Monday, December 30, 2019


"My library is an archive of longings.”

~ Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.

At the beginning of this month, perhaps to parallel the start of winter, a number of wire news services published an article* about disruptive discontent. A study based upon the responses of two thousand survey participants reported that nearly three-quarters of this group sleep poorly and awaken unhappily. Referring to “morning madness” and a general sense of irritation among respondents, a third of the surveyed group cited anxiety and stress disturbing both sleep and awakening. Indeed, the article caught my attention, as I’ve been an insomnia combatant for over a dozen years. Had I been surveyed, my responses would’ve looked similar to those of the article. Having become so accustomed to fractured nights of semi-sleep, portions of these silent hours are offset by journal writing, radio listening, and reading. Penciling ideas on notepads. Not necessarily solutions, but accompaniment.

So many thoughts to assuage. The canvasses elasticize between present, past, and the unknown future, projects and words, stability in the tentative, should’ve and could’ve, then and when. Just what a mind needs to relax! Walking around my darkened apartment, the clatter silences as I look at the books and papers on my desk- the open satchel at ease. The still-life calms, as my thoughts are diverted by the quieted tethers and tools. What is normally animate has become inanimate. There is scant ambient light and no traffic noise, in the liminal between night and morning.

Through the window, it is good to see the nearly motionless outside world. Thoughts turn to expectations. Do you ask yourself about what you’re expecting? I’ve always expected great things: dreams, fruition, breakthroughs, open doors. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve wished to live up to my potential, putting all I’ve learned to real use. It’s a longlived emotion that has haunted me all through the years of schooling and employment, toiling in the concealment of stockrooms, basements, warehouses, darkrooms, and clenched stacks. Beyond thirsting for natural light, fresh air, and artistic freedom is a wish for opportunities to fully apply my skills for the greater purpose that other souls can be inspired. Hopes, attempts, and denials seem to repeat a leapfrog-playing pattern. But there remains the not-yet, a spirit solid enough to support ideals and ambitions. Even now.

In Citadelle, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry observed, “Nothing have you to hope for if yours is the misfortune of being blind to that light which emanates not from things but from the meaning of things.” How things look and how things are- can be at contrasting ends. Blended in with clear-eyed expectations is an accompanying awareness of mirages. It is very easy to be fooled, a narrow margin dividing notions and facts. Social media certainly enhances the challenge to make these distinctions. About the first ten times I’d seen commercial articles, decorated with tropical seascapes, about “following your bliss,” my reactions were those of sarcastically looking on as an outsider and an unlucky have-not. These sorts of proliferating short pieces look like they emanate from people who can afford to blithely walk away from disappointing jobs. What about the rest of us that have to bite the metaphorical bullet? From a perspective that resists both cynicism and irresponsibility, I try to keep common sense in mind. Comprehension and aspiration are both highly complex dynamics. Turning away from self-defeat, and reaching for transcendence, Quaker author Rufus Jones wrote:

Every case of sense-perception is a case of self-transcendence. If we could not leap forward and grasp an object from beyond us, and know it as beyond us, all our experience would be doomed to be shut up in an inner subjective mirage. We could never have dealings and commerce with a real world beyond our inward seemings. We should forever remain victims of the ‘egocentric predicament.’ In a trembling flash, when we perceive things, we manage to leap beyond ourselves and know a reality that is not of us, but of a world beyond us. Nobody knows how we do it. It is another mystery- like sweetness and redness- but it is none the less a fact. The moment we know anything whatsoever we prove to be self-transcendent beings.
(Pathways to the Reality of God)

Another conundrum is the relationship between potential and fortune. Is one needed for the other? Can they exist independently of one another? I’m inclined to believe the latter: potential can be driven on the steel wheels of will. Good fortune is welcome, we can do plenty to draw it, but waiting around too long wastes precious time. Everyone has the potential to add positive significance to their places and times- perhaps beyond these contexts. I’ve always admired “unsung heroes” as I’ve made note of them in many spheres. They’re the ones who are consistently present, performing their good works away from spotlights and newsfeeds- or as it’s said in sports: doing the little things that contribute and make a difference. At hockey games, I like watching what’s going on at the defensive end- where the puck isn’t; this teaches me a lot about how the players work together in the flow of regulation time. I admire the ability of turning missed opportunities into fuel, and instances of tireless daring in order to realize potential.

