Thursday, December 30, 2021


“Even so, we also should walk in newness of life.”
~ Romans 6:4

My voyage with journaling began in July 1994. Later on, graduate school caused my written entries to be regrettably intermittent. After 2000 I came to depend upon daily documentation and reflection, and the practice continues to this day. Throughout my years of writing, I’ve used the days leading up to New Year’s Eve to create retrospective “year in review” summaries. At first, I made the lengthy journal entries into Time Magazine- style features, as in “the year that was.” After a few years, these summaries became something I fashioned into several days of shorter journal entries, giving equal treatment both to events and to impressions. Without writing, telling the months and years apart would be even more difficult and surely blurred. The covid era surely represents this. It’s a snowball of largely dissimilar months, whose grip set in by the Ides of March 2020. Since then, living has been amidst minefields and restrictions. Thinking back to the world before that date, I remind myself that “everything was at least two years ago.” In keeping with my own custom, I’ve begun gathering my handwritten thoughts to recap the year which- if anything- feels as though it’s in Month 23. It is indeed a looking back, but always attempts at forward motion- traction or not.

The contrast is appropriate, connecting the establishing of winter and long nights with a season traditionally marked by newness. The Christmas holiday season has also long been relentlessly exploited commercially, with advertising beginning many weeks before Advent. Pandemic life has muted some of the competitive spending drives, forcing diminished budgets and smaller gatherings- if any. Yet the week between the western/Gregorian calendar Christmas and New Year’s Day continues to be a liminal span for various forms of reflection. The plague rages on. Will the coming year be an improvement over the one just past? How to look forward with anticipatory hope, in the bleak midwinter?

My self-determined directive is to continue seeking light in the darkness of these times, while trying to tangibly exemplify that light. For nearly two years, it has been impossible to travel or to even buy some weekdays off to rejuvenate. My semiannual pilgrimage retreats of many, many years have had to be compressed into a few occasional hours during a weekend so that I can continue being gainfully employed. Pushing back for the cause of spiritual health has also stretched nights into times of carved-out silence and study. Not doing this actually worsens the exhaustion. Admittedly, this is a trial that must be endured.

Newness begins with a thirst for promise, even for the haggard and worn. One recent midnight while preparing for the subsequent reveille that would return me to the same darkness, I methodically set up my coffeemaker and what I’d need to make next day’s entry as effortless as possible. Thinking of the combination of obligations and wishes while tidying my writing table, I remembered how an old friend used to call himself “a kid on Christmas morning,” and how that attitude helped him stay inspired. I wouldn’t describe myself as such, but there was something I liked about that sentiment. A soul’s renewal is as much a mystery as is the desire for newness. Do we inherently sense the hope of renewal? It is a fascinating thought how we seem to naturally find our own renewal- or at least the will to seek out our rejuvenation. Is this somehow built into our nature? I think we reflexively salvage the pieces we can find of our existence. The recent devastating natural disasters remind us of this. Victims who escape with their lives are looking for remnants from their households, their histories, and where their continua left off- at the times when their worlds were interrupted so they can recommence. In the less-cataclysmic scenarios, there somehow exists a natural drive to pick up and continue on. I believe this to be more than survival instinct, but the reinforcement of the holy spirit of new life. While more than enough reasons can be enumerated to give up hope, wondering about what is actually improving in our midst, we still tend to resume our searches for better and more meaningful lives.

During this year’s holiday season, I’ve noticed myself bristling more than usual at overused Christmas songs. They brought neither comfort nor joy, even to this believer. I fled to the consolations of Telemann, Bach, and how the occasion is quietly known as the feast of the incarnation. Yes, indeed, there is the commemoration of the Nativity. Not to be lost is the parallel aspect and infusion of the Divine within all whose lives return the embrace. Incarnation manifests to an ordinary human as transformation, and the latter builds an inner strength to be grateful while bearing up against hardship. Enduring the plagues in late 14th century Holland, Gerard Groote wrote, “May it never be that tribulation produce in us a faint heart; a faint heart, confusion; and confusion, the desperation that destroys.” Ancient texts accompanying this season include the name Immanuel, which in Hebrew means God is with us. Over the years, I’ve come to reverently refer to the So Near. As I’ve learned from the monks of Weston Priory whose doxology is to the Creator, Word, and Spirit of New Life, I understand the value of finding meaning beyond overused expressions.

The current provisional journey is embedded within an incalculable pilgrimage. Trying to take stock of the good that is, of the silent graces too easily overlooked, I try to be attuned to available inspiration. What is within my reach? What don’t I know that I need to know? Are we to search for newness, or enable renewal to find us? I wonder to what extent the spirit of rekindling is based upon unseen certitudes of which we could be innately aware. Perhaps there is a balance of proportion between a person’s determination, and a providence over which there is no control. And within that sense of resoluteness, does it begin with one’s desire to give rise to renewal, or are we brought to think about it from beyond ourselves? Do I procure the lamp and illuminate it, or is the already burning light catching my attention first? Unsure of what to make of the broader ailing world, as well as my own daunting setbacks, my thoughts turn to how all of this is about endurance. The transitory present is an impermanent trial. Distances and times between now and turns in my fortunes are impossible to tell. Opportunities remain out of reach, but hope remains available. Hopefulness increases the will to endure. When St. Paul wrote about how “hope maketh not ashamed,” he wanted his readers to confidently animate conscientious faith. Newness must ever be kept in mind. And kept in mind and practice with unwavering insistence.

Friday, December 17, 2021

perilous journeys

“Trusting faith is called a crystal well
because the waters of spiritual goodness flow
from it to the soul, although it is night.”

~ San Juan de la Cruz, The Spritual Canticle

advent wilderness

Generally speaking, we embark upon an adventure with expectations of resolve. We’ll invest in the engagement of a challenge, intending success. For the most part, one takes on a project with the idea of completion in mind. Beginnings are hopes exemplified. Our cultural experiences are replete with stories, novels, and films that travel an arc from launch through hardship and on to cathartic conclusion. Many dramatic biographies work as such. When I take on projects and pursuits, every provision and effort point toward thorough and sturdy completion. Some enterprises require more time than others; duration cannot always be ascertained at the start. But the important thing is to make progress, move in a forward direction, and maintain faith in the vision of fulfillment. Occasionally, courses of action need to be adjusted, informed by instinct and memory. I’ve often heard myself say within, “no- don’t do that again,” or “a version of this has worked well before.” I’ll work out dilemmas in my journal, like puzzles, allowing the written words to reflect back at me for some analysis.

But what happens when the craft is blown off course and both direction and destination become uncertain? Has forward motion been reduced to the plain progression of time? Do there remain chances to safely stop and recalibrate? How critical is the element of time? During this Advent season, amidst the second calendar round of the covid era, the end of the pandemic is out of view. The annual December weeks, commemorating movement through darkness toward light and nativity, historically direct observers to promise and assurance- and this continuum has persevered through millenia of plagues and wars. Upon my own trail of healthful contemplation, following the texts of the divine hours, these times bring me to notice a precariousness revolving around the signs of presence. The ancient readings describe the Advent voyage as being through a desert, even a howling wilderness. One very early pitch-black morning, with breviary and coffee, I noticed the prayer, “Watch over our welfare on this perilous journey, and keep our lives free of evil until the end.” The words “perilous journey” stayed with me throughout the day. Being a seasonal reading, I know I’ve read this before- but I notice it now.

Navigating through a sleet-spattered windshield yesterday, the phrase returned to me, recognizing the indefinite present as a protracted series of perilous journeys. The way forward is my best rendition of forward motion. Logistics have prevented me from taking respite time for two years and counting, confining reflection to the watches of night and an occasional weekend day. But I am holding course to the best of my abilities and resources. As usual for me, though appreciating the context of Advent season, I continue to be ceaselessly fascinated by the mysterious Magi. The written record leads to the Nativity, but the westward-voyaging astronomers disappear from the documentation. I’ve written about these three unusual yet anonymous individuals before, referring to them as the outside consultants, considering how they had been pressed by the court of Herod. The Magi may well have been diverted from their course, yet they knew enough of their senses of direction to keep on going. They most likely consulted with one another, determining not only what they would deliver to the place of the Nativity, but also that they would subsequently and compassionately slip away without reporting to Herod. And back into the unknown they went, keeping all of us wondering through all the centuries since then. They took their shared experiences with them, perhaps recounting the adventures to others in locations unknown to any documentation. Searching for assurance and advocacy is undoubtedly humbling, no matter how much experience one may have. The status of this perilous journey remains uncertain. My way of pushing back against the current of misery is by proceeding straight through the unknowing.


Navigating productively and healthfully requires both a sharp focus and a conscious sense of distraction, as I’ve been finding. This type of discipline balances proactive thinking with an ability to defensively drive away from fear-feeding stimuli. Choosing in favor of one is often a choosing away from the other. My longstanding curiosity about current events news has had to be tempered into much smaller, nontelevised doses; being informed needn’t mean overdosing. Listening to the car radio the other day, I noticed the patchwork of staccato reporting bounce between traffic updates and the worldwide scrambling for cures. The pandemic has surely intensified the already tough juggle for perspective. My long-usual preset bouncing away from news to music is now more frequently a turning-off of the sound system altogether.

For decades, I’ve made my livelihood using all sorts of computer technology and applications. Being a cradle visual artist, I’ve always kept a metaphorical ten-foot pole between myself and what I’ve long called “lit screens.” Nowadays this may look like a demonstration of creative independence and privacy, but actually keeping that safe distance is part of how I can maintain my footing in a reality whose vital means include handwritten media, real books, the outdoors, and personal interactions. As with a great many, the recent couple of years have forced me into living and working through lit screens. During the intensity and constancy of having to do this at the outset of the pandemic, I noticed how the pain of eyestrain would last far into the nights. I had to acclimate to the absorption of numerous consecutive hours online. Another vivid memory from the sudden quarantining of spring 2020 was my struggle with sedentary life and habitually looking out the windows for signs of life.

As tempting as it is to use the lit screens more as ends than means, especially in these alienating times, I’ve learned to be all the more selective and contextual. When browsing becomes a game of caroming between shrill news coverage and the enviably fortunate lives portrayed on social media, that’s when I turn off the lit screen. Imagine pinging and ponging from fearsome news to unattainable careers, back and forth; such joyful scenarios for thoughts to dwell upon! As a remedy, I’ve trained myself to look up from the lit screen, as I tell myself. Look up and around, even if means noticing dusty surfaces on the furniture. Looking up is a way to make note of your context- of where you are. It’s the equivalent of twisting that zoom lens back into a wide-angle, and try to get a bigger picture of the immediate. Looking up from a digital terminal is an indoor and admittedly modest version of being able to get outdoors to see horizons.

Perilous journeys cause us to cherish understated treasures we used to overlook. In this thinking, memory and hope converge. Remembrance helps us to look forward, while contending with present perils. While fine-tuning ways of waving off negatively distracting encroachments, I’m also deliberately creating distractions to send my thoughts into more positive directions. In yet another ancient text used for Advent, Saint Cyprian encouraged readers to “endure and persevere, if we are to be perfected in what we have begun to be, and if we are to receive from God what we hope for and believe.” He added that our acts of compassion must be united with patience and perseverance. “Do not grow weary, or be distracted, or be overwhelmed by the temptation to give up in the midst of the patient pilgrimage of life.” Endurance must be carried through to nothing short of the end.

staying sane

Eclipsed by the obvious urgency of fatalities in the millions, medical and economic crises, the mental toll of the pandemic is yet to be fully known. The latter is profoundly felt by many. I know this, albeit writing from my ledge on this planet, soldiering on in my employment. As with following health news, it has become impossible not to notice articles posted and published daily about the commonly-known Great Resignation. Also referred to at The Big Quit, workers have been leaving their jobs during the pandemic at rate unequaled by any previous U.S. Department of Labor statistics. In August 2021, 3% of the workforce resigned their jobs. 55% said they were job hunting. Adding yet another revealing statistic, 20% of the global workforce say they are “actively engaged” in their employment. This means eight out of ten workers say they are disengaged, for any of many reasons, amounting to a massive reaction to lingering exploitation. All the surveying and tabulating were evidently prompted by trends that are most likely nothing new, but surely accelerated by an overspreading societal malaise due to the pandemic.

Amidst the currents of these times is a popular realization about mortality. Life is short. We can’t be certain of how much time we have left to be able to inspire others, let alone to be able to accomplish our procrastinated wishes. The same employers that have been calling their workers “expendable” have begun to appear rather expendable themselves. Hence the unprecedented numbers of resigning workers who have not lined up subsequent jobs. Income and physical safety are often at odds. How will they pay their bills? It’s bewildering to watch, but entirely understandable. The weary world aches for the plagues and social conflicts to end. Few have the luxury of respite. Apparently, we are to soldier on, collecting our shots as we trek the contagion minefields. Survival always needs a purpose, and in this case I still envision being able to look back upon these present times whenever that critical corner is turned. Seeking signs of improvement runs parallel to the search for better opportunities. Perseverance and vigilance cannot be permitted to be ground down by fatigue. Meanwhile, redeeming the time between obligations, I continue finding consolations while studying philosophical works from the early-Renaissance era. Groote’s motivating words from the 14th century remind me that trials are proving-grounds. His students heard this while they struggled for equilibrium in the howling wilderness of the plague in late-medieval Holland.

Now having to launch again into the murky waters ahead, the need to continue being propelled from within constantly intensifies. Writing materials that include blank books for subsequent thoughts, along with my filled rapiaria volumes of collected wisdom, serve to hold course. The lights of my studies have led to gratitude throughout these recent two years of hardship. In the persisting face of unrelenting futility, my better reaction is to return to the words of Saint Cyprian which I quoted above, about not being tempted into losing hope. Trusting faith asserts that what is immediately visible is neither all there is, nor all there will be. Even the Magi continue to remind us about envisioning beyond the present. But upon the current, the ground of momentary being, San Juan de la Cruz always pointed to the wellspring of Spirit. Somehow he was able to instill and reinforce this awareness within himself during his wrongful incarceration. Before, through, and in his post-captivity life, San Juan poetically emphasized union with God as the purpose for survival through all times and trials. In his jail cell, he scribbled words on a sliver of paper begged from one of the guards; the scrawled notes became his Dark Night of the Soul, which he completed after his escape and remains in print to this day, nearly 450 years later. In the thick of what was supposed to be a death sentence, he discovered what he later called “the delight of contemplation and union with God,” finding “guidance in the night of faith.” The immersion he described demands that the soul must proceed by unknowing to unify with Divine wisdom. Surely speaking from indelibly physical and as well as spiritual experience, San Juan de la Cruz added, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, that the soul has to...

“...proceed rather by unknowing than by knowing; and all the dominion and liberty of the world, compared with the liberty and dominion of the Spirit of God, is the most abject slavery, affliction and captivity.”

Friday, November 26, 2021


“You get to where you used to be,
whoever you claim, it's open to interpretation.
Just remember your number and abandon your name,
and hold on to your name
and hold on to your imagination,
oh no no.
Set me free, sleep come free me.”

~ James Taylor, Sleep Come Free Me

It often happens that an acquaintance made from outside this region will say to me, “you get a lot of winter up there; it gets so cold!” That really hasn’t been my experience. My replies tend to be a playful “We get all four seasons, and in full strength.” Indeed, autumn in New England blazes and flames out in a few weeks. When those full-strength seasons transition, changes in light and color are striking enough to draw attention. And observation. From this vantage point, there is as much written as there is photographic witness. The common expression about “falling back” to Standard Time is portrayed as “giving us back” an hour. Fair enough. Who wouldn’t want a 49-hour weekend? But the hours notwithstanding, daylight is briefly sharp and nights are extended. Lately, I hear myself say Good Evening though my watch reads 4 in the afternoon.

Built into my observances and documentation is a persistent insomnia of many years. At least the dark of 9pm and 4am are identical enough for me to imagine additional sleep possibilities. Also persistent are my efforts to redeem the time I have. When I worked full-time as a photographer, I would ordinarily maximize the seasons of extended daylight and warmth for creating imagery, and the more confining months for printing in the darkroom. Occasionally, my wakeful night hours inspired me to explore photographing under very low ambient light.

Remaining in autumn territory, November still has days above the freezing point. The outdoors can certainly be savoured at any time and under any conditions. Admittedly, I do notice myself perching outside as much as possible now, as though having some sort of deadline. Of late, I’ve caught the year’s final days of access to the terraces at the Boston Athenaeum, enjoying the double immersion of inspiring study and fresh air. Appropriating the broadcast ads of retailers: “While supplies last!” The blustery chill is no disturbance at all; outdoor perches do not require masks. There is no overestimating the respite of unplugging. In mid-October, I added an extra meeting for my Philosophy class. We all sat outside amidst the bracing Maine evening air, but fully enjoyed the setting, knowing the next chance to be outdoors won’t be until spring. Now we’re back to Zoom teleconferencing, yet at least with the experience of having gathered in-person in our recent memories. We were like underwater swimmers reveling in the exhilaration of suddenly breathing above the waterline, enjoying full-faced three-dimensional presence. In our commendable group spirit we imagined the outdoor floodlights might have magically become heat lamps. Let the goodness of the tentative present be a sign of greater hope.

Coinciding with the seasonal transition is the prospect of the second pandemic winter. For countless souls, equally countless lives and plans must remain dormant under the burdens of survival. Learning from the joyfully chilled philosophy students, the simplest satisfactions from breathing fresh air and seeing unmuzzled faces provide cause to take stock. Striking, yet humbling. In my own current studies of early-Renaissance thinkers, I make notes of how these scholarly writers always continued their own pursuits of knowledge and self-improvement- often leading to enhanced ways of teaching others. Some of their innovations live on to this day. While reading about the plagues and unrest of the 14th and 15th centuries, it is easy for me to see similarities with this present age. At the same time, the spirit of perseverance is providing a trail for my own sense of direction.

The dormancy of these times comprises the suppression of thwarted launches. It is as dismaying as it is frustrating. Too many things must wait. But dormant life forms outdoors are modeling by demonstration how the ferment of spirit cannot take place without carefully disciplined patience. A short (or long) two years ago, it was far-fetched to give much thought to unfiltered fresh air, not to mention immunization or sustaining employment. Humble matters are exalted, when focal points become those of continuity and survival. During the severest stretches of quarantining, the ability to experience different places- and even see horizons- suddenly became privileges. My background in visual art ever informs me to vary my perspectives. Try to perceive with as much variety as possible. This is often why I’ll vary my writing and photographic tools, for the purpose of syntactical change. Doing this becomes all the more pronounced now, as physical limits during the pandemic have been so prohibitive. Agility in season and out of season is an ancient and colorful biblical phrasing that refers to a person’s conscious readiness to continue pursuing ways to bring goodness to others in all circumstances. Present circumstances, informed by the dormant trees, require both the health of the exterior environment as well as nurture for the roots and inner being, in order to fruitfully grow.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

beginning with coffee

“As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion.
Ideas begin to move…similes arise, the paper is covered.
Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle.”

~ Honoré de Balzac

Physical space and creativity are inextricably related. My present reminder of this emerged as the disruptive tavern next to my apartment dismantled their covid-era drinking and smoking tent for the winter. As soon as I heard their fussing and chiseling this recent Saturday morning, I immediately began repatriating my writing desk and related materials from my kitchen (as far away from them as possible, short of being out on the sidewalk), and back to my usual spot which is between two windows. Concurrent with the disassembly a few yards away outside, I was gently migrating and reassembling inside. Having had my study and writing perch in the kitchen since May, I had to remember where everything was supposed to go, while rebuilding. When I moved into this apartment, the first piece of furniture I situated was my desk. My desk since age 17, having a surface only 20x30", is just right for my location of choice- with room for an adjoining set of shelves. With everything resettled, tidied, and polished- in the novel absence of the bar people- I brewed a pot of coffee. Indeed, savouring, reacquainting, and writing beckon.

cross-apartment relocation day

These times humble the ambitious. Pondering and writing about the regaining of lost ground seems a poor use of time and ink. My preference, albeit against the grain, is to look ahead as much as possible. It is enough to acknowledge the arrival of yet another pandemic season. This recent year has been my first without a retreat in more than two decades. My earned-time accrued equals upwards of two months, yet various logistics make traveling and significant respite impossible for the calculable time being. Work and survival stand on equal footing. Covid-era “extravagances” are very humble versions of the old pre-2020 fluidity. My journal entries have many notes amounting to descriptions of “covid-era values,” describing the strange life of isolating and distancing. And fatigue. There is no overestimating the worth of keeping one’s wits sharpened.

Thinking about how basics have become luxuries, I remembered the title of an oft-quoted little book of Depression-era reminiscences called First We Have Coffee. Written by Margaret Jensen, whose parents had immigrated from Norway, the family recollections are as warm as they are austere. A kind of gentle severity, attesting to its time and culture. The underlying aspect of beginning conversations by brewing coffee represents a metaphor about how problems can be reduced and managed by sitting and chatting over the familial (and vital) hot beverage. Coffee can power individuals into their workdays, but it can also have social aspects. As with journaling at my little desk, sips and words rotate with reckoning. Jensen’s preserved gems from her hospitable mother include how “when you have heart-room, you have house-room,” along with how miraculously there was always enough food to go around. Her traditions bring to mind the film I Remember Mama, which was about a struggling Norwegian immigrant family in early-20th century San Francisco. The film was a favorite of my father’s, and remembering him continues to happen for me quite effortlessly. Remembering goes with writing and plenty of contemplative coffee.

29 February 2020 was the last time
I wrote and visited with friends in a café.

This ongoing pandemic has eliminated conviviality from the lives of most of us. I am surely among those who miss the eclectic and animated company of sharing meals and ideas. Social distancing has also meant coffee without the sounds and society of cafés. In my estimation, over the past nineteen months, I haven’t purchased more than ten cups of coffee that were not made by me. Moreover, all of these were consumed either outdoors or in my car. As with a great many social venues, cafés and restaurants have been more like vendors than places for congregating and savoring. It has taken time to get used to that- more for some people than others. For me, the shock was immediate; solitude has its place, but quarantining continues to feel unnatural. It will for the duration, unknown as that is. As I moved my desk, radio, lamps, and writing accoutrements- followed by cleaning and organizing the room- I set up my coffeemaker. The latter provided a consoling aroma, enough for me to reach for pen and books. The sum-total is surely modest, perhaps austere to many others, but for me and for now this is humbly civilized.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021


“Philosophy, inevitably, is the human quest for beatitude,
and includes not only a person’s faith and its expansion into the fullness of understanding,
but a person’s will and understanding as well.”

~ A.H. Armstrong & R.A. Markus, Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy.

I’ll bet most of you hear in your workplaces about how close an upcoming Friday is. “It’s almost Friday,” is something I’ve always heard in my midst wherever I’ve worked and gone to school. And I surely feel that headlong lunge toward weekends and days off. “The shore is in sight,” as I hear myself say to the neighborhood postmaster. A colleague of mine likes to say, “we’re almost at forty-eight hours to regroup,” referring to the weekend. As positive as it is to have strong appetites for unstructured and untethered time, there is muted anguish embedded in that stretch for an oasis. Still, it remains vital to keep looking forward to things that are favorable, and no less in these times.

Just as with last year, participating in the recent Oxford Philosophical Society’s seminars was via teleconferencing. But also like last year, I looked forward to our discussions and greatly enjoyed the experience. Indeed, all of us hope next year’s events will happen in person. The pandemic has yet to subside. Fortunately, the desire to teach and learn motivates our technological creativity. The time difference between Maine and the U.K. meant beginning the days at 3am local time, but it was undoubtedly worthwhile. I’ve derived more to share with students, as well as to fuel my own studies in the coming months. Coincidentally, I’ve begun my 7th year of teaching topics in philosophy. For the second year, all of this has to happen online. As with the group at Oxford, the enjoyment of in-person presence is missed, but the benefit of meeting online has removed the limitations of physical location. It’s a strange trade-off, but an undertone of the covid era is to make the best possible out of bad situations.

Surviving intact during a pandemic requires more than those weekly forty-eight hours to regroup, or even the buildup to those two days. In my experience, the regrouping needs to happen daily and obviously in much smaller portions. And those small portions tend to be humbly bland; nowhere as savoury as in pre-covid times. At best, most of us are living compromised lives; often, the regrouping of wits and priorities has to be constant. During the summer, I’ve resumed my monthly travels to the Boston Athenaeum- though complying with all the required health protocols. There’s no telling when things will return to pre-March 2020 life. Thanks to my self-directed studies and my teaching responsibilities, there is encouragement to continually renew, learn, and redeem the time. My working conditions and ambitions continue to ignite my search for a better situation, despite closed doors, rejections, and recession. At least I’m working, producing, surviving, and helping others as much as possible. My studies in philosophy often become sources of wise advice and thought-provoking perspectives.

My discussions and inquiries about the Renaissance-era Oxford reformist philosophers led to a rare 155-year-old book being mailed to me from England. It was more like the gatherings of pages of the book than anything else, as I had to completely rebind the volume’s contents to be able to study the work. The binding was broken, but the textblock was complete and in good condition. The book is The Oxford Reformers of 1498, by Frederic Seebohm. Eager to study a thick tome about Erasmus, Colet, and Thomas More- written by a Quaker social historian, I gathered my best bookbinding ingredients to do justice to the fragments and rebuild them to last. Using conservation-grade cloth, adhesives, endpaper material, and chipboard, I restored the book into something strong enough to inhabit. Restorative projects during tentative times are gestures of hope.

My restorative rebinding of Seebohm's Oxford Reformers of 1498.

Indeed, the book is a treasure filled with treasure. A great read from which I took many notes. The three featured philosophers were kindred spirits and friends who worked together during a time period of wars and plagues. Despite their adversities, they created educational systems and vernacular texts whose influences reached across subsequent centuries and continents. When I find philosophical works that really speak to me, I also seek out biographies about the authors themselves. Seebohm’s volume gave me numerous fine details about the Oxford reformers’ lives. I had never read so much about Colet before. His career in teaching and writing was inspired by having learned from Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, in Florence. After the travels, while still an Oxford student, he began teaching free and public courses which became very popular. He clearly loved doing this, as the preserved letter correspondence attests. The classes, unofficial as they were, continued for more than eight years- until Colet had been appointed Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. There is surely something for me to enjoy in Seebohm’s poignant observation:

“The leaven, silently but surely, was leavening the surrounding mass. But Colet probably did not see much of the secret results of his work. That it was his duty to do it was reason enough for his doing it. That it bore at least some visible fruit was sufficient encouragement to work on with good heart. So the years went by; and as often as each term came round, Colet was ready with his gratuitous course of lectures...”

Was the early 16th century any more or less hostile and restrictive than the early 21st century? Was inspiring education and benevolence any more or less scarce than compared to now? In any time, diligence and perseverance are needed in order to excel. It also appears as though an individual’s passion for their work and a willingness to give of their resources were as detectable then as now in the isolating present. Hope and consolation have never lost their value.

Sunday, August 29, 2021


“Learn of me.”

~ Matthew 11:29

Be teachable, and you will make great strides,” wrote Desiderius Erasmus, the exemplary and indefatigable Renaissance author in his Paraclesis. The directive is reminiscent to me of my father who has now been gone fifteen weeks from this life. He also admired Erasmus. When I arrived at Oxford, I was sure to send my Dad an e-mail message about walking the same paths and halls as Erasmus did, as a C. S. Lewis Scholar-in-Residence. Dad remarked about The Praise of Folly, as well as Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. The wisest people we know are those who want us to be teachable. My pilgrimage of learning continues on, but without my father- without adding to our running commentaries. Of his best friend of many years, four years his senior, Dad said, “Jack introduced me to so many things,” particularly in their work as pioneer computer programmers and connoisseurs of classical music. When Jack passed away, Dad wrote me about how one day many years back, while they were working at IBM on Madison Avenue at 57th Street, “a security alarm sent everybody into the street. We had no idea how long we would have to remain outside the building. So we just walked over to nearby Carnegie Hall and, on seeing that the Cleveland Orchestra was in town and giving a matinée performance that very day, we decided we would take our surprise break as an occasion to enjoy Beethoven's Ninth as performed by George Szell. It was a spontaneous thing and an afternoon that we always cherished.” A wonderful story of two New Yorkers making the best of things.

taking stock

In his reflection about his departed best friend, my father immediately remarked about how much he had learned. For my part, throughout these recent months, I’ve been taking stock of how much I learned from my father. Taking stock is the opposite of taking for granted, meaning a conscious cherishing of something valuable that is immediately at hand. It is a form of gratitude. Things of which I take stock are palpable consolations to me. To this day, it astonishes me to recognize how much I learned from my father. Last night during a lonesome road trip on the Maine Turnpike, I started imitating his voice, surprising myself as to how accurate I sounded.

Having a difficult time focusing my thoughts, I took Dad’s portable Royal typewriter (I now have all three of his) with me to write in view of Casco Bay. About sixteen years ago, he gave me his two portables- a customized Olivetti Lettera 32, and a small Royal Signet- which he’d often lend to me. Now I have the heavier Royal DeLuxe he used in school. With a sunny Saturday, I took the Signet with me to the park at the Portland Breakwater. Dad told me he had bