Tuesday, May 11, 2021

il dolce far niente

“I'm going nowhere
And I'm going to take my time;
All the questions in the world
I can leave in my mind.
I'm waiting on the sunshine;
The sunshine.”


~ Sixpence None the Richer, Waiting on the Sun

1

Writing daily in a journal as I’ve been doing for many years, I’ve come to use my dated entries as an archival chronicle. As with most any manuscript archive, the journal entries are first-person and in real time, bit by bit amounting to something encyclopedic. Surely I’m doing more writing than reviewing with my journals, though milestone anniversaries are what send me back into my own words past. Often, they are very interesting to read. I’ve used journaling to write through events in order to try making sense of what I witness and experience. The more descriptive, the better. The arrival of the spring season reminded me that the pandemic has cycled into its second year. I re-read what I wrote in February 2020 and because the writing was in real-time, I was using terminology used back then, when many thought of this as a passing “flu panic,” along with describing the intense uncertainty of the extent of things to come. My entry on March 13th describes the national state-of-emergency and the frenzied supermarket-ransacking that followed. That was last spring.

11 March 2020 : "It's as though horizons are closing."



Now a year later, I’m comparing then and now, remembering my first weeks of working from home (which has become much smoother, quite normal, and remarkably productive). Throughout these times, I’ve become aware of the accompanying pandemic inertia that has also become part of life. Last year, because I was struggling to describe it, I referred to my sudden, reluctant, and stifling boredom produced by quarantining, curfews, closures, and no-travel regulations. The overpowering boredom was something as unexpected as it was unfamiliar. Obviously during my on-the-clock workplace hours, I’ve never had to scrounge for projects and duties, and I’ve been grateful to have that constructive framework to stay focused. But outside of those hours, the old compulsion to redeem the time combined with contending with uncharacteristic confinement. After the Philosophical Society conference to which I had been invited last year at Oxford University was cancelled, I had to cancel my travel plans along with scores of people like me around the world having to cancel all kinds of plans of their own. The conference seminars were later held via Zoom- and I did “attend” and participate, albeit beginning the days at 3am Eastern Time. Having that connection gave me needed energy to continue my own studies at home, fueling my insistence upon getting through the pandemic with more knowledge and insight to share than before. I have also continued teaching. Studying has been more of a nourishing means than ever, during these times.



All the while, these times have forced self-confrontations of varying degrees with the incidental aspects of doing nothing. It’s easier for some than for others. Descriptions of that state of being which Italian-speakers call “the sweetness of nothing-doing” has found its way (ironically) to more computer newsfeeds lately. I remember how when someone would ask me, “whatcha doin’?” and I’d answer with “Oh, nothing, really,” the connotation was one of embarrassment at the admission of not being constantly constructive in every sphere of life. The covid era has everyone reckoning with the passage and the uses of time. A culture that increasingly celebrated “extreme” sports, raising the bar with every physical fad, has quieted the quarantined to consider simpler pastimes- including baking, sewing, puzzles, writing, absorbing the outdoors safely. And doing nothing- just being. Simplicity, for many, has become as much choice as necessity. I spoke by phone with a colleague and friend about the recognized value of not-doing. Her response included the merits of simply sitting outside, and that “doing nothing is all right.” It’s a reckoning for my friends, too, as another said, “you know, it’s ok to be bored.” This was journal-worthy, as I’ve never heard anything like this before.

One of the last places I’d expect to see a celebration of nothing-doing is the industrially high-minded Wall Street Journal. This recent March 16th the WSJ published an article about the connections between accomplishment and doing nothing. “Giving your brain a rest” means giving yourself unstructured time to regroup, gather thoughts, and rejuvenate. Admitting that too easily we turn everything into some kind of competitive task, the author suggests doing something essentially mindless, such as taking solitary walks and just sitting down. “Absorb the scenery in silence,” wrote the journalist Annemarie Dooling. I am now more aware of this, and have taken to recollecting with my books closed- or in my own combined way, writing slower in my journal. In appreciation, I’ve become less berating and remorseful about puttering at my writing table and taking aimless bicycle rides. The mind and spirit need to do their own versions of breathing, especially amidst stress. The article quoted a neuroscientist who said, “Rest is one of the most important ways to enhance the neurological flexibility to build the kind of conceptual understanding that is related to identity and purpose.”



