"It's gonna take time;
A whole lot of precious time.
It's gonna take patience and time,
To do it right."
~ George Harrison, "Got My Mind Set on You."
As if the tribulations of maintaining sustenance and sanity weren't enough, the server site upon which I'd been storing 12 years of La Vie Graphite photographs has been crashing. The photo site is a pay service (famously using the nickname, "bucket"), and has ceased to be dependable. At the same time, I could see that Blogspot's image upload feature has vastly improved in recent years. Therefore, being intensely committed to continuing my writing, several weeks ago I decided to systematically migrate all photos from all my illustrated essays directly onto this blog page. The process is painstaking, and will take at least another month- but it's well worthwhile. This is how I'll be able stabilize this site, so that I can continue writing.
I haven't been able to post anywhere as much as I'd prefer, but need to urgently get the "house" in order. My journal writing indeed continues daily, and I have numerous essay concepts under construction, even during this triage. As it's been throughout my turbulent work life, my thirst forces me to hunt and work harder. I'm grateful for the stability of this site, on Blogspot (this URL will stay the same), and am very much looking forward to completing the full transition of the photo illustrations. But it's taking time.
Many thanks, and a fine autumn season to you.
Monday, October 15, 2018
"It's gonna take time;
Wednesday, August 15, 2018
[the setting is El convent del Carme de Toledo (Spain), summer 1578.]
We were novices together,
ordained and sent forth shoulder to shoulder.
For the new voyage, we named ourselves;
I chose to be known by the Cross.
So many years and discalced miles since.
So many celebrations and trials since.
When last I saw open skies and clear light of day,
our foundations increased with sisters and brothers.
We did not mitigate.
We lived the apostolate.
Yet this moment as I wake,
my back against the stone floor
of a cell barely longer than I am tall- even me,
the humble Fray Juan from Fontiveros.
Somehow my refusal to compromise
was a threat to the unreforming religious.
Somehow they’re afraid enough to torture
Walls and shackles surround me,
in these dim and foul confines.
Even though it is night,
I know the way and will yet find it.
I last knew freedom a year ago,
before these times of degradation and crumbs.
But faith says there are good reports afar,
beyond this fortified tower.
These barriers must be penetrable somewhere, loosened somehow.
The small breach giving light to my psalm book says so,
with the lamplit battlement I see across the hall which also says to me:
Keep picking at the lock, oh so silently;
there is an outside, there is a way.
Love, I am learning, far exceeds forsakenness;
Seek and expect to find, no matter the dense darkness.
Even though it is night,
I know the way and will yet find it.
From this cell, I can remember
teaching the others of belief in the unseen.
And now the teaching must be turned onto me;
the reaching must persevere, with nothing in sight.
In the nothing of damp and crepuscular constriction,
the substance of aspiration and vocation
must be kept to heart,
as though solid.
Sometimes the guard leaves an oil lamp.
He knows, through the taunting and torturing,
that I can absolve and bless, just as I did in Ávila.
Today there is no light, save for what reaches in
through cracked walls and the grate.
But the soul is enkindled from within,
human flesh as this stone keep,
ignited by the Holy Spirit uncontained,
as canticles formulate
for me to remember and write
in a future unseen.
Even though it is night,
I know the way and will yet find it.
night of the soul
The lashes and bread scraps now past,
they returned me to this cell,
and full darkness returns.
Like Moses, I ask how long shall I bear with this evil assembly?
Like David, I ask how long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart,
and how long shall my enemies be exalted over me?
It is undetermined and indefinite;
they cowardly want me to die in here,
without committing the deed themselves.
They don’t want a friar’s blood on their hands,
they don’t see their injustice;
they know not what they do.
But in this darkest night,
there remain embers hidden
yet still bright
Saints and angels reach to me in this Castilian cell,
as I reach and imagine and plot,
prying quietly at the iron lock,
on strength of hope,
climbing Mount Carmel.
More walls and a river await below this putrid tower;
but I will embrace them when I can reach them.
Oh, to reach the outside air, the full daylight,
and sanctuary again to write!
Even though it is night,
I know the way and will yet find it.
15 August 1578 is the date San Juan de la Cruz
managed to escape from his captors.
Tuesday, July 31, 2018
“Lucio: I believe thee; for I think thou never wast where grace was said.
2nd Gentleman: No? A dozen times at least.”
~ William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, act I.
