really is a stage, populated with characters that make their exits and entrances. There have been many places, people, and dramas for my memory and journal-writing. Plenty of recurring types through these different scenarios, as well as some remarkable originals.

Through this summer, I’ve been digitizing whole portfolios of my photographic prints- working all the way back through the work I’d done in art college. Many, many, many images. This project has to be done systematically and in measures, otherwise it’s as daunting as the large archival collections I’ve organized over the years for my various employers. Apparently, as artists choose to preserve and document their output, we wind up becoming our own curators. Being a professional archivist, I automatically want to know what I have, where it is, when it was made, and how it’s stored and retrieved. There’s actually some interior humor in this.

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I transitioned from part-time to full-time work, at a local hardware company job that went from bad to worse. There was nothing good about that job, but I needed the paycheck. During my breaks, I used a parking lot pay phone to cold-call potential leads. Answering an ad from the local Goodwill, I was interviewed and was offered the job. My new supervisors were sympathetically apologetic about the minimum wage, but there was something I liked about them, and I gladly took the pay cut- and the chance to get away from the bullying hardware people.

My work assignment at Goodwill of Maine was to work in what they called textile processing. This meant working in an unclimatized, antiquated, repurposed warehouse- sorting piles and piles of donations on conveyor belts, moving massive amounts of material to their designated locations, operating an industrial rag-baler, and assisting where needed. At that time, I was 20 and fascinated by the whole operation, the extent of what people were donating to Goodwill, and the colorful cast of characters around me. Some of the workers were called staff, and others were known as clients. That meant I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with co-workers with various developmental disabilities. We all worked together, chatted together, and learned from each other. Very occasionally, when there were behavioral problems, I was deeply impressed by the supervisors’ patience, their calm tones, and abilities to coordinate all of us.

As the summer concluded, I needed to reduce my hours to correspond with my school schedule. Goodwill was so happy with me, they gave me a part-time assignment as the bookkeeper at the attached Goodwill store, on Cumberland Avenue. Even after classes began, I’d stop into the warehouse to visit my many friends. Co-laborers are not quite like schoolmates, though in both situations we are brought together by necessity. Those we work with at our jobs are much more diverse, and with time we cultivate our own shared “battle stories,” which are distinct from isolated school memories. An assignment from my photography class was to create a reportage of a place that would be easy to return to, so that images could be revisited and refined. Classmates chose topics such as landscapes and architecture. I chose the Goodwill of Maine processing warehouse. My co-workers were very comfortable around me by then, even with my camera. They knew I was an art student, and that I was a friend. Recently, while scanning the photos- made in the 1980s- all the names, sounds, and procedures came back to me. Preserved photographs rekindle impressions, outlasting physical locations which change or disappear. Goodwill is long out of that location, and the building was divided and renovated. My photographs now serve as a documentation of a society of workers accomplishing their tasks, in the midst of a small city.


Truckloads from collection points were dropped off on the Portland Street side, to the loading dock and The Pit (at right and below):

From The Pit, and down a chute, clothing (separated from hard goods) were sorted on conveyor belts. Material in good condition was sorted into various bins. Rejects were left on the conveyor and baled for recycling.

Below: Baling.

Above: Packing boxes for routing to Goodwill retail stores.

Below: Desk with location codes.


Some of my co-workers:

Below: My co-workers enjoying the photos I took of them. I gave them my proof-prints, thanking them for being such good sports.

Above: Clocking out.

Below: Goodwill, on Cumberland Avenue, along with the loading dock on Portland Street

The author and photographer, at age 19.

My supervisor's desk, decorated with salvage.