“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.
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.
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