2

A cursory online search reveals an abundance of new articles endorsing a “practice” of nothing-doing. The benefits of doing nothing, published by the Erlanger Health Institute, advocates unplugging from technology and “sitting alone in silence” for a while. They also cite the Swedish expression, lagom, which is to say “moderate” oneself (sounding like the way I intersperse some “nothing” with writing). The health institute lures readers by saying that integrating nothingness into our days can reduce stress and boost creativity. I agree, though it would be a conflict in terms to say “I’m going to immerse myself in a state of nothing-doing, in order to be productive.” On a practical level, there are also short “time out” periods, though I’ve never found regulated time-outs to offer enough space for mental meandering. One true and leisurely luxury is to not think about what time it is.



The quotable business school aggregate IvyExec also published an article about the benefits of doing nothing. A more universal appreciation of the Italian “il dolce far niente,” translated as “the pleasantness of doing nothing,” is portrayed as helping multitasking individuals maintain a sustainable pace in their lives. The pandemic has clearly forced reconsideration of how we’ve been doing things, constantly “being busy” to the extent of avoiding healthful stillness and extraneous “screen time.” “Unplugging is difficult,” the article states. “In many ways, it is easier to stay busy than to do nothing.” We are left to wonder about the qualitative aspects of the “busy” of our pre-pandemic compulsions. Further, the article admits how “this culture exalts workaholism,” and that “people feel guilty when they are idle,’ reminding me that I’m far from alone in suddenly having had to deconstruct my breakneck paces. Allowing oneself to do nothing and not feel embarrassed about it, the mind has opportunities to process experiences, make sense of memories, and derive the learning. By our very nature, our imaginations will find ideas and inspirations that may have been smothered under the busyness that we intentionally interrupted.

Lao Tse famously reflected about how a person can accomplish much by not overdoing. His quote is often loosely paraphrased as: “Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.” Having grown up and formed in both European (French) and American (Northeast) cultures, I’ve had my own interior ways of observing the differences and the common points as I found them, amalgamating what I’ve admired along the way. In the U.S., hyperproductivity is the stuff of heroism, and we are identified first by our job titles. Evidently, we are the tasks we do. In western Europe, relaxation is essential- even if it’s simply sitting outside. The articles I’ve found about the merits of stillness point out how the time-honored European custom of “just being idle” is an event in itself that needs nothing else. I’ve always admired how Parisian cafés stay open until late hours, filled with people just sitting with their small coffees (and not in “grab and go” thermal cups) and facing out toward the streets, just being. This is also one of my favorite journaling settings. On this side of the pond, having no utilitarian purpose makes Americans uneasy. Generally speaking, our puritanical selves need to have our dithering tendencies condoned. If constructively doing nothing sounds ironic, so does the idea of not being able to hide from ourselves during our pandemic quarantining. Under the limitations of these times, I’ve been using my paid-time-off to give my musing as much perimeter as I can provide. As weather permits or deters, I’ll choose to perch on a rock along the ocean, the front stoop, or my candlelit desk, and simply be.



3

This time last year, many of us at our jobs and schools heard about a hiatus of a couple of weeks. Then a month. Then more. Then it became realistically impossible to predict a duration. Then the word “hiatus” ceased being used. Much of this world has had to move with moving targets, while we no longer hear about the novel virus and the new normal. Everything has had to change, and it remains to be seen whether there can be any reverting back to “before.” How will our societies be affected in the long term? We are yet to see whether our forced “idling” will permanently become part of how we live our lives, and how the adapting we’ve had to do for our survival will alter us.