This summer is surely conducive to writing outdoors, and on a fine day aperch it occurred to me that La Vie Graphite is now twelve years a work in progress. Noticing this reminds me of how I fill a journal book and set it on my bookshelves as I begin another. A filled notebook always feels somehow heavier than a blank one. In 2006, I hadn’t yet purchased a digital camera, and began with writing short paragraphs in a blog application easily available on MySpace. With the development of Blogspot shortly after, I moved some of the original blog to this venue, and began the exploration of reflective essays and poetry. Adding digital photography to the still-film media with which I had made a career since high school, along with scanning typed and handwritten pages, the blog’s ambience formed. The title I gave to the blog is my longtime nickname for idea-jotting in pocket notebooks. Holding a thought and recording it begins with a few words scribed in pencil on a palm-sized page. Subsequently, as time permits, those graphite sparks of life become essay elements.
The little books of pencilled ideas are in a parallel continuum with two other strands of journals I maintain- one in fountain pen ink (the “full-dress” Journal), and the other by typewriter. Indeed, creative processes are essay themes in themselves! Separately from these, a small box of index cards is reserved for “BTs,” known as Big Themes. There’s still plenty to write about; surely more ideas than time permits these days. The essays continue, and albeit at a slower pace than I’d prefer, the commitment remains. Recent years have required some additional and major commitments involving basic economic sustenance, housing, and caregiving. As a writer and artist, it’s been all the more vital for creative pursuits to continue- even in smaller measures.
Many of you that reflect and write know how even the most peripheral memories stick to our thoughts. My elementary school is called P.S.13 (New York City public schools are numbered), and our school newspaper was called The Baker’s Dozen Review. Well then, my baker’s dozen year of essay blogging is now underway. On this embarkation, the number 12 does need its due. Twelves and dozens are identifiable across literature, history, and measurement. If it makes little difference to you, you’ll take six of one or a half-dozen of the other. The philosopher Cassiodorus liked how the number 12 referenced twelve tribes of Israel, twelve Disciples, wind directions, signs of the zodiac, hours of the day, to name a few. He also famously said, “He is invited to do great things who receives small things greatly.” And with this, I return to the expressive potential of the written word and the photographic image. These are the still, small elements that are needed to compose and communicate thematic works. The small things to be greatly received are the nascent ideas, the inspiring glimpses, the graphite jots that can be built into the greater things. With time, the journey becomes increasingly unique as well as voluminous, and thus the value of our narrative is able to intensify.
As the days proceed, so must the writing. A faithfulness to journal writing opens paths in a number of ways. Though I cannot claim major successes as a writer (at least not yet), I can speak for profound satisfaction. Expanding my journal writing into web-published essays began as a way to “bring out” the work to the public, as many of my fellow visual artists seek to do. Some of the consequent fruits of this work have manifested as published pieces in print, lecturing, reading to audiences at events, travels such as an extraordinary invitation to sojourn at the home of my lifelong favorite poet, a writing and study fellowship at Oxford, along with a continuing string of retreats and residencies, and the grace that I continue to love to write. Without the practice of the written word, these doors would not have opened for me. I’m certainly grateful for the milestone efforts, but more importantly there remain ideas to formulate and the will to carry on.
Artists, generally speaking, dedicate their energies to their art media for the purpose of expression. We create because we want to explore. I’m among those that has always needed artistic exploration, even since childhood. With these forays into words and images, there is the parallel line of exhibiting the work to be received by others. During an online interview, I was asked about what is essential to personal writing. My answer was that writing must be honest writing, no matter the emotion, recollection, or subject. I recalled this comment while teaching a journaling class- something I’ve been doing for two years. The latter is another grateful outworking of writing and exploring, and it has coincided with having begun teaching philosophy three years ago. The two intertwine, and occasionally the lesson plans affect each other. Regarding philosophy, I want everyone to consider and articulate, discovering their sources of inspiring thought. With writing, I want the burgeoning writers to observe and write with the fluidity of the spoken word. These are all things I want to do myself. And get the writing out. It’s very important. As for me, I’ll add here’s to more. I’m still looking for the audience that is looking for what I’m writing. There are many ideas and angles to flex with my aspirations.
Below: Happy Clock Face.
Saturday, June 16, 2018
“The mind ought sometimes to be diverted that it may return to better thinking.”
~ Phaedrus (5th c., B.C.)
A nourishing fruit of spiritual life is the learned ability to adjust attention. Over the years, I’ve been making sure to retain useful knowledge, both by writing and by committing good advice to memory. When it comes to studies, I’ve been creating indices and writing in chapbooks, careful to cite what was found and where- so that I can retrace steps to sources. I’ve grown to consider cherished books as waystations, and the notes I create are essentially maps to the springs. A gem of spoken advice I’ve found unforgettable came from a wise elder who liked to say, “if you don’t like how you’re feeling, change what you’re doing.” There; now I’ve passed this along to you.
Distracting attention from hardships, or even just from plain and repetitious routines, may be viewed as escapist denial of reality. That reality depends, and it’s for the individual to self-examine and make that determination. Here, I’m thinking along the lines of healthy diversion. These are dark times and the general picture is bleak. A great many of us struggle just to maintain an even keel. Economics are less and less favorable to those who begin and proceed without privileged foundations. For my part, the pursuits of basic sustenance and a stable standard of living intensify by the month. It is something of a competition among large crowds seeking decreasing numbers of musical chairs. But to cease the struggle would be even costlier than to maintain momentum. When there’s a goal in sight, the last thing any competitor would do is give up the ship. In this context, healthy diversion amidst daunting struggles is especially vital.
Spicing up the doldrums, if anything, helps the cause of creativity. I may not be able to improve my lot anywhere close to as quickly as I’d prefer, but it is within my forces to find constructive avocations. I can’t imagine otherwise. Forging ahead in barren wilderness, nary an oasis, is as unappealing as an undecorated living space or a day without the textures of music. We have the facility to enjoy beauty and learning because we are innately aware of what edifies us, what motivates our progress. Between employment and housing, it is as though every moment must be “rented,” with puddlejumped weekdays en route to islands of less-constrained breathers, time and energy woefully reduced to units of commerce. All the more reason to clear away spaces to change the scenery- even if just for a few hours, igniting the soul that longs to flourish, thirsting for enduring sacredness.
Perhaps even the “healthiest” diversion might file under escapism. Well, so be it! Just like knowing when and what to eat, to stay nourished and alert, I take stock in knowing how to squeeze learning and creative expression into the narrowest confines. Particularly in the recent dozen years, writing has been my principal diversion. Journaling is an extension of such essential conduits as thought-processes, spiritual comprehension, analysis, and reflection. It is as critical to continue developing ways to write, as it is to simply continue writing every day. When I have more time, there is more time to write; when the immediate is a plethora of commitments and tasks, it’s a sentence here-and-there. However it may manifest, there is always writing material at the ready. Pencil and paper go along with me through other preferred diversions- such as photography, travels near and far, museums, hiking, visits with friends, sanctuaries, cafés. Drafting this essay, at the Boston Athenaeum.
Drafting this essay, at the Boston Athenaeum.
A wonderfully portable diversion is reading. When I was in graduate school, although inevitably earning a professional masters degree, before changing majors I was introduced to the horizonless wonders of philosophy. As soon as I submitted my thesis, I knew enough to return the philosophical books that had to be set aside in favor of the required reading of my curricula. Having the freedom to study as I wish is something I continue to cherish. The study of philosophy might be called a healthy diversion within a healthy diversion. It is fertile ground in which to immerse my imagination. It is also a subject I’ve added to my teaching array. As for imagination, I’ve found this to be its own form of cultivated diversion- all the while aware that its lesser aspects can be something of a minefield, rather than a healthy diversion for the cause of balance and growth. Teaching philosophy (above); Absorbing philosophy (below).
Teaching philosophy (above); Absorbing philosophy (below).
Along this voyage, I’ve also grown to find that some of the temporary distractions, the “band-aids” needed to get through the more difficult spans have joined my arsenal of dependable diversions. For me, nothing quite fulfills the advice of “if you don’t like how you’re feeling, change what you’re doing” like a contemplative retreat. The first time I made such a journey, it was very much a spontaneous attempt to interrupt a terribly chaotic time, seeking out a quiet and welcoming refuge. There were no other expectations. Then I found myself returning to this type of experience, always with positive anticipation, always cherishing the prospect of hospitable shelter, meeting kindred spirits, always discovering new perspectives to fuel my spirit. Likewise, pilgrimage travels have been teaching me about diversions as adventures to be savoured. Thus far, it remains for me to fully apply this, but the simpler respites- even my commutes- are to benefit from the broader expeditions.
In his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton famously said, “If you have never had any distractions, you don't know how to pray.” I’m sure he was not referring to the friendly, constructive kinds of distractions, but I’ll allude to the this in the sense that contemplative life- especially for postmoderns- must be able to grow increasingly sturdy and substantial amidst struggles and juggles. Often distractions are needed to interrupt an untenable din of distraction. Then, having stepped away from barrages of fragments and demands, the return can find strength of focus and drive- even improved clarity of thought. Diversion permits for observation, and knowing to divert is indeed a good result of having observed.
