Sunday, April 4, 2021


“Teach us to love a life hidden with You.”

~ from the Divine Hours, for Easter eve

“Notandum quod iste...” reads a manuscript of Thomas à Kempis’- which is to say “make note of this,” or, “let it be observed.” Kempis wrote the compendium of inspirational essays called Imitatione Christi during the early 1400s. At first, the book was meant to encourage novices among the Brethren of the Common Life, and the Sisters of the Common Life- communities that brought monasticism to eclectic cities in what are now Holland, Germany and Belgium. Kempis’ works continue to be in print today, with a readership that is unconfined by denomination or affiliation. His order was also known as the Devotio Moderna, reviving ancient Christian practice in contemporary context, more than a century before the Reformation. Much of the communities’ self-sustaining income was made through teaching and book-production. The order spanned into the era of the first printing presses (and some of the monastic houses developed highly-accomplished printing establishments). But for the most part, the work was all done by hand, and Kempis was also known as a master calligrapher. Being a calligrapher and teacher of the craft myself, I admire the expression of “making note,” on many levels. That simple expression reminds me to continue to observe, remain aware, write, create imagery, and attend to others. Spring’s arrival is signaling observers to hope with great intent, even against our circumstances.

Central to the wonder of the season that I call winter-into-spring are the abrupt changes in temperature and light. Senses are ignited out of their winter dormancy. In northern New England, there’s that one day upon which I can suddenly notice the aromas of earth and trees, while still walking through snow. In the midst of global tragedy and seamless successions of months, making note of some kind of positive progress is a providential distraction. Perhaps it’s a survival instinct of ours, to divert attention toward things that appeal to the will to transcend. We long to be invited to scenarios of welcome.

In this part of the world, spring ushers in baseball season- even during these times of limitation. In a recent Boston Herald article, a poignant reminiscence of the four-year-old boy (now a parent in his forties) rescued by star Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice after being hit in the head by a line drive looks back at the event in 1982. Rice, now a celebrated hall of famer, ran into the stands and scooped up the seriously injured child and ran to deliver him to the medics that were on duty at Fenway Park. The boy recovered, and now at 43 the man told the Herald interviewer that “you’ve got to live every second,” and cherish every moment. Mr. Keane added that the “smells of the park” are sweet to him: “from the hot dogs to fried onions for the sausages, and the field that is green unlike any green in the world.” Then he reflected, “this year baseball is needed more than ever.” Making note can also be a show of gratitude, as well as an alertness to the immediate, always with the undertone of taking nothing for granted.

For the most part, diversion must be sought. We have to know to look for it. Not every day is a sunny one at Fenway Park. And in my note-taking, which is both written and committed to memory, I remind myself of an elder friend’s wise words from long ago: “If you don’t like how you’re feeling, change what you’re doing.” I try to do this, whenever possible. This very same friend also taught me this saying: “Hardship is inevitable, but misery is optional.” This speaks to what cannot be changed, but what must be worked around- at best. Thomas à Kempis, with his teachers and his students were all living their vocations during the worst times of the late-medieval plagues. Zwolle was the hardest-hit city in Holland. Dozens and dozens of the Sisters and Brothers of the Devotio Moderna died of the plague.

They continued to carry on their ministries to the poor and homeless. Kempis himself survived the sickness, while he saw many of his brethren pass away. He was also the chronicler of his monastic community, named Mount Saint Agnes. Kempis essentially kept the journal of the house. To this day, we can read about the fallen, including highlights about their lives and characters. His chronicles preserved many other aspects about daily life in his community, including what they ate, how they dressed, and features related to the physical landscape. They, too, witnessed the passage of time. Now this season offers us a display of the upward progress of nature in spring- something preciously rare during this pandemic. Predictable progress that parallels the unfolding of time is an irresistible prospect. It drives us onward. Kempis made many references to the hidden life of a contemplative, even a working contemplative outside a cloister. Interestingly enough, some of his unsigned works are identifiable by his handwriting. He did not make efforts to be noticed; his life was one of service and being a compassionate witness to those around him. Indeed, that is a life to be loved and one that ministers through plagues and toward renaissance.

Saturday, April 3, 2021


“I am like a desert owl of the wilderness,
like an owl of the waste places.