Photographic paper processor- with the lights on and doors open.



The other day, I was explaining to a friend that I saw a metaphor in something from my days in the custom photofinishing industry. Handmade color prints were individually imprinted in darkrooms with enlargers, lenses, and easels. The paper had to be carefully carried in a lightproof passthrough box into another completely dark room that included the entry for the paper into a roller-transport developing machine. These machines had two modes: Constant Run, and Automatic Standby. We always used the standby mode, to be energy efficient: when there was no paper in the machine, the rollers would go into an idling standby while the chemicals continued to pump at the regulated temperature. As soon a sheet of photographic paper was fed into the machine, the drives would start roaring at full-tilt, taking the machine out of standby, and running the print all the way through the process- as we used to say- “dry to dry.” This present odyssey has taken many people from constant run to automatic standby, and I’ve been in a state of preparedness to have to return to full perpetual motion as needed.



Stillness also becomes an unlikely way to find solutions and even resolve. “Sitting with one’s fears,” means ceasing the flailing and to visualize better outcomes. It doesn’t have to be quite as rarified as it sounds. I had a neighbor on my block who regularly sat out on the front stoop of her building with a cup of coffee and her everpresent cigarette. Of the latter she would say, “they’re what I’ve got.” This was shorthand for describing how she needed to just think, simply sit with her thoughts, and the cigarettes bought her some time and airspace to be able to ponder. Nowadays it may be easier to find this sort of time, yet the stresses of pandemic life can clutter the sanctified stillness right out of the day. Inhabiting a “holding pattern” is very different from reflective time. And these days demand a distinction between hypervigilance and wise caution. Somewhere, in between rocks and hard places, living and looking forward have to continue reaching up. I’m among very many that have had to acclimate to “bubble” work environments for safety’s sake, stricter physical boundaries, leaning heavily into my creative imagination to positively persist. Off-duty hours have had to comprise healthful idleness, and at best the time spent in solitude becomes an investment toward well-being.



Sunday, April 4, 2021

notandum


“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

traction


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


~ Psalm 102:6


endurance

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.




Friday, February 26, 2021

inward

“Your garret is exactly like a cell in the desert.”
~ Saint John of Valamo

__________________________________________________

“Your whole purpose at this moment is to change yourself inwardly.”
~ Theophan the Recluse

These times are putting just about everyone to severe testing of mind and soul. Speaking for myself, because I must continue productively working and negotiating with this world, there’s no avoiding the challenge to hold a constructive course during this destructive pandemic. I’ve gratefully kept to my early-waking routines, as they continue being as sensible as they are achievable. The one difference is that I begin my days- whether weekdays or weekend days- about two hours earlier than I did before the pandemic. This is how I can run my errands without running into crowds. I also use the lengthened mornings to gather my thoughts and strengthen for the day. Smaller measures require greater efforts.

Winter reveille begins in complete darkness. My floorcreaking footsteps, filling bathtub, and coffee maker are the sole sounds in the apartment building. The street outside is completely silent. It was very rarely this quiet before a year ago. Emerging from vivifying hot water to the rest of my barely-heated apartment, dressed and caffeinating, I give myself some time for some reading and writing. Then, still at my desk, I give myself a digestible morsel of radio news. The everything-online world will have to wait until later. Despite quarantining, there must be sanctified time for musing. And often amidst the musing, radio notwithstanding, it strikes me that even the sunniest personalities have got to be feeling the misery of these times. Much like the ways we’ve each had to find for contending with the logistics of closures and contagions, individuals must find their own ways to live above the fray. It has become more vital than ever to be able to lift one’s own spirit above the snares of apathy and fear. And ennui. My expression for the big efforts needed to do small things is the overcoming of pandemic inertia. Correspondents tell me they get too tired to reply to messages. “Zoom fatigue” is an energy syphon most of us have experienced, as well as mind-numbing “social media burnout” as our exposure thresholds are traversed. Without easy solutions, especially as it concerns the ways many of us must stay employed, ironic as it may appear, my compensatory measure is inward solitude. Imagine needing a healthful refuge away from the friction of hyper-vigilance. Isolation and contemplative solitude are two very different things.


__________________________________________________


“The way to God is an inner journey accomplished in the mind and heart.”
~ Saint John of Valamo

Seeking refuge from social distancing will likely sound even stranger in several years than it does now. But there are as many good reasons to find sanctuary these days as there were before a year ago. For more than twenty years, my offsetting remedy against workplace burnout has been to take time off every six months as a healthful retreat. I was able to do this for an eight-day stretch in 2020, just weeks before everything had to shut down. Not being able to make pilgrimages and retreats since then- let alone any sort of traveling- has added a palpable strain to the existing tension of this era. To be sure, this does not compare with major hardships I’ve witnessed near, as well as far. Isolation need not obstruct viewing life in context. Perception greatly benefits by regularly retreating to environments conducive to uncensored thought, assuring stimuli, and promising scenery. Essentially, the soul can renew by retreating within, whether or not in a destination such as a mountaintop or a contemplative community. Within the constraints of existing public health regulations, joining the list of redefined words is that of respite. At the same time, the ancient directive echoed in The Cloud of Unknowing to be “nothing and nowhere” must be put to the test when one’s confines cannot change. The inward habitation of the attentive soul continues to be immediately at hand for an individual, no matter the physical venue. That “nothing and nowhere” is actually “anyone and anywhere.” Saint Teresa of Avila wrote about our metaphorical recesses as she described the Interior Castle, consisting of “dwelling places” of contemplation as the soul progresses from materialistic wishes to union with God. The Benedictine brothers at Weston Priory, whom I have been missing very much, refer to “entering the deeper rooms of our lives.” Travels to places of pilgrimage and community are surely beautiful and the comforts are sweet, but doing this became profoundly important to me because it has been greatly needed. Now, as since last February, sanctuary must be of my creating, applying what I have learned through my experiences.


__________________________________________________


“Cast aside everything that might extinguish this small flame which is beginning to burn within you,
and surround yourself with everything which can feed it and fan it into a strong fire.
Your solitude must become more collected, your prayer deeper, and your meditation more forceful.”

~ Saint John of Valamo

Perhaps the inward motion for refuge is a form of escapism; maybe even more so than a physical pilgrimage travel. Is a willing isolation within a mandatory isolation excessive? I would say not, especially in the context of the inward turning of the heart to God in response to the pull of the Spirit. It is no more an escape than it is to submerge into extended silence in the midst of a community. It is at once worship, it is recognition, and it is the submission of one’s conscience. As to the latter aspect, the ancient Psalmist observed that it is through the innermost that wisdom can be made known*. Rather than an escapism, such contemplation is integral to the soul’s progress.

Along with the phenomenon of retreating into solitude within quarantine is the aspect of expansiveness through the interior life of the spirit, yet without a physical place to go. Indeed, to each their own adversities. Every one of us has stories. The closed-in life with its pressures, frustrations, and uncertainties easily lends to the stifling sense of having nowhere to turn. My journal entries are more frequent, but shorter than they were a year ago. Not only are present days more fractured, without having cafés as writing venues, my customary long entries are gone. Writing continues to be a place to which I can turn away from dead ends and bad news. Of course I write about such things that are on my mind, getting them out of the ways of my thoughts. In the desolation of these times. To avert the kind of closing-in that can easily happen in solitude, there must be plenty of thought-expanding reading. The quotes in this essay are from the Philokalia, whose volumes of austere monastic wisdom have accompanied me for many years. Never far from me, they are once again receiving my attention. Sturdy and time-honored written words, especially sacred writing, provide refuge for the outcast. Those who are barred from advancing their careers from territories east of Eden can yet belong to the Divine in devotional reading. Study and reflection are ways to sow in this wilderness, redeeming the time. Continuity in reading and careful note-taking amidst this crucible are just as much a consoling balm as before, but the act of faith is enhanced, looking forward to more writing and more in-person teaching. My notebooks have come to remind me of earth-cellars that preserve the roots of the philosophical works of my studies. While in the metaphorical underground, I’ve been digitizing the notebooks after I fill them. Similar to precarious employment and housing, all aspects of living run parallel lines of what I call the bubble provisional. This indefinite season lives in a passing world, forcing me to set my heart on the world that will never end.