Friday, May 25, 2018
“...the traveller picks his way from islet to islet,
cheered by the music of a thousand tinkling rills and rivulets
whose veins are filled with the blood of winter
which they are bearing off.”
~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
The arrival of spring in New England is obvious to the most absent-minded among us. We are brought out of ourselves by signs of future pleasant months. Liminality takes the changing forms of snow-into-rain, rusty-brown-into-yellow-green, lengthened daylight, all immersed in chilled wind currents. Light and air serve to provide context, as well as a palette of signs to illustrate new growth. Days are lengthened into evenings, and they recommence at early hours that had been immersed in darkness only weeks ago. Both in the city and the woods, the metamorphosis of seasonal transition is easily witnessed. Forest trails attest to a burgeoning combination of coniferous green that held forth through months of ice and raw cold, with sudden accents of yellows and reds coarsing through branches. And in the city, I recently marveled at new weeds shooting out from between cement sidewalk pavers. As much as these plants are considered nuisances, a pedestrian such as me can see a persisting manifestation of Augustine’s remark from City of God, that “creation longs to live.” Stems foment their spring escapes from beneath opaque concrete slabs, beating the crocuses to the punch. Surely, this must be admired.
Spring’s abrupt renewal is much more obvious in the mountains than along the seashore, where I live. The latter’s transformation is more subtle. New colors and gusts prompt new tastes and perspectives. Somehow, discoveries continue. If not entirely new, old-growth trees do renew. Hibernated creation awakens, urged ahead by new promise and rejuvenated spirit. One wonders if time is playing tricks, perhaps things have not really changed, and improvement is not possible. But such thoughts, in themselves, can thwart our thoughts into dead-end roads.
Taking to the roads at the cusp of seasonal change is an opportunity to closely witness an extraordinary renewal. Indeed, this is not to say the winter landscape is lifeless; not at all. It is a different sort of life, as northern climes tend toward the austere. Because the changes are so dramatic, the seasons abruptly replace one another in succession. Recently, I chose to drive southwest to the Berkshires, the mountainous region at the western extremities of Massachusetts. For years it’s been a place of both sanctuary, with the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy- as well as for serene hiking along trails including the Appalachian. At this time of the year, locations like this are not populous. There’s plenty of space to roam, just as it’s possible to see clear through sparsely-foliated forests. In a matter of weeks, some great river views will be completely concealed by growth. Before the arrivals of intense greens and bright tree blossoms, earth tones prevail. Surfaces are still bare enough to see stone strata, the foundational forest floor. Highest elevations still had snow in early May, and melted runoff added vigor to currents in and near the Housatonic River. I set out to find hints of spring, enjoying the ability to walk freely across dormant woods.
Watching the natural elements of the outdoors reawaken, we can tangibly notice how the substantial can grow forth from embrittlement. For an archival conservator, this is a captivating prospect. Rejuvenation has the connotation of new promise. Amidst deteriorative fears, there can be newness. By influence, natural renewal prompts refreshed spirits. Visiting places that are unlike my usual daily surroundings encourages me to savour the commonplace as extraordinary. Noticing the cold, sweet-smelling mountain air, I made sure to draw in plenty of deep breaths. Mountain skies and sunlight are also distinct, just as these can be unique in my home region near the ocean. When it was too overcast to watch a sunset, I was regaled by assembling storm clouds and succeeding downpours from the shelter of a covered porch. Indeed, such things will occur throughout the summer, but in much warmer air and with thicker cover- not quite like this!
Exploring, writing, and photographing are ways of observation. Integral to being a practitioner of these crafts is the ability to observe and study what I experience. In lesser moments there are repulsions, and in better moments there are admirations to commit to memory. But reflection- and even response- are not the full adventure. Observation demands participation. Witnessing the burgeoning spring along trails, waterways, and roads inspires creativity. I’m brought to remember those early-season summer camp days from childhood, and how unusual it was to be outdoors during weekdays. Until my late-adolescence, I did not excel in sports. I would enviously watch games from the sidelines. By 12, I was in the games, figuring out my strengths and abilities, relishing being part of the action.
Watching a spring rain from an ancient porch in Stockbridge, I thought of how recollections grow into prominence like garden perennials. I could not have predicted what would become integral parts of my canon of memory as an adult, so far away from schoolyards, playgrounds, and ballfields. But as with historic records, simply by virtue of having occurred, they are enshrined. No less now than all those years ago, there is no lasting contentment in idleness. Watching the appealing changes causes me to beware of lost opportunities. There is indeed a balance: knowing enough to savour, as well as knowing enough to be vigilant and productive. Unlike my forest discoveries of bright fledgling plants, I’ve yet to find tangible hints to provide direction. Without physical signs, the assurances must be along interior conduits. These are the unseen trails that must indefinitely lead to sustenance, regardless of season. Equally, that expectant hope must be sustained at all costs.
Saturday, April 21, 2018
“The eternal fount its source has never show’d,
But well I know wherein is its abode,
Although ‘tis night.
Yes, in a life so sad and dark as this,
By faith I know the wellspring of bliss.
Although ‘tis night.”
~ San Juan de la Cruz,
Song of the Soul That Rejoices to Know God by Faith.
It would be a conflict of definitions to say that vigilance takes a vacation. The nature of perseverance is the very ceaselessness that distinguishes keeping vigil, from passive waiting. Keeping watch becomes something of a default state of being for anyone in a constant state of anticipation, over a long span of years. Corresponding with crises and desires, watchfulness intensifies. Expectancy manifesting with embedded, abiding embers is not hypervigilant. The latter is a disruptive form of anxiety, subversive to balancing thoughts. As for the former, watchfulness is a longing for transcendence. It is an awareness of past and presence, with an alertness for improvement, for ascendance. Watchfulness tends naturally toward impatience, and must be tempered creatively and constructively. But theory and practice are threads that do not always entwine.
Watchfulness takes many forms, and has reasons as specific as an individual life. For many, it is the animal-like alertness to avert danger. Our instincts show themselves. Just the other day, I stopped my errands to look after an injured cat in front of a store. Incredulous that neither pedestrians nor shop workers would intercede, I made the shelter phone calls, and stayed with the troubled cat until help arrived. Trying to console and to keep a watchful eye on a distressed animal, I remembered my childhood’s vulnerable years on mean inner-city streets. Watchfulness takes shape as the insomniac’s procession moves through such nighttime stations of the cross as windows, kitchens, inanimate desks, and darkened corridors. It’s tuning for hospitable radio broadcasts, trying to pull something hopeful out of the air, from unknown distances. It’s the drive toward an invisible goal, by way of an unsatisfactory status quo. It’s the via dolorosa of web sites in an impersonal and threadbare job market. It’s the persistent anticipation of mercy, while standing on the ashes of forsakenness. As with the cat’s plaintiveness on the dismissive sidewalk, my petitions seek watchful and helpful eyes- and those of Divine providence. Parallel to the incredulity of unrequitedness is the insistence upon purpose. The two are tied together by dignity. By purpose, the intention is to redeem the present: to take stock of what is useful and to find significance in the immediate- while fully expecting fruition. Seedlings beneath the forest floors must think such thoughts. Watchfulness is surely a means; it is not the goal.
It is known that San Juan de la Cruz penned the ideas of some of his canticles and themes, while incarcerated in a cramped dungeon. He had not committed any crime, but was perceived as an enemy of anti-reformist churchmen in Spain. It was expected that he would die of the deprivation, torture, and starvation inflicted upon him. Juan seemed to be fueled by a transcendent sense of purpose. He managed to beg for a piece of paper, which he folded into a tiny booklet for his sketched thoughts. With every possible moment, he picked away at the lock of his cell; this may have gone on for months. In his emaciated state, he skillfully broke out of the dungeon and escaped to safety. Among the inspired ideas he scratched on the piece of paper were those leading to The Living Flame of Love. This mystical prayer begins with tenderly you wound my soul’s deepest center, reconciling at once anguish and salvation. He concluded with this stanza:
How gently and lovingly you wake in my heart, where in secret you dwell alone; and in your sweet breathing, filled with good and glory, how tenderly you swell my heart with love.
Together with his larger works, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, and Dark Night of the Soul, San Juan de la Cruz exemplified steadfast faith in the face of desolation. He implored his readers to continue the ascent, amidst perceived stagnation. In the poem, Song of the Soul That Rejoices to Know God by Faith, his refrain following his expressions of aspiration amidst abandonment is “although it is night.” He was sure of his belief, of his Source, even though he was plunged into obscurity. He remained more pronouncedly assured, the more he noticed reasons not to be assured. Studying biographical works about San Juan gives me increasingly greater appreciation of his poetry and philosophy. For him, watchfulness is readiness and openness to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. In the gospel, to be watchful is to take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be weighed down with consumption and the problems of this life, as well as the consistent followthrough that we watch therefore, and pray always, that we may continue worthy of our calling. San Juan instructed his readers to see light in the night, despite the perceived and convincing darkness in our days.
