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.