* Psalm 51:6

Sunday, January 24, 2021

have words

“A human is not any inborn image of itself,
but many images coming in from the outside.”


~ Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, 15th c. (quoted in Ymage of Love, 1532)

The wilderness of this pandemic is now entering its eleventh month. While the end is not in sight, the beginning is long out of view, and the passage of time generates its own mirages about progress. It’s too easy to be fooled by distances covered and changes in seasons, thinking all will be resolved soon. Joining the popular parlance has been the expression “covid fatigue,” and it speaks for the weariness of many. This kind of exhaustion can deceive anyone into thinking the nightmare will end as a film does when the credits roll and the house lights come up again. But a global pandemic is not quickly resolved- even if it materialized as a rip tide. Yet in the midst of chaos and misery, the imperative to keep working and responsibly run a tight ship remains. Admittedly, there are many instances at which I stop in my tracks, in the middle of a work day, and feel the subtly deep-seated grief of these times. It’s difficult to have something with which to compare this. I often go to my street-facing windows, looking for signs of life such as pedestrian humanity and a tempo that exceeds that of my apartment. Very many recollections have heartbreaking undertones, as I remember casually traveling to visit interesting places of beauty and intricacy, seeing friends, and enjoying savoury meals. I remember the suddenness of closures last March, known in my thoughts as “when the curtain came down.” Right away, I struggled with boredom and tedium. Far too many struggle with much worse. Indeed, the entire world is in crisis. These are grievously sad times. Perhaps these things get to you, too. When humanity finally traverses this wilderness, there will be many notes to compare in person.


noting the words


Ever the observer- even through quarantine life- and always writing and photographing, I continue to notice the words of this era. Documenting these times, I’ve made note of the strangeness of such terms as social distancing, self-isolating, masking-up, contact tracing, curve-flattening, covidiots, doomscrolling, and the quickly overused unprecedented. Then there are cultural expressions of dismay. Of course many are shocked at what has been transpiring before our eyes; so am I. We can express it, or we can say, “I have no words.” Of course you have words. There are always words, especially in a language as pinpont specific as ours. Just reach for the words. We can be as elaborate or as concise as we choose- but it takes a bit of thought to dodge the clichés and assert observing and inventive words of our own. Another verbal response of incredulity is now to say, “this is not what we are.” There are variations, such as “this is not who we are,” and “this is not what we’re about.” The spirit of this expression is understandable enough, but why not be more direct and responsible and say something like, “we know better than to do this,” or “that was not right and we were wrong.” As actions so often speak louder than words, saying “this is not what we are,” is actually saying “look at what we are.” Yes, these are words, but they are also determinants of our convictions.


having words and having minds


Navigating and surviving the pandemic brings most of us into a lot more solitude than we’ve previously known. Liking one’s own company can help a great deal. Amidst the suddenness of all the closures and curfews, even in the shock-response, I noticed myself immediately tapping into practices I learned in monastic life. Although pandemic quarantining has tensions and anxious undertones that do not resemble contemplative solitude, I’ve been trying to redeem this exile-like continuum in employment and “downtime.” The ora et labora adopted from my Benedictine friends manifests daily with the divine hours and journaling threaded through my self-propelled work days. Whether in professional communications, online teaching, or personal writing, words and inflection have greater implications than they had before the covid era. Our powers of expression and presentation have become more tightly funneled through verbal applications. Expression means saying what one is moved to say. Presentation demands the discipline of selective restraint, appropriate to the situation. It takes patience, as well, and necessary isolation seems to be forcing that all-too-forgotten virtue upon us.


Along with the challenge to flex those articulation muscles, cultivating the healthful during daunting stretches of silence is equally a test of mindfulness. Both spheres make demands of an individual’s intentions, but both must also give way to unstructured musing. If I am the sole proponent of puttering, the lone such voice that crieth in the wilderness, then so be it. Perhaps by reading this, you may be inspired to your own recollective puttering around your living space. Paradoxically, by scattering the contents of my desk, I inevitably gather my thoughts. And though I haven’t got a mind anything like Albert Einstein’s, I undoubtedly comprehend his sentiment about loosening the valves of thought. Einstein wrote about how he would “think [about something] ninety-nine times and find nothing. Then I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me.”

Wales



Philosopher Martin Heidegger famously said that language is the house of being. This is to say it is where the soul lives. Indeed worth considering while attempting to rise to the level of one’s own uniqueness, each one of us. Another overused word in the past year is resilience. It’s actually quite a good and useful word, made of the Latin assemblage of re-seliens, or “the act of rebounding” (the action of continually leaping ahead). Good words can be worn down into background noise, but its spirit can still inform and take shape. I can be resilient without using the word, finding other ways to describe being persuaded to persevere. The need to be inventively originative is especially enhanced in these times. The pandemic has scattered physical communities and muffled the arts, but that needn’t cause our creative minds to become dormant. We’re capable of finding ways to encourage one another, and we still have the potential to better our minds. We have words and we have minds.


At the author's request, I provided this cover photo.



Earlier this month, my principal mentor and advisor from my undergrad years in college passed away. He was a well-published poet, as well as an inspiring and challenging educator. Brilliant in words and deeds. I studied writing, literature, poetry, and drama (including analysis of cinema) in Professor Aldrich’s memorable classes. Among the written arts, poetry in particular allows for the assemblage of words without the added constraints of sentence structure. Of course it is a craft of its own, just as essay-writing is also a distinct art form. A poet’s choices of words and their arrangements are the cutting edges for the expression of the artistic message. For me, there is no master as compelling as Dylan Thomas, whom I’ve loved since childhood, and whose configurations of words defy the rigidities of any predictable meter. Thomas was known to say that the sound of a word is as vital as its meaning; and it shows in his work. His written lines are filled with imagery. During my decade as a professor of photography, I regularly read Dylan Thomas to my classes- right before we would critique visual works. I would say, “Dylan’s words are giving us images, now we’re going to look at the images you see on the walls and provide some words.” Doing this always, always, always broke the ice that would be oh-so-typical in college art critiquing. When he wrote:

See, on gravel paths under the harpstrung trees
He steps so near the water that a swan’s wing
Might play upon his lank locks with its wind...*


Dylan gave us a self-portrait, just as we photographers do when we set off the timers on our tripodded cameras for just long enough so that we can enter the picture. An opportunity of a lifetime became possible when I was invited to live in the Thomas’ home, in Wales, immerse in Dylan’s native colors, and write. Swansea and its region really did resemble the imagery I found in his words. The whole experience was profoundly meaningful in every way for me, encouraging my continuation of bonding images and words. No doubt, upon returning home to Maine, I visited with Aldrich and described some of these adventures while we were catching up. It was also a chance to express my gratitude for his encouragement. May I recommend that you cultivate your words; don’t say you have no words, because you do. It’s like when someone calls me and says, “Can I ask you a question?” In so doing, you’ve done so. Ask that question. Have those words.

So shall he step till summer loosens its hold
On the canvas sky, and all hot colours melt
Into the browns of autumn and the sharp whites of winter,
And so complain,
In a vain voice,
to the stars.*


I had the supreme honor of calling this place home.







__ * Poet: 1935, by Dylan Thomas