Our perceptions can play tricks on us, and traversing the night of sense confronts gauntlets that threaten to deceive the faithful. Keeping watch becomes a delicate balance between real and assumed limitations. Yet another needed balance is that which blends spartan discipline with a sensitivity that discerns when to let up on the throttle. Is a less-aggressive vigilance a healthful form of surrender? Perhaps only experience will tell.
In that fine art of patient recollection is the wisdom of reaching out to mentors and friends. As I am a trusted ally to many, I know that my closest kindred spirits reciprocate by intending the best for me. An elder friend who is close to retirement provides plenty of welcome encouragement. When we have time to catch up, she tells me to “look for a miracle” in a very affirmative voice. Indeed, I do this- hastening the discovery with all the vigilant ingenuity possible, thinking of that unflappable San Juan de la Cruz. After all, when you’ve been given a message, that inspiration must go forth. As the pray without ceasing of St. Paul is watchful vigilance, then it must be a rotation of physical progress and interior contemplation. San Juan was wrestling with the lock and chains, while making the most of his one piece of writing paper. Watchfulness, alas, needs its own checks and balances: Care must be taken so that vigilance does not upstage savouring what is good. While hungrily and constantly watching online for opportunities and developments, it’s important to remember they do not change on a minute-by-minute basis (certainly not in the pre-dawn hours). Such things operate at excruciating tempi, and there is little more one can do beyond conscientiously trying and keeping faith. There are many rejections, because there are many attempts, and these amount to many teachable moments. Wondering about why, and how, and when seems only to plague any good progress. Inhabiting San Juan’s purgative night of sense teaches a surrender of the what-ifs. If anything, the better musing is to consider potential improvements and what direction may be noticed among the elements.
In the second section of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, San Juan de la Cruz wrote, “The less the soul works with its own ability, the more securely it journeys, because it journeys more in faith.” Speaking as a calligrapher, there is something to be said about the steadiest line paradoxically drawn with a slightly loosened grip. San Juan is advocating against over-calculation, even if it means navigating through darkness. His expression of disciplined faith is that of resolve amidst unresolve; head-knowledge must be refined as heart-knowledge.
Exemplary as it is, his life is one among those which could be fermented only through life-threatening trials. A crucible is defined by its very indefiniteness. It’s in not knowing the extent of an ordeal, or what endurance requires. But that very instability becomes a place of uneasy residence, hoping tenuous conditions are temporary, amidst the proactivity of striving. For the example of San Juan, the foraging is by a spirit of trust. Strength of trust is bolstered by cultivated preparedness. A very strong spirit is needed to engage the battle for sustenance and improvement. Within this strength, it is vital to be as lucid and discerning as possible. Equally critical is the life-force of inspiration. There must be such ready resources as good reading, access to natural light and fresh air, alongside vigorously reflective creative practices. Study is a form of watchfulness, and for me it is an enjoyable exercise that helps redeem the time and expand my sights. All the while, I stretch and watch for better times, open doors, and fewer limitations, insisting that I do not wait in vain. In the Easter vigil is a model of expectant hope, of watching for the liberating moment. It is also a pattern for the anticipatory life that proceeds in a one-way pilgrimage of trust for which vigilance becomes subconscious.
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
“Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world,
answering that of God in every one;
whereby in them ye may be a blessing,
and make the witness of God in them to bless you;
then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour,
and a blessing.”
~ George Fox, letter from Launceston Gaol, 1656.
In my previous essay, I wrote about the assuring properties of a “split-second.” By this, I refer to spontaneous, uncontrived personal resuscitative moments that have reassuring properties. A distant memory returned to me from childhood, of a hockey coach’s quirky two-syllable caring gestures. Then I found that in the face of daily life increasingly hinging on the tentative, on all fronts, I’d occasionally whisper to myself, “just for now.” A reinforcing breath, held to memory, serves as a hurricane’s eye at the center of turmoil. I’ve even taken to reminding myself not to embellish any impressions of duress as endless and inescapable. Sufficient unto the day are the ends of my shoes.
As a recollective moment serves as a rock perch in swirling river rapids, a retreat is an island amidst swarms of indistinguishable months of hard labor. Earning the time and making the plans, I carved out a seven-day sojourn on Beacon Hill. As is customary, the week prior to my time off was replete with the usual barrage of ineptitude and overtime- but I got through my obligations. Cathartically reclining in my train seat, stretching out and enjoying a rolling view of the Saco River, I made note of the railroad journey as a resuscitative moment. While looking forward to my destination, I found the way there pronouncedly reassuring. I heard myself say, savour this. This thought remained with me, across the snowy salt marshes, through the backlots of Dover and Haverhill, and across the Charles River.
Alighting onto Causeway Street and seeing no frozen precipitation descending, I decided to trundle across the West End and up Beacon Hill. I’m no stranger to this traversal. Brisk paces inclining up to Cambridge Street, followed by measured half-strides up the sharply graded Hill- and this with a backpack and 3 heavy bags, one filled with baked goods I’d made for my kind hosts. “I’ll go home lighter,” I always rationalize to myself. As expected, the huffing and puffing began halfway up Hancock Street. But I said to myself, savour this. And it’s up, and up, and up, pulling all that cargo, amusingly turning at Joy Street. “Are you savouring this?”- I asked myself, still ascending, in a purgative froth. “Sure, why not?”- following my own words and looking up at the pale housepaint sky. In my grateful relief at being away from employment tribulations, everything around me looked comforting. Straining and sweating on a winter day, pulling belongings, gifts, and my typewriter up the steepest neighborhood in Boston, I exhaled “savouring this, savouring this,” with my strides.
Indeed, I wanted to be there, through every part of the journey. Inevitably my upward passage crested at Mount Vernon Street, bending left at Walnut Street, finally experiencing the benefits of favorable gravity, looking right to Beacon Hill Friends House nestled along Chestnut Street. In a neighborhood of posted gaslights, the Friends House has a large lamp on an outward arm, as though extended to greet passers-by. It’s a votive of confidence, held out for pilgrims seeking refuge. Finally, I hoisted all trailing freight up the curving stone steps to the front door at Number Eight. The basis of a retreat is essentially a savouring of what is. The idea is to break the routine, borrow some time, and rekindle alertness to savour what is good. The residence manager and I recognized each other with joyful greetings. He spoke the most perfect words I could have imagined hearing: Welcome Home. I immediately savoured this, proceeding to settle in- not a single one of my dozens upon dozens of well-packed home-baked cookies broken- greeting more residents en route to my usual room.
From the very start of my seven-day sojourn, I savoured a profound awareness of being welcome, and this set the tone throughout. There was a snowstorm immediately after my arrival, prompting me to savour my timing. I found myself waiting outside the Church of the Advent during the heaviest snowfall; the rector was late for the morning office. But the ensuing welcome made the wait worthwhile. I didn’t even mind my drafty room, named after the pioneer Quaker George Fox, at the Friends House; it’s always drafty in there. Why not savour the reminder that this was my 12th sojourn with the community? At the heart of each of these retreats are my studies at the Boston Athenaeum, through which I find words and ideas to savour. I always plan a personal study theme for these extended stays, selecting material from the library’s archival collections. This time, it was what I called Assurance and Divine Guidance. Each of my readings had these ideas in common. An example is from Nathaniel Appleton’s Discourse, published in 1742, in Boston:
“Faith is a Grace that inspires a divine life into the Soul; and the good Man may make a comfortable Subsistence on it, even in the worst of Times. Habakkuk: 2.4. 'The just shall live by his Faith.' ‘Tis by this that he fetches constant Supplies from Heaven... By this he looks up to the Recompence of Reward, reserved in Heaven for him, and is animated and quickened in a Life of Piety, by the glad Assurances of it. And by this he maintains a Life of Communion with his dear Redeemer: and let temporal Things go how they will with him, while he can do this he is easy, he is happy, he is joyful. Thus beholding as in a Glass the Glory of the Lord, he is changed into the same Image, from Glory to Glory. Thus for this Life he has a glorious Provision made for him.”
Alongside lifegiving words I heard and studied, were savoury sights, sounds, and tastes. With the occasion of residency on Beacon Hill, I have round-the-clock possibilities for unfettered walks along mazes of intricate streets, as well as through parks and bustling thoroughfares. Urban creature that I’ve always been, a good, large city is as relaxing as it is inspiring. Merchants use their wares as decorative elements. The supply of photo motifs is endless, and the juxtaposition of sidewalk musicians woven among pedestrians provides contrasts with the quiet residential lanes. Yet another contrast is the interior of a cavernous sanctuary, deep in the city, an island of contemplative quiet with soothing and occasional echoes.
