Friday, December 25, 2020

why write

“Bet you’ve all got a story
You're just aching to tell.
Haven't we thrown our coinage
Down the wishing well?”

~ Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love, Doublecure

ask foundational questions

The year which is about to close out generates as much comment as emotion. During a recent radio interview for which the topic was journaling and letter writing, I talked about eagerly looking forward to the privilege of reflecting back about this current crisis in retrospect. This is to say when this plague is past. For the time being, and much of the last 10 months, I’ve continued writing, teaching remotely, and encouraging others to write their stories. Every person has volumes. Throughout the year, I’ve thankfully continued working at my employment- humble as it is- and in as much isolation as possible. Interspersed with my duties, whether on-site or in my apartment, my daily journaling also continues. I’ve noticed my written entries are much more detailed about the mundane than before. It’s surely related to the confinements of pandemic life. Although I’m staying afloat, it’s a desolate voyage. Perching to write last night, it amazed me that even amidst this time of exile there is still plenty to write about.

An old and affectionate ballad asks the pleasantly rhetorical question, “tell me why the stars do shine; tell me why the ivy twines?” The listener surely knows the answer, as these lines state what is mutually obvious, as sure as the ocean is blue. “Tell me,” I asked myself, “why do I write?” Well, the ocean is blue, the ivy twines; and as surely as I live and breathe, I write. Being in a much more pared-down life than before last March, the creature comforts are few and modest. But I make sure to write: this is a continuum that is always enjoyable, consoling, and vital. Neither a smoker nor a drinker, I do keep myself in good writing materials and strong coffee. These rank high among provisions. Especially now. Living and writing inextricably go together.

As I scribe my thoughts these days, usually between tasks, it is evident to me how trivial things are magnified while the wider world seems diminished. With all the necessary hygienic precautions and rules, there are no longer any spontaneous errands as before. Walks to the post office and grocery store trips have become equipped expeditions. What can’t be done or visited outnumbers what can be done or visited. At the same time, current events are brought very close- with scant positive news. Perceptions about proximity, distance, and time have been altered. All the more, writing is crucial as a balancing and restorative ingredient to my days. There is the action itself of physically setting down words on paper by hand, untethered from electronic media- and then there are the reasons for doing so. As with any creative art there are the physical actions of making, along with created content, and the work’s significance. It’s easy to take these things for granted, having committed to writing long ago (and photography much longer ago). Part of my stock-taking at the end of this difficult year is writing about why I write.

the invisible hand of providence

An easy and not altogether inaccurate answer for why I write is to say, “because I have plenty to say but I don’t wish to be tedious to those who know me.” Fine enough, though it isn’t really why I write. A person makes a mark on a page (or sculpts, composes, et cetera) in response to inner impulses strong enough to take some coordinated action. Indeed, the context for creative output is highly individualized. Throughout the decade during which I taught photography, I would say to the class that a photo image is the result of many intuitive decisions by the photographer. Such factors include vantage points, camera settings, composing what one has decided to include in the viewfinder, lighting, to name a few- and it all happens in fractions of seconds. The intentions behind the imagery are equally unique to the creative person. When I teach philosophy, I’m sure to point out the concepts of being and meaning as central to very many foundational questions.

In the spirit of the Advent season, I’m remembering how I’ve referred students to Blaise Pascal as having been solidly aware of the invisible hand of Divine providence. Agreeing with Pascal about this point, as well as that of openness to the serendipitous, I’ve learned not to lean too much on contrivance. The nature of discovery is surprise. Years ago while in art college, I strongly felt the need to read the Bible- in the vernacular. As a child in my religious instruction, I had to translate Hebrew into English; I wasn’t very good at it, and the reading was not smooth. With the High Holidays in season and feeling rather desolate, I went to the public library and borrowed a King James translation. Reading at night, after my schoolwork, I found all the familiar places and people from my childhood studies- but in refreshingly fluid English (even if it was rather Elizabethan).

Everything was linking together between ancient history, the traditions I had learned and practiced, and all the fascinating personalities. Then I arrived at a threshold in the form of a blank page and turned it, finding something I had never seen before, the New Testament. Suddenly the names were not familiar, but I continued reading. The words and events were compelling, haunting, and sweet to me. I felt the Spirit very naturally taking root, and what followed after some time was the strength of the message forcing the expansion of my ancestral religious perimeters. Embracing the gospel eventually ostracized me from my community and led to some extremely difficult years of rejection and alienation. Looking back, it is astonishing how I did not break under the strain. An old soul with a new faith. Studies, work ethics, new friends, a few great mentors, and opened spiritual horizons were just enough to start gathering some momentum for the long haul. Surely many ruts in the road; it’s never been easy, but such is the pilgrimage of trust. But the Rabbi of Nazareth taught that hard times are inevitable, yet at the same time wise words will providentially take shape from within: “By your perseverance you will gain your soul.”* I write because an unusual, irrepressible, and enduring message has been given to me.