At this season, the month of Advent leads to the threshold of a new year. Lighting is needed earlier in the day. The anticipation in Advent’s shadowed steps is essentially an expectation. I still expect great things- even in the night watches of wakeful insomnia. The turn toward lengthened days begins during the longest nights. Years ago, when I made my living in the complete darkness of color-printing photo studios, I had a wise, older friend who managed the film department. A true artisan. To this day, I’m thankful for all our long talks in the damp, lightless film-developing room. From twenty feet away, with the benefit of the slight echo, his voice sounded three feet away. Above the sounds of the E-6 processor, he would say, “Don’t forget that God’s hand is always opening to you, always opening for you. You’re meant for way better than this.” My coworker had a terminal illness and passed away, much too young. His words and wit live on with me. They are filed with care, in my spiritual archives, with the treasures poised for future use. The past, admittedly, needn’t determine the future, but it can provide a useful repository of references. I fully expect to tap into the best of all that has been cultivated. It would be, in itself, a living gratitude for the gifts received and knowledge retained. More than an expectation, a goal.

*Article here.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

advent trails

"As we watched at dead of night,
Lo, we saw a wondrous light:
Angels singing 'Peace On Earth'
Told us of the Saviour's birth.

See, amid the winter's snow,
Born for us on Earth below,
See, the tender Lamb appears,
Promised from eternal years."

~ Edward Caswall, See, Amid the Winter's Snow

Monday, December 2, 2019


“...when fears shall be in the way and nature faints,
when all the interest that has been given to life
by what was of the world shall be exhausted,
what then can we bring out of the stores of this life
that shall be adequate for our necessities?”

~ Edmund Quincy Sewall, On Spirituality of Character.

dark glass

Milder months widened sights to lengthened days and warmth. Aromatic trees and sunlight provided spaces for musing and ambitious tries at setting dreams forth. Many pounds of bread have been cast upon many waters, with highest hopes. Aspiring and casting has persisted through darkest cold, over and again. But time passes as it slips away. Following suit, resources run thin. As the ground of being erodes, physical supplies of inspiration are increasingly expensive, hoarded in abundance by fewer and fewer. For a worker of modest means, tenuous housing and employment, it is difficult to gauge the extent of existing rations. How far along on this voyage? How close the destination? No amount of striving and straining suffice, as I can will myself to only so much achievement. “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” the ancient Apostle Paul famously observed; in this life, “now I know only in part.” I may never know real and satisfying success, but I know the value of rigid hope. “When will I?” becomes “will I ever?”- as the challenge intensifies, racing against time. Yet there remains this moment, as I write these very words. Potential is meant to be realized. It is as vital to be ready as it is to be willing.

Ready and willing. One can be ready, but unwilling- without the drive to carry plans out to completion. And one can be willing, but unready- unprepared to take best advantage of opportunities. But how to be both, and where to look? Not finding helpful support, I’ve had to be my own compass. Indeed, I know the direction of my pilgrimage destination, however not having the material wealth to assure stability, it’s been necessary to find inventive ways to build my own spiritual and mental reserves.

Looking at my intensely-labored worklife of many years, I’ve only recently realized some discouraging truths. Because I’d joined the workforce very young, and then also had to change careers at a young age, I thought my few experiences were holding back my progress to better employment. After a very prosperous time in graduate school, from scratch I built a consistently solid history of successful projects, both shoulders to the wheel. Building anything meaningful takes time. In the process, countless friendships developed along with all the work- both professionally and by volunteering. A great many stories, to be sure, filling dozens of journals. What I’ve seen is that attributes such as achievement, track record, attitude, communication, and presentation are exponentially less valuable to the search than whether or not search committee members know you or have some personal interest. The disillusionment is dizzying, witnessing the “Peter Principle” theory manifest in so many places. What the rejections don’t do, is diminish my ambitions and my appetite for excellence- yet there is no assurance of success, despite having an accurate compass.

Last month, I found myself turning the documentation I’ve made during various professional projects into a personal archival resource. Indeed, I’ve always remained a photographer at heart. An extensive application process required a seven-part dossier which took three weeks for me to assemble, edit, and refine. As my fortunes would have it, I was rejected in a suspiciously rapid four business days- uncharacteristic for that institution. Their door was likely never open to begin with. But the disappointment aside, my construction of an electronic archive of nearly twenty productive years led me to think about inner resources. Obviously, there are the kinds of physical resources we can procure for ourselves as we are able. We purchase our necessities, from housing to food to clothing to things related to transportation, recreation, and so forth.


For this context, I’m thinking about a soul’s storehouse of resources. These are absorbed through our experiences, both outside of our influences and by our own intentions. Within these experiences are reactions to circumstances and thoughts. The action of seeking the respite of refuge is a mixture of material and spirit. For example, the Boston Athenaeum is a well-stocked library and a beautiful environment. I can barely afford the membership fee, but I keep it going as I can; the resources are profoundly valuable to me. While I regroup and try to find nourishment, I’m also gleaning insights, thinking of what I need to be able to return to the chaotic fray better equipped and stronger. The quotation, above, by Edmund Sewall is something I discovered in the manuscript room at the Athenaeum, while poring over this and several related works.