~ Psalm 102:6


The need for endurance never dissipates. It is surely emphasized during this exhausting pandemic that vigilance cannot be interrupted. Lived experience- in real time, as opposed to looking back to the past through truncated perspective- is often vulnerable to mirages. Does time really “heal all wounds,” or is it simply that amidst our lived passage of time the immediacy of our thoughts and urgencies create distancing distractions? A lot more scrupulosity is required to accurately remember, than to supercede events with more events. I believe we are more prone to passively forget, as opposed to actively recollecting. Returning to the odyssey of surviving the pandemic, it is too easy to be fooled by the mere passage of time. Some significant developments have certainly transpired during the past year, but time has not made the danger go away. We could say that we’re buying time with our preventive measures, hoping to extend enough space for medicine to catch up and surpass the contagion. For the passage of time to be of constructive use, it must be combined with perspective...

...And levels of patience uncharacteristic of the on-demand culture that was indefinitely derailed last year. Discerning observers have seen, too many times, how impatience and self-centeredness can kill. But the pressure is not only in the swirl of wanderlust, but also steeped in economic duress. The need to earn a living is yoked to how most of us are scrambling to be relevant. Somewhere in the middle is a rarely-seen sense of prudent moderation. For a worker on the margins of sustenance, there are few means for influence. It’s a steep drive uphill with insufficient traction. Surviving this episode of undetermined duration is anything but passive: while the necessary kind of vigilance toughens, I am trying to prevent resistance from leading to callousness. Not easy, but worthwhile for the sake of conscience- albeit with thickened skin. Abiding in my thoughts is the unforgiving aspect of time; as it marches on, we all get older. Proving to be relevant is joined by the yokefellow of marketability. Those whose quests for better employment began long before the covid era wind up forced to apply even greater effort to compensate for the intense losses of rejection. But survival means standing up, dusting off, and recovering that requisite traction. Quarantining intensifies the challenge of perspective, and a spiritual backbone is all the more a sustaining means. Survival is also the willingness to improve every possible approach, from the present adversities, to open ends to the future. More than simply being aware of my surrounding factors, it is vital to be critical of them- but without being negative. Such constructive criticism- as it is in the arts- is meant to motivate change. Normally, and for years before April 2020, I would distract myself by “getting out of Dodge,” with road trips, cultural venues, and pilgrimages. Recently (as I wrote last month), the open horizons are through the inner life. Journaling, more than ever, is a storing-up of strength and recollection. It is less a buying of time, and more like “renting time,” considering how little I actually own.

traction and inertia

As spring arrives, notwithstanding the time mirages I’ve just written about, I’m expecting improvement. I’m also humbly remembering mild days aperch with books on the front stoop of my apartment. Perching on the granite steps will often bring me in contact with six- and eight-legged neighbors. For the most part, when a large ant rushes in my direction, I’ll flick it away. Fascinatingly, if I set the edge of my book down to obstruct an ant’s path, it tries to go around the barrier. Then I move the barrier, and the ant tries another route, not interested in backtracking. I can relate to this type of ant, quixotically trying every possible way-around. Inevitably and usually, I’ll simply raise my book and let it pass along on its determined way. Wouldn’t I love to receive such mercy.

Ever prying at the barricades, I can do only so much to try to influence circumstances. Admitting to my own naïveté, my persistent idealism continues to assume that honest, diligent, and excellent work leads to a better life. Or at least an open door. But what really opens the way to opportunity? How do social outsiders transcend the barricades? In much slower and with more complicated variables than those of the scurrying ant on the front stoop, I’ve yet to find significant success. With decades of pondering this, and conversing with numerous individuals, while observing many levels of these games of prejudicial sizing-up and upload-analytics, I’ve learned that traction comes from the receiving end. This is to say that without allies on the inside, an applicant is left to stand upon nothing more than their own substance. Ironically, the most valuable aspects- abilities, accomplishments, cooperativeness, and character- are made the least important. Traction and open doors are impossible without allies on the inside. I’ve conferred with no less than eight career counselors, and they each agree. There can surely be exceptions, but they emanate from the same unpredictable realm as that of the miraculous. And if the odds weren’t steep enough, there is the regional perception universally-known (and admitted by too many), which I call The Maine Paradox:

If you’re from here, we can trust you, but you’re no good;
If you’re from away, we can’t trust you,
but you’re better than us.