Perhaps the most obvious connotation for savoury is taste. It is a joy to bring baked treats to my hosts at the House, the Athenaeum, the Advent, and to shopkeepers I know as friends. The motivation is not that of any kind of “exchange,” but simply one of gratitude. For me, it is a gift in itself to see others happy. On these retreats, I am surely recipient of savoury abundance- from House dinners, to high tea at the Athenaeum, to convivial evenings out. One fine midday, I accompanied members of the Athenaeum staff to a memorably lavish lunch at the Somerset Club. On this recent sojourn, amidst the week of aromas and cheers of the Friends House dining room, I was treated to a dinner on the house by a colleague who is also a restaurant manager. The latter, a small bistro on a side street, provides an environment as savoury as the meal. My friend sat me near the latticed front windows, which I found to be ideal for writing. From a perch within a perch, my appreciation extended from the seasonings and substance, to the textures and sounds of the busy- yet calmly intimate space, by the subdued warmth of incandescent light. Even the return walk to the House, through icy air, was something to savour.
Returning to words as enduring reminders, in that usual serendipitous way, mixtures of readings I select in advance turn out to perfectly intertwine. Somehow this always happens, even as my selections span centuries and varieties of authors. Perhaps it’s a result of ingenious library cataloguing. Perhaps it also has to do with a reader being an active factor in joining works of literature together in the moment. Among anticipated connecting themes, I repeatedly noticed my savour observation in much of what I studied. Across eight literary works, by as many different writers, a noticeable amount of glimmers emerged about savouring one’s living faith. Don’t take your heartfelt belief for granted. Appleton observed, “we are the possessors of so inestimable a treasure.” Writing about spiritual confidence, Samuel Worcester (19th C) wrote that our faith is the most precious of treasures. In an anonymous work called Path to Happiness (18th C), the writer describes how, “those principles which are really received into our hearts, have an inseparable effect on the actions and conduct of our lives,” and that we must maintain the “safety of that invaluable treasure within us, our immortal souls.” Richard Lucas (17th C), encouraging his readers to persevere, used the exhortation that we “make our progress into assurance.”
Indeed, the reader does play an active role in thematically joining works of literature together. Study is as much analysis as synthesis. The seekers are those who find. And a string of days filled with intense study produces a momentum of perception and awareness. During my leisurely morning coffees, between the Advent and the Athenaeum, words that celebrate the savoury appeared in no less than the sports pages. My muses, once again, were hockey players; this time in gratitude for the Bruins’ unexpected successes. Their specialty is a game that is made of split seconds. “How lucky we are to be here,” offered Brad Marchand to the Boston Herald, “You want it to last forever, but that’s not how it is.” They look as far as the next game. “I appreciate every moment,” philosophized team captain Zdeno Chara, “It goes by fast. It’s very humbling and I’m very grateful I’ve been able to play for this long in the game I love and enjoy so much.” Of course the ideas in my studies and thoughts stayed with me, as I read the morning recaps! Philosophy and competitive sports are not so far from each other. Savour the good words. Store them where you can find them, in the soul’s archives.
Bruins and Brew, at Café Tatte, Boston.
Just as scholarly learning is an ongoing process, so is the ability to savour. The authors and athletes alike knew to treasure their confidence and their participatory moments. Thomas Merton was one to say that spiritual life is as much struggle as it is contemplation. As vigilance is active, savouring is passive. During my studies in the rare books room, I looked up through the tall windows facing Beacon Street, and wrote in the margin of my notes, “we can never know the stability of our times, places, and loved ones.” Intermissions from the struggle provide time to better appreciate what is meaningful. I do as I am able to afford. By very intentionally savouring a situation or an experience, there’s an ingredient of trying to make time stand still- trying to permanently preserve the moment. But like the hockey player said, that’s not how it is. I know this empirically, as I hold moments in writing and photography, while ferociously pointing toward hopes for better days.
At my little windowside table in the bistro, delicately tasting my dessert, I wrote in my journal: “Savour dares me to sense some contentment, even through so much difficulty and instability. 'Savour this' means to really taste all this wonderful food and ale, this place, and commit all of it to memory.” An improved perception must transcend the retreat, and be with me in the work trenches. In ways that are similar to how I connect the words I read, it is vital to be able to find what is worthy to savour. These weeks on Beacon Hill always conclude with the Sunday’s Quaker Meeting for Worship. Indeed, I savoured the company of friends, as well as the wise contemplative silence of the gathering. Settling into the communal silence, I certainly had to ride out distracting thoughts about the frustrations and insufficiencies awaiting me. Then I chased them out of the present, recalling what I had been studying about holding inestimable treasure in an earthen vessel. Glancing around the large room, filled with kindred spirits, I noticed sunlight coming in from the Chestnut Street side. It was as though the authors I sought out were passing messages to me, to trust that my faith is something real- to savour this very simple thought, and to continue to stay able to savour.