living for the emergence

Advent represents as much about manifestation as about anticipation. The waiting is not passive. As with my native traditions, the observance lends itself to merging the historic and the symbolic. At the same time the defining spirit is a looking-forward, emphasized at the darkest stretch of the year. The turning of the season offers a chance to be inspired by the sheer passage of time, by the potential for transformation. Although journal writing is often the place for looking back to make sense of what was, and reflecting upon what is, the musing becomes an arena for ambition. In this sense, writing is aspiring. Just as I keep telling myself to keep on going while gaining context, I’m also writing ahead. The lines of my connected script date back to my first cursive loops at Public School Number 13, in New York City. (I’ve actually had the honor of visiting with the current and retired school principals at P.S. 13- even reading to them from my journal. It was a chance to express my gratitude, speaking this time as an adult with fellow adults- educators all.) Centuries before personal journal writing was popular, Quakers of all ages- women and men- were writing their reflections and impressions in diaries. Many of these journals survive to this day and are fascinating to read. The travels, perils, interactions, meditations, reminiscences, testimonies, and personal convictions represent the context of these driven individuals. Early on, Quakers believed their journals were continuations of the biblical book of the Acts of the Apostles. Good reading lightens the darkness, and so does upholding the writing torch. My inked and graphite loops and jots twine like the ivy, page after volume. And my written steps will find their way through this crucible of isolated exile when the storm passes by.


* Luke 21:19

Sunday, November 29, 2020


“Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée. C’est de là qu’il nous faut relever et non de l’espace et de la durée, que nous ne saurions remplir. Travaillons donc à bien penser: voilà le principe de la morale.”

(“All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavour, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”)

~ Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 347

provisioned and purposed

During these times of bunkering and hunkering, it seems many have been brought to consider the practical meaning of self-sufficiency. We need the comradeship of one another more than we may have previously realized. Many that have had to navigate this world in these recent months have seen how individuals’ safety precautions are mutually much broader safety precautions. My safety is equally your safety, too. Yet it may be instinctual for us to form ourselves and our lives toward goals of having everything we need. Is preparedness about survival, or is it more about fear of not having enough? And does the latter cause us to hoard more than is needed? Do we need to prove our self-sufficiency against a fragile security with abundance? All questions for an observer of a world of billions of little islands that long for connecting bridges. It has been crucial to find one’s own definition for preparedness. An expression like take care has derived a wishful connotation that has come to parallel the post-sneeze God bless you which originated during medieval plagues. Being prepared and provisioned is a motion toward continuity- toward survival and emergence.

As it has become vital to my own approach to survival, I’ll shift to a lighter musing- on this occasion, about provision. Since my childhood years, I’ve always been fascinated by intricately inclusive “kits” that provide all that is necessary to complete a task. By this, I mean a portable receptacle that can be taken to various locations so that you have what you need to accomplish a project. A first-aid kit wouldn’t quite fit my definition any more than a flatware drawer: these are gatherings of items to keep you going. I’m thinking much more along the lines of my tacklebox of archival conservation tools which I take with me to do fieldwork in libraries and museums. The box filled with tools I’ve gathered over the span of two decades contains what I need to solve just about any preservation problem. The spatulas, bone-folders, knives, tongs, cleaning instruments, gauges, among other tools are the “constants,” to which I’ll add rolls of various papers, board material, and even cameras- depending upon a specific project. It’s also at the heart of all my conservation workshop teaching. The box is always packed and at the ready, being a quintessential inclusive provisions kit.

Another everything-kit which I keep intact and at-the-ready is my larger tacklebox packed with all that is needed to do and to teach calligraphy. Many of my lettering projects are done on-location, including countless makerspaces I’ve led. It’s also easy for me to simply set the box near my desk, as everything’s gathered together and portable. The calligraphy box has many multiples of pen-holders, nibs, inkwells, and numerous related tools, so that I have what is needed just for myself- along with plenty of extras for others when I am teaching groups up to twenty people at a time. As with the book & paper conservation box, the calligraphy box has traveled many miles with me. On several occasions, I’ve journeyed with both kits to large teaching events at which I’ve taught both subjects. Indeed, there are more “free-standing” kits to mention, involving photography, writing, and sewing- as examples.

a thought kit

In ways that are similar to how we can outfit ourselves for purposes that are best accomplished with a supply kit, what about our thoughts? As we navigate life- especially amidst our respective isolated experiences- can a ready thought kit be appropriately stocked? We do, after all, carry our thoughts with us; consider how we naturally “collect our thoughts,” while trying to make sense of a situation. Recollection is one of my favorite words, particularly in the contemplative context of attention to the presence of the Divine within the soul. In addition to carrying our thoughts with us, we can also choose to “tap into” our thoughts, “calling to mind” impressions, memories, and ways of thinking. Very much as it is physically when assembling the essentials for a comprehensive tool kit, there are surely spiritual disciplines when deciding which thoughts are the best ones to keep in one’s conscientious stock. It also means making room by discarding and replacing various supplies that become outmoded and dulled.

There are certainly more “terrestrial” ways to curate knowledge to benefit our thinking processes and memories. Along with daily journaling, I’ve maintained a parallel run of chapbooks in which I jot down thoughts and found quotations. I’ve even digitally indexed a number of these chapbooks, to make things easier to find later. I transcribe my research gleanings from my travels, and back up the documents in ethereally-titled “cloud storage.” As well, two favorite pieces of digital technology are my portable netbook and a good spacious flash-drive. While I view these as tools themselves, and also as supply-kits, I’m well aware of the care needed to keep things intact and accessible. These are not necessarily thoughts, but surely aides-mémoires.

Among his many written thoughts, left to posterity on hundreds of small leaves of paper, the philosopher Blaise Pascal made thought a topic in itself. He affirmed how humans are capable of thinking at levels beyond all living beings. “Pensée fait la grandeur de l’homme,” which is to say “thought constitutes the greatness of humanity.” To think- to carefully and thoughtfully consider- is essential and is the means through which our greatness proceeds. Pascal elaborated that we humans are more than mere sentient creatures:

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this.