This is an unwritten truth finally written here. And it is as defeatist and universally acknowledged as the proverbial “gentleman’s agreement.” It is also sadly a major reason why most local talent reluctantly leaves this state for the cause of finding success elsewhere. I have witnessed this for more than thirty years. And it is more than unfortunate, not only for all the heartbroken souls that are barricaded out of building careers in their beloved and invested home state, but also for the cause of community depth and priceless historicity. Such widespread disregard for homegrown and locally-embraced ingenuity endangers community and corporate memory to the point of repeating mistakes. And this is not to mention unproductive and costly lunges for “outside experts” that do more harm than help. No-one I’ve met anywhere knows of a place attached to such an undercutting mindset. Of course, nativistic views are not productive, either, but what can really use some societal traction is fair competition for all. Are there Maine people in high places (and I have discussed this with various members of state government) who will address the paradox of which they dismayingly admit exists? Societal amnesia on a broader scale is such that prophetic messages as not being judged by race or ethnicity but by content of character (and I’ll add place of residence) seem as if they’ve never been preached at all.

time as preparatory

“People tend to overstate my resilience, but, of course, I hope they're right,” was famously said by the brilliant Boston University professor and radio commentator David Brudnoy. He poignantly titled his memoir “Life is Not a Rehearsal.” A strong sense of the preparatory dovetailed from graduate school into a protracted life of working while hunting for improved conditions. Far too much precious time has been consumed by treating the days and years as a kind of warmup for grander things- for something that will finally do justice to my hardworked cultivation. Grit, sweat, knuckling under, wincing through bullying, and settling for less. But the pandemic has forced downsized dreams upon countless souls. Now the victories are found in water-treading. For what are the dress-rehearsals, now?

The past year’s desert exile has led into a second round of perilous haul. As relief seems to near, it gets batted away, and we that survive must trudge on. And even-keeled, no less. Throughout this time, and long before, my energies and ambitions have been fueled by faith. In a strange and oddly biblical sequence, as my continuum worsens, my backbone strengthens. Indeed, things do level off- and then the threshold lowers some more. This is surely not to my preference, and I’d much prefer spiritual and intellectual growth in comfort and stride. Maybe that will come later. Within my personal belief is a real admiration for the directness in the journey between Creator and individual. Reading the literature left for us by faithful mortals, along with the scriptural texts, there’s even an admirable bluntness that weaves among the more poetic strands of psalmody. Let’s not perpetuate the unreality that “the saints” walked around all mild-mannered and aura-surrounded. They knew plenty about disappointment and frustration, and their holiness was tied to how and what they did with what they had. It’s normal, human, and downright honest to get sassy; it’s better than to be bitter. God can handle it.

I’ve often said to students and audiences that the best writing is honest writing. Be true to yourself, and tell the truth. It goes the same in the spiritual realm: be true and honor what is true. Express that disappointment. There are millennia of prophetic (which means “truth-tellers”) speakers who have done the same- however doing so dares to toe a fine line, and the sojourning individual must beware to not cause injury to their conscience or to their spiritual relationship. Declaring expectations for improvements is also a demand upon oneself. Prayer “with a vengeance” sounds like a conflict in terms, but it is not- so long as the insistent fierceness does not break communion. Not a place to take up residence, but a passing waystation. Traction’s purpose is to launch out of ruts and safely across ice-covered roads- both on land and within the soul.

This wilderness has yet to present a clearing. Vigilance cannot be interrupted. Whether or when the road turns favorably remains unknown. Some days begin with it will never, and some begin with hasn’t yet. My beloved home town has become even more of a deserted place than it was during the recession which gutted many places in the late 1980s. The fortunate are the water-treaders. A good friend and fellow curator, among a long list of neighbors who moved away, told me on the phone that “Maine is unforgiving.” I told him that I know this; I know this. Yes I know this. What happens next? Like the old guys spending their money on scratch tickets in convenience stores, I keep trying and applying. “You never know,” I say, sounding like the lottery ticket spenders. “All it takes is an open door. An even more perfect pitch and some recognition in high places. Just a bit more traction. Some of that deferred grace would be handy now. It could be right around the corner. And I go on, surely along with many other kindred spirits, renting some more time and procuring the consolations as well as possible.