The source material I absorb becomes part of the guiding and assuring repertoire within. These vital syntheses essentially provide direction from a nonmaterial center. Admittedly I have not completed my accomplishment of this art, but I have a few methods based upon my practical experience. There is no shortcut, and there is a lot of writing involved. Study and the gathering of knowledge, reflection, and a contemplative mindset; silence, observation, practice, and a sense of setting oneself apart. These are all factors, and by the latter, I mean being able to step away from the pack- from detrimental sameness. It’s the lonelier road, but necessary for the distinguishing of reflective impressions from the fads and formulae. By so doing, it is possible to develop one’s own language, imagery, and ideas.


A standard, portable compass is a physical, directional instrument. The guiding needle points to “magnetic north,” and by orienting the dial to match the needle, navigators can determine their bearings. Giving some consideration to the metaphor, I’ve been carrying a compass through my mundane errands, and to my closed-in, windowless workplace. I’m able to figure out where east-to-the-ocean is, or northeast-to-Acadia. I looked at an opaque office wall and said, "that’s north." A friend of mine who builds houses saw me studying a map with a flat compass. He talked about “project north,” which is a construction term used for workable approximation. Of course, I appreciate all such terminology, imagining personal application.

Oriented toward a north point beyond myself, adversities cause me to scramble for direction. In these times that are long established as “post truth,” an especially strong sense of discernment is needed to hold direction. Alongside the scholarly pursuits and the moorings of spiritual maturity, the critical sensor remains the tuned interior compass. Indeed, integral to the pursuit is continued cultivation of inner resources. That is an everyday nurture, and there can still be more missed crossroads- surely reminders of imperfection. Further still, the need to continue this formation intensifies with the rejections, setbacks, and desolation. More than an inner compass is needed, but in addition an inner generator. I’ve got to keep generating my own power and light- for myself and for the support of others. Hatching up ways to do so happens with fits and starts.

How to stay inspired? How to find humor? I know the sources to tap into, but how to do that better? These concepts are tied to value: personal value, moral value, and the value of a course well run. In addition, the value of daily life. There’s no shortage of opportunities to try savouring the commonplace, complete with my coarse cold sandwiches, tedious routines, boring meetings, and predictable responses. Up against all that, I alter my routes to and from work, among other things. Find the tiny gems in the tedium. Notice the skies, as the seasons change. Taste the maple syrup in the coffee. Don’t miss imagery in reflective surfaces. Sharpen that pencil slow enough to notice the spiraled wood shavings. Ponder the hiddenness of God, and how that challenges the human soul. San Juan de la Cruz observed that Divine wisdom is darkness to the mind.

in measure

For a couple of days in the Boston Athenaeum manuscript room, I studied the fascinating work by Thomas Brooks (17th C.) called The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod. The full title is a paragraph’s worth, and the spirit of the text is a lot more upbeat than a non-reader might assume. Speaking to his times, Brooks assembled as much assurance and inspiration as he could conjure up for his mid-1600s English readers. A notably poetic passage I found begins with Stars shine brightest in the darkest night. I looked up from his ancient pages and toward the vaulted windows facing Beacon Street, with a breath, after his little mercies are great mercies... the higher the mountain, the gladder we shall be when we are got to the top of it. Brooks referred to memory as a potential holy ark, a heavenly storehouse. The archaic words from about 350 years ago told me to hang on; joy comes to those who endure.

The contents of a “heavenly storehouse,” like Sewall’s spiritual provisions, are not resources that can be purchased. Drawing from sculpted inner deposits, intangible necessities can be procured. These include retained and treasured consolations. I like to call upon cherished words of past mentors; these recollections help return the brilliance of those whom I miss very much. They continue to teach me, though my enshrined memories. I call interior reserves “intangibles” because they are nonmaterial rations. Other people can only see these sustaining resources as they are expressed through me, curator of the archives of my soul. The files are carefully conserved and stored for my retrieval and facilitation. There are even finding-aids and inventories. Inner archives are as integral as directional compasses.

Hardly a flawless repository, human as it is. Reaching for inspiration, whether physical or metaphysical, still requires insight and determination. Though I may know what is necessary, my reflexes and grasp can fail, vulnerable as they are. I’ve surely experienced this, namely in the recent several years. Thankfully, my constant journaling provides something of a documental sounding board for me to review and re-read. When things appear to close in, and my journal entries repeat too many of the same troubles and roadblocks, my attention turns to setting attainable goals. The very short-term is as brass-tacks as “the next right thing.” Get through the week. Get through the morning. See if this-and-that can be done, while doing the-other-thing. Be a good trooper, so there’ll be time to journal later. As navigating becomes increasingly treacherous, managing the hazardous depths is best handled in brief distances. For a horizon-gazer like me, maintaining short perspectives is daunting, but often necessary to hold course. Those faraway yonders do exist, even when it’s best not to stare. Save the fine-focus for the moment, with wider angles for basic direction. Stored memory of gratitudes can supply sustenance that strengthens needed night vision. Now to remember to continue.