Evidently there are reeds, thinking reeds, and minds like Pascal’s. Here he speaks about the paradox of our fragility and the enduring transcendence of our thoughts. In this transcendence, we do file our unique thoughts and accomplishments in the archives of our souls. Our most refined and substantial thoughts can be easily dissolved, but the spirit of our cultivation lives beyond finite days. We ponder fleetingly about eternity. The extent or the duration of thoughts cannot be known by an individual, yet so many of us, like Pascal, unhesitatingly make intellectual investments. It is undoubtedly worthwhile.

thoughtfully equipped

Being equipped with a multi-tiered kit of curated thoughts, the supplies are meant to be used. Theory meets practice when learning meets the road. Attentiveness to observation can be refined into applicable treasure. But it’s easier said than done, to be sure. During this protracted pandemic, that carefully constructed trove of thoughts is put intensely to the test. What are the recollections that right the ship? Deep into the wilderness of bad news, misery, and barricades- we must dwell upon things that console and help light the way. Although most of this past year has offered no opportunities to venture out as I’ve always liked to do, the venturing has had to be inward. New learning and new thoughts can certainly be pursued and noted; I’ve been doing that as much as possible with my existing resources. There remain thoughts to be held every day. I continue looking forward to the prospect of writing about these times in retrospect. Between my apartment, my workplace “bubble” (at which I spend 2 of my 5 workweek days), and my few and critical errands, I also make time to maintain letter correspondence with friends. We write to one another, each from our own circumstances of exile. Much like listening to a calming radio broadcast, the letters I receive are living messages from another world.

spare parts

Provisions of the spirit are not always necessarily major concepts or “large events” committed to memory. My own stock of inspiring impressions consists of what I call spare parts. Subtle enough to fit between events and complexities, spare-part thoughts can be equated with cooking spices at the ready as a pinch or a dash may be needed. They are in the forms of things said to me, words I’ve read and remembered (and very likely written down), as well as images engraved in my memory. One evening last week, I called in to my friend Jordan Rich’s radio programme, broadcast from Boston, when he brought up the topic of writing and correspondence; this was a way to chime in and cheer him on at the same time. A parallel thread about gratitude gave me a chance to speak to a cherished spare part. He asked about causes for thankfulness, “and not the big-ticket items, but things you might be taking for granted.” I spoke about literacy, being grateful to know how to read and write. That’s a source beneath the source-material. Subtle as it’s been through the years, literacy is a profound blessing during these times of isolation.

Various friends tell me about seeking calm by focusing their thoughts on the “happy places” of their memories. There’s a lot of good sense in this, and I do some of that in my journaling as I seek healthy distractions these days and nights. These are certainly occasions for reaching for both the big-ticket reminders, as well as the more covert spare parts. I appreciate reaching for the wise words of compassionate people I’ve known. Years ago, I worked at a college which had been founded by a women’s Catholic religious order. The campus ministry was led by the sage and elderly Sister Sylvia, a mentor who taught me something about mentoring: she would say, “I won’t tell you what to do, but I’ll walk alongside you.” Metaphorical as that was to say, she is one who likes to walk. I have a vivid memory of how she would walk across the green quads of the campus with her rosary. She called this prayer-walking. Contemplative and practical. And praying the rosary itself is a plunging into the depths of spiritual memory, using the increments to find context in the timeless. Like Sister Sylvia who encourages generations of listeners to “shine that light,” holy writ comes to thought from everlasting with “walk while you have the light.*” Between there and here are the words of Sant Joan de Déu (San Juan de Dios), of the 16th century, urging us to keep going and “do all the good works you can while you still have the time.” Even from places of isolation, and even when the machinery indefinitely needs all the spare parts in the kit.

* John 12:35

Monday, November 2, 2020


“A person’s music is seen as a means of restoring the soul,
as well as confused and discordant bodily afflictions,
to the harmonic proportions that it shares
with the world soul of the cosmos.”

~ Plato, The Timaeus

While pandemic life has grounded elaborate plans and ambitions, simple attainments are also made difficult. Now thinking back through eight months of triage, distancing, and working amidst bunkering, I make note of the narrowed horizons. My optimistic travel plans drawn up last winter were humbled into crosstown errands. Indeed, I’m merely one of countless many that are scaled down to the brass tacks of personal safety and the earning of sustenance- all within the context of isolation. Hopefully it will not become necessary to have to choose between the two vital aspects of health and employment. It takes as much vigilance and resourcefulness to stay productive as it does to keep well. But as time irretrievably passes, though it may appear as such, quite clearly nothing stands still. Time continues cascading over all the stopped progress. There is so much to accomplish, but very few things can actually be done. The focus is survival.

Even at the outset of these times of lockdowns and related hardships, I noticed the prevalence of contrasts. As social malevolence manifested and broadcast itself, those who chose generosity emerged as bright exceptions. Humanity scrambles between the extremes of exploitation and mercy, while the natural world keeps vigil. And in this portion of my own vigil, as I keep watch in this night, my thoughts turn to the place held by sound in these times. Just as I recall the completely silent skies immediately after the 11th of September 2001, the first and most eerie aspect I noticed as the world began locking down in March was the desolate quiet of the streets.

The absence of sound is cause for notice, and so is the welcome presence of assuring sound. But this is surely not to say that quiet cannot be comforting. Just as there are welcoming forms of silence, there are also pleasant sounds. Several nights ago, the transformation into the late-autumn became pronouncedly audible to me, as I was awakened by wind and rainstorm-rattling windows. It was a reminder of sounds I’ve always liked. Soothing sounds provide an effect resembling fresh air. It’s a calming, accompanying presence. Indeed, not all sounds have these properties- even in the same categories. Radio, a lifelong companion, can be as much of a conduit of good reminders and wonder as it can be a prism of abrasion. A few weeks ago, I listened to Schumann’s Forest Scenes for the first time, and was so taken by the music and its performance that I stopped working so that I could better savour the sounds. I have a rather irrational habit of looking at the radio, when I want listen more clearly; I looked and listened. This particular radio station does not always broadcast music I find appealing. Normally, it’s a kitchen sink of classical pop: lots of martial-sounding rat-a-tat-tat “classical” orchestral music- regardless of time of day or night. Contrasting the sounds that I find to be sweet and textural- with cellos, harmonies, and counterpoint- are the pieces I call “music that needs to be oiled.” That latter category speaks for sounds that are scratchy, whining, and cacophonous that cause me to switch stations- or just choose some silence. It doesn’t make sense to opt for more annoyances than what already exists, especially in this chaotic era.

Pythagoras famously said, “Either be silent, or say something better than silence.” And by my lights, in this context, better is to say: consoling, life-giving, or perhaps even constructive. Surely a subjective and highly individualized definition. The quiet at five in the morning, with my coffee and breviary, is an expectant silence pointed toward newness and hope. A sound as subtle as the dulcet hiss of cars passing along my street is something I find soothing. So is the wind through the trees, familiar soft voices, birds, the scribing of my writing on paper, my percolator that converts sound into aroma, my landlady’s footsteps from upstairs, and foghorns from the waterfront. Part of why I’ve always loved walking and perching at the ocean’s edge, aside from the vistas, are the sounds of the water. The tides will determine the forces of crashing waves, along open seas. Then there are the sheltered inlets, with much quieter stirrings. With eyes closed, my imaginings are of an affectionate ladling of a large seaweed soup, the rounded stones clacking under the waters’ pulling. Such sounds transcend pandemics and hardships. Beyond material provisions, resourcing myself also includes knowing where to find consoling sounds.

The light and weather of November suddenly brought to mind one particular long-distance road trip I made. Having to cover 1300 miles in 2 days, I drove more than 750 miles in a straight shot, with just 3 brief fuel stops. The highways between western New York State and northeastern Ohio were imperiled by a fierce winter storm, but I reduced speed and stayed my course. I kept the windows defrosted and the radio on, gripping the steering wheel and bonding with my rental car. Finally reaching my planned destination, parking in a snow drift next to a hotel and shutting off the engine, I instinctively closed my eyes. The driving was intense and my catharsis was equally pronounced. Walking to a nearby diner to decompress and replenish, the restless fatigue was later finally solved when I saw that my small hotel room had a real bathtub. Part of that perfectly consoling and soapy hot bath was in the sound of the water, reminding me of home, while the winter weather continued pelting at the windows. Before retaking the road the next morning, I dined with fellow guests in the breakfast room.

The hotel, on the following morning.

Sharing meals with strangers in a common room, replete with convivial sounds of voices and crockery, is now an impossible enjoyment. Surviving the pandemic has brought about alienation from our travels and from one another. The timbres and tones of humanity are severely curtailed. The last time I was compressed in a crowd was in late-February at Boston’s North Station. My thoughts were not occupied with contagion, but rather with getting a good seat on the train. Nobody would’ve expected that crowd noises would become something rarified. And so rarified that when major league sports resumed to play their abnormal and abbreviated seasons, they would be doing that in empty arenas against the backdrop of canned crowd noises (to audiences of cardboard photos of spectators). Listening to some of the baseball games on the radio had me wondering about broadcast technicians splicing together enough sounds of sports fans to create many hours of banal background noise. What an odd testament to the greater oddness and unreality of isolation. It also attests to how important pleasant and assuring sounds are to so many, reminding us of our wishes. We search for comforts while carrying a nostalgia for a better future. Within the need to be resourced for survival is our comprehension of sound: choosing away from what injures the soul- as much as possible- and choosing toward strength and inspiration.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

simple and plain

“A vocabulary of truth and simplicity
will be of service throughout your life.”

~ Sir Winston Churchill

Voyaging through the present pandemic is now beyond the half-year mark. Places of embarkation are long out of view. Horizons are yet to reveal lands of safe arrival. We were all told this would be a long haul; now we’re really seeing it, but are yet to see the other end of this tribulation. In short, the duration of this indefinite and provisional time is unknown. Respecting the rules concerning quarantining and traveling, all my scenery is limited to being very close to home. There’s my apartment, then there are the views from my apartment, the little streets nearby, and the ocean. Living on a peninsula, looking out to the Atlantic is how I can see horizons these days. Navigating these times is that part of a sea crossing during which traces of terra firma are not visible. All that tangibly remains is the going; the baroque philosopher Suárez would’ve said the transition between substances is the modal distinction. And the transit is somehow an entity. Had he lived in a place like the Maine coast, he might’ve left us observations about boat wakes. But the present is one of being at sea.

Enduring these months is a learning experience of what to eliminate or change. There are shortages and there are pinched resources. Less money, in the face of inflation and reduced pay, but less to buy. Three full tanks of gas in my car, in six months. Having less causes a discipline of needing less. As the workplace began requiring a weekly on-site workday, I’ve simply treated my department like a quarantine: A straight-out eight-hour day, with granola bars and thermos of coffee. There are no places to go for lunch, anyway. Then it’s become two days on-site. More granola bars for the perpetual motion. I just want to get the work accomplished, plain and simple. Perhaps it’s an imposed austerity, but the workplace is the place to get work done; there is no more socializing, and it’s hard to tell how much longer the situation will last. I’ve noticed myself working faster and more strategically, as I cram all I can into those hours. Working from home is no less industrious, but it’s much safer. Most of us are under pressure to make the best of a bad situation. I’m grateful, at least, to be working. Life is surely muted and compromised, but I’m always brought to step back and consider this context when I see the clusters of those encamped in the city park with no place to call home. The pandemic forces us to learn to not take tomorrow for granted.

Along with adapting my perspective as necessary reactions to these times, there remain ways to turn the can’ts into how-abouts. For things that can’t be done, how about this-or-that? I’ve occasionally made my desk at home look like a table in a café. The price is right, and I chose the music myself. No traveling has meant no healthful, renewing retreats; my last sojourn was in late January, and there’s no telling when I can do this again. I tried a “virtual pilgrimage,” offered by a contemplative community in France. There were reflective texts, art works, even views of mountain scenery. Well-intended, indeed, but melancholic for me to be away from fellowship, the aromas of the woods, and the promise of the upward roads. Not every can’t has a compensating how-about. This recent half-year has been a combination of restlessness, sedentariness, and exhaustion. Yet, still, I’m very conscious of my hope to be able to write about this odyssey after it becomes safe again to move about and congregate normally.

Survival thus far has meant isolating, doing without, muting energies, wearing a facial covering when outside quarantine, and noting the passage of irretrievable time. And then there’s simplicity. Ambiguous, to be sure. The first sentence in this paragraph lists some of the negative aspects in the unfortunate simplification of daily life. Up against this, positive simplicity needn’t be portrayed as the upside of down. To continue simplifying every side of life is the most responsible thing I can do, leaving some room for creature comforts. After all, this voyage is about survival and sanity. But the positive side of plain and simple is in finding the good in the unextravagant. Running my nuts-and-bolts errands, such as what I call “stealth grocery shopping,” on a weekend day at 6:30am- an ideal time to socially distance- I ponder the better sides of basic. Stopping for a treat at my favorite doughnut bakery, steeped in the perfumes of pastries and so many flavors, I chose a plain doughnut. No doubt, these are fantastic in their plainness, such that I could taste the nutmeg. A old-fashioned just-made plain from Tony’s has the slightest crunch; perfection in its very simplicity.

Shaker Community: Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Just up the road apiece from here is the world’s last Shaker community. In the 19th century, a member of that community wrote the song “Simple Gifts,” which is known around the world. It begins with:

‘Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free;
'Tis a gift to come down where I ought to be.

For the Shakers, simplicity is regarded as a liberating gift. It’s a gain along the pilgrimage of life. This kind of perspective is also found among many spiritual communities and monastic orders. A Quaker’s reference to a person as plain is a great compliment. I remember an elder of the Portland Friends Meeting speaking reverently about a person he admired as being “substantial,” and having “deep roots.” A beautiful, eloquent plainness.

Whether it was during many years of being extremely busy in social circles, or now in spartan isolation, I’ve seen the value of keeping things simple. This is how thought processes and methodologies retain clarity and structure. That “gift to be simple,” as the Shakers taught so many to sing, is also the grace to be very clear in thought and intention. Simplicity, like honesty, is great cause for taking stock. And when we say “simple as that,” we’re describing something highly complex! A photograph such as the one I made of the coffee, journal, and doughnut (at the beginning of this essay) may be “deceptively simple.” The composition is designed so that viewers’ eyes move through and around the image, not landing statically in one place. Simple and somehow elaborate.

Contending with this global health crisis demands compromises, paring-down, simplification. When I stop to write in my journal, noticing how quiet downtown streets have been for months- in a part of the world that always has bustling summers- that’s when I realize the complexity of my tactics that have centered around regaining semblances of normal. The comforts are humble, but their meanings are profound: writing, reading, sending and receiving letters, music on the radio, familiar foods. Parallel to my hours of compressed work commitments is a conscious fermenting with hope to emerge from this as one who will be better cultivated. The basic is the basis, and the most understated forms of modal distinction are conduits to real treasure: written words and spoken words, sounds, tastes, musings, prayers. A Franciscan Brother in France once said to me, “Go to God with trust, simplicity, and affection.” I could gather that beneath his phrase were strata of education, lived experience, and deep roots. From such complexities traversing the cycles of time, the simplest solid truths emerge.

Monday, August 31, 2020

world of our own

“Close the door, light the light
We're stayin' home tonight
Far away from the bustle and the bright city lights
Let them all fade away, just leave us alone
And we'll live in a world of our own

We'll build a world of our own that no one else can share
All our sorrows we'll leave far behind us there
And I know you will find there'll be peace of mind
When we live in a world of our own.”

~ The Seekers, A World of Our Own

redeeming the time

Even in quarantine, there remains a need for safe refuge. And I am bearing in mind how there are woefully so many that are without places of residence, along with those without employment- each in a personal state of emergency. As for my continuum, it is through tentative and part-time work, although my thoughts and efforts are occupied on a full-time basis. Over these pandemic months, I’ve been able to accomplish about 75% of my work from my apartment. Albeit in a small living space, it’s been important to keep the “work work” away from my writing table. The two areas are at opposite corners of my apartment- even using two different laptop computers. Yet still, after the intensities of each day, there must be time and space to decompress. And the recollective and regrounding time lasts well into the night- long after the whole building has gone to sleep, and long after the drunken rowdies from the nearby bar’s outdoor operations have driven away (under the influence, no less). A few midnights ago, I pencilled this on a slip of paper: Even in quarantine, we seek refuge. Tranquility is not automatically part of our shut-in situations.

patience and pace

Every meaningful idea and project takes time and patience to develop. Central to the frustration of the present societal standstill is how the paces of time remain unrelenting. If hurry up and wait wasn’t bad enough, now we have something more like, it must but it can’t. Procedure and impatience never played well together. As children, our superiors reprimanded many of us for our impatience; as adults, many of us must chafe under the impatience of our superiors. Ponder that bit of irony. For this occasion, I’ll single out the professional archival work I’ve been accomplishing for the past twenty-two years through projects and public service. My mentor in graduate school used to repeat to us that we archivists should always be ready to educate colleagues around us about what our work entails- particularly librarians and administrators. Conserving, curating, interpreting, and managing original documents and artifacts is meticulous work. Doing the work methodically and correctly actually saves time, so that it will not have to be re-done later. The best stewardship means choosing not to cut corners, thinking of the benefits to be derived by future researchers. It takes time for any organic entity to bear fruit, and my two decades of experience have shown me how true this is. And the benefits are well worth the hard work- with this attentive labor requiring equal parts of patience, drive, steadfastness, and sensitivity to the subject matter.

archival processing

In September 2009, I seized upon an unusual opportunity that very few archivists ever encounter. After years of taking on and completing a number of regional archival and preservation projects, I was alerted by a family member of the city’s newspaper founder that the company had been resold and the building housing all publishing operations was being gutted. Rushing downtown on my bicycle and descending to the old building’s sub-basement, I saw large piles and stacked boxes and bags of unorganized photographic negatives. Being both a career photographer as well as an archivist, I recognized the mounds of cellulose fragments as camera originals, and very likely a century of Greater Portland history in primary form. Through the buzz of removal service workers, I found the supervisor and asked him about the film. He found it curious that I wanted the discarded negatives, even after I told him about my livelihood. “You want this stuff? You gotta take it away this week, or it’s all going to a smelter,” he said, evidently referring to the silver content in the film. Speaking for my institution, and with the newspaper founder’s elderly granddaughter ready to support my rescue, I said “That’s not going to happen. I’ll take it all.” With the descendent’s extremely valuable support, the ownership and copyrights were legally cleared in favor of my institution and department, and all the film was moved out of the gutted sub-basement to a temporary offsite workspace for me to use as I began organizing this massive accession. And there began my odyssey of salvaging and rescuing what has turned out to be a priceless trove of more than a half-million unique photo images, taken between 1936 and 2004.

The process is surely worth its own series of essays, but for the moment it suffices to say that my life’s experiences served me well, marching into this project undaunted, using and defending the best practices of my field at every turn. It took three years to analyze, organize, and arrange all the pieces of film; during that first-pass I began creating the control document- known as a finding-aid. I examined over a million exposures. The second pass has been the highly critical descriptive treatment, which I merged with rehousing the images into non-acid alkaline enclosures. The process is painstaking, even at my level of dedication and devotion, and a great deal of research has been needed so that these images (which had been right on the precipice of a smelter!) could be brought out to audiences. I’ve been making productive use of these lockdown times by turning up my paces with this vast project, having fewer interruptions, focusing on the digitization of the most informative of these images. I’m carefully identifying all locations and coordinates, including building addresses, personal names, and intersections, remembering how researchers value pictures of streets and structures. The best of the images have intrinsic value, but that value is inestimably enhanced with through descriptive information providing context for the subjects.

the phenomenon of archival photographs

When I rescued all the film discarded by the newspaper, I had a fairly good idea concerning the extent of the manual and intellectual strain that would have to follow. Despite knowing that physical space for processing and storage was going to be a problem, the urgency of securing the images was my greater concern. And it must be written here that as clearly as I recall the trash removers’ remarks about smelters, I also remember looking at those sorry mountains of scattered negatives and visualizing the completed work in my mind’s eye. I’m almost there. To be able to advance this project on a daily basis, on a shoestring and without proper facilities, I fronted my own money for some equipment, generated a grant, and recruited a team of volunteers to assist with the cataloguing and rehousing. And the unexpected joy in this stewardship is how the project began to take on a community aspect.

My hand-picked assisting volunteers have been senior citizens with a flair for history and memory. They remember many of the subjects in the photos, and our work together has been as satisfying as its been productive. We’ve had to use a work table in a public area, which has meant many passers-by have been watching the project take shape. People naturally ask questions, and the years of banter have forged a fellowship of appreciation for preserving local history. Everyone has stories, and I’ve been glad to listen. Such splendid intangibles cannot be properly bullet-listed in annual reports. Spirited friendships are for the archives in our hearts.

As the reckoning with quarantining and having to work from home set in, many of my coworkers found themselves either furloughed or scrambling to keep busy. Capitalizing on this productive solitude, I brought access to my thousands of image scans from the negatives, plus that priceless finding-aid, to my dining table so that I could begin building substantial digital archives. As with the initial processes, digitization and accurate interpretation is equally demanding. But these are necessary results, fruits of the labors of salvaging and preserving, and respecting the historicity of these treasures. Each uploaded image has been prefaced by my analysis and delicate scanning. More often than not, I confirm precise locations with maps and city directories- even when I know places from my own memory. Each image has stories to be respected.

Just as elements of serendipity have surfaced throughout this project, from the initial pass through the researching stages, this unique archive brought to life during pandemic times has accumulated a serendipitous audience. As the digital image collections have been growing in substance and coverage, viewership has been exponentially increasing. For the past several months, I’ve been hearing from hundreds of grateful browsers from places far away from Maine. Local residents, ex-pats, and admirers love the photos; and they tell me about their connections to the subjects. Most are people I’ve never seen before, and would not have been among my walk-in traffic. The comments are profoundly touching. This inadvertent and large new audience gives me a lot encouragement, and the sum total confirms to me that I’ve been doing the right things in the right ways- from the day I saw those acetate heaps in the gutted building. These images, these frozen moments in the lives of places and people, are indeed meaningful to many. The affections of the viewing public are equal to mine.

Among the many things I’ve been learning over the past 5 months is about the sustaining power of nostalgia. People everywhere are shut away from the lives they had before last spring. The months since have been filled with news that is at once grim, disappointing, and often tragic. Future hopes of cures, vaccinations, opportunities, socializing in person, and economic recoveries are too far away to predict. And in our natural inclination to dream, amidst closed doors we look to the past. More precisely, we look for comfort to what we like about the past. People tell me about the stores and dining places dear to their remembrances, and because I’ve so carefully catalogued these businesses by names and addresses, I post to the online archive the beloved department stores, small shops, diners, coffeehouses, and restaurants of Portland. I’ve been adding schools, streets, parks, and aerial views- all to the delight of many. It ceaselessly amazes me to see how a still image can ignite emotional and detailed stories from people far and wide. I digitized and posted a photo of a popular doughnut shop, and another of a delicatessen- and streams of comments followed, regaling me about what everyone loved to order, summer jobs, school days, and family traditions. When I post photos of stores, people tell me about what they bought at these places. It’s really wonderful. At the sight of a picture of a furniture store, a man told me that he had no pictures of his father’s store from decades ago. Well I found it and posted it, to his great joy. Into people’s frustrated quarantines, I’m providing some consolation through their memories, using archival imagery.

Louis Armstrong gets a Maine lobster.

worlds of our own

When an anticipated turn is undetectable, good news can come from reminders of the past visiting our present. Reflective personal writing and professional life both cause me to comprehend this; often the two spheres are juxtaposed. I can certainly understand my corresponding library patrons just as I could with years of walk-in seekers. Even the most serious researchers want to reminisce. And I accompany all of them, occasionally blending in names and locations from my own memories. As for the negatives- especially the later images, having been a journaling local and an active participant in this city, I’ve enriched descriptive metadata that would never have been gleaned from minimalist microfilms. As an archivist, the facts must be verifiable, and yet I've discovered the crossroads of archival processing and a kind of documentary narration. I'm able to provide descriptive context from my own memory, giving roots to the subjects when they are missing.

I was present when the photos were taken, took one of them myself, and personally knew the people in the photos. In addition, having found these photos, I am able to document the connections between the social resource and its founding church, to tell the most complete story possible. It's important to be the one that can AND will do this sort of thing.

As we do what we can do, and refrain from what we can’t do, having worlds of our own will be integral to survival. I do not consider nostalgic viewers of archives as different from me. It is as though thousands of individuals, each with a camera, are pointed at the same locations. Obviously, the differences are in our ages, backgrounds, personal interests, and how each of us look at life. While I’ve been assembling archives out of the film I rescued, diligently entering coordinates, names, and dates, I’ve also been reconstructing a world that is gone yet still remembered by many. The crisp and captioned photographs are sharpening countless memories. People are telling me they had forgotten how this store and that store were across the same street; they ask me “what’s at so-and-so’s address now?” The photos are sparks that rekindle vibrant recollections, well worth recording. Photography has unique ways of saying, “yes, this was true,” and “it was really there, and so were you.” In that sense, archival photographs are evidence, stopping time in the click of a one-hundredth-of-a-second’s lens shutter. It is a phenomenon that is part of my every day.

“Joy is the serious business of heaven,” wrote C. S. Lewis as the narrator in Letters to Malcolm. Amidst reading and hearing about the cheers of recalling things cherished, I am in a humbled wonder at the effects of the pictures. And it is very serious business, too, to be accurate and thorough. By presenting these archives, I am “giving back” the histories of those whose existing imagery was through what they try to remember. Anecdotes faded and blurred by the mists of time are sharpened. In an archivally metaphysical way, I’ve been rebuilding demolished places that are missed by many. During the voyage of tracking through seven decades of negatives, I saw how many churches this city had, which are long since torn down- and quietly as a subseries, I created a complete visual database of houses of worship. These are vanished places that are both historically very interesting and also very dear to many. Once again, it is a vital role to be the one who can and will do this sort of thing. Treating the joys as serious business has generated a heartening appreciation that exceeds anything I’ve experienced prior to this past April. There is more to do, and there are moments to be seized while possible- even in the unpredictable not-knowing. The worlds of our own may include grand stores and luncheonettes, Victorian railroad stations, houses and neighborhoods, repair shops, pastries, holidays, events, celebrities, relatives and friends, children’s street games, and big snow storms. We have these worlds, and the more they inspire and instruct, the more they are worth cultivating and conserving.

Monday, August 3, 2020

no return

“Got your past behind you
Got your future in front of you

You can't go back
You can go on

You can't go back
You can go on

You can't go back
You can go on”

~ Michael Roe and the 77s, God Sends Quails

Now into the fifth month of these times of pandemic, distancing, and quarantining, discernible perceptions continue oscillating between settling and changing. The term “novel virus” has long since left the news cycles. We’re all about equally sick of hearing the word “unprecedented,” as we are of hearing about “the new normal.” It was new for a very short time, and this was never normal. When not occupied with work-from-home routines (for which I’m actually grateful), stealth and sparing masked errands, the adversity of boredom sets in. Not being able to do anything, go anywhere that isn’t mandatory, travel, or visit anyone amounts to significant boredom. Fortunately, I have journaling, letter-writing, and studies to keep me musing, sharp, and aware of others. But there is nothing normal about stagnation. I tend to use words like purgatory, plague, and exile for these times. I remember immediately noticing extremes in human behavior, that good souls tended toward generosity while malevolence tended toward intense cruelty. This still manifests. As well, I credit the strength of the human spirit in the ability to continue looking for equilibrium during crisis times. I’ve loved going for walks all my life, but the sight of my deserted city is too painful to behold. The other day, while walking an errand, I heard myself say “this is endless; just endless.” Repeating this felt terrible.

When the lockdown began, my automatic response to the sudden workplace changes had me reaching for a few modest essentials. With hardly a thought, after receiving permission to fetch my laptop and some project materials from my office space, I went back out to buy a few items as businesses were starting to close in. I bought pen refills of various colors, a clipboard, a dozen household light bulbs, and cold medicine (in case of any symptoms). All of these things have been put to use, for working from my dining table. My electricity bills have surely increased due to resourcing my work-space, but at least I’m employed. Even after 4 ½ months, all of this still feels like “fight-or-flight.” By urgency and necessity, I’ve had to learn some new disciplines related to avoiding the plague. A great many emotions are being stuffed into my journals. Many longings amidst the witnessing of tragedies. I’m also remembering my many years of studies in medieval history and philosophy, and how the major plague in Europe was called “The Great Dying” by its mystified contemporaries. Is there a hastened death sentence upon all of us? But we have many technologies and means that did not exist 6 ½ centuries ago. On this indefinite road to a better version of “normal,” part of my self-talk is to focus on hopes instead of adversities.

A few weeks ago, amidst my self-directed studies, I revisited an old morality tale called The Purgatory of Saint Patrick. It was written during the late 12th century, in an ancient style of French, and influenced Dante’s writings about journeys into netherworlds. In very brief, this captivating story is about the penitent Owein the Knight whose search for the sacrament of reconciliation brings him to the door of Purgatory. Before he embarks upon the deep and distant descent, an abbott warns Owein that he must persevere and endure the full extent of Purgatory to find and secure his salvation. The abbot counsels him and says, “In whatever torment you will experience, call on the name of Christ; you will be delivered by His name.” Owein must remember without ceasing, throughout his torments and extreme trials. The story is replete with graphic descriptions of tortured souls that were unsuccessful in their passages across the dangerous terrain, having fallen into fatal temptations. Heriocally, Owein repeatedly remembers to call upon God as instructed, often within a thread of hellfire. More than the pains of the crucible of purgation, Owein’s response to his suffering demonstrated his transformation and eventual ascent. He experienced deliverance as he insisted upon trusting the compassion of God. Owein’s experience and survival changed him, and he became a better person after he returned to his worldly life.

A chronic insomniac, I often listen to the radio late at night. Unfortunately, just about all the programming is so negative and absurd, I wind up on sports stations- even if just for a few minutes of doze-worthy escape. Being within about 325 miles from New York City, I can pick up the AM signal from the always entertaining “66 The Fan.” Amidst these times, the world of games, statistics, trades, and trivia has essentially been ground to a halt. And oddly enough, WFAN’s erudite and urbane Steve Somers has evolved into a late-night philosopher. During a broadcast, probably at around 2am, Somers began asking the listeners to talk about what they wanted to discuss- and it didn’t have to be about the baseball and basketball games that were not going on. From there, he became the soothing and wise presence which has endeared him to an even larger audience, broadcasting from his kitchen in Manhattan. At this writing, some games are being played- to empty seats decorated with cardboard photos of spectators, as athletes have been contracting the virus. Many have understandably decided not to take the risk of playing. The radio discussions broach the merits of simply cancelling the compromised baseball season. Somers asked his listening audience:“Should there be sports at this time?” He added, “What’s fair to expect?” From there, my musings continue with wondering about how indefinite is this temporariness?

Much is said about “mitigating risks,” and I’m certainly in favor of such preventative activity. What about mitigating the misery? I have to think even the most stoic among us must be affected by months of bad news and desolation. Forget the “other side” of this, there’s surely a during. Yes, at some time in the future, we’ll find out about the deleterious psychological aspects of the coronavirus era. But there’s a layered buildup quite far along in its development. Being between the fight-or-flight and the boredom, I am attuned to my reactions when I have to visit a business, when I hear jolly music on the radio, when I see images and symbols of happiness, when I am reminded of places and people I love, and when I sense the roadblocks at every side. At the same time, whether listening to sports trivia on the radio, or through my creation of digital archival collections, I’m part of the reaching back for good reminiscences in the midst of desperately anxious times. In this pandemic age, Owein the Knight is reminding me of Isaac Watts’ words in O God Our Help in Ages Past:

A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guide while troubles last,
And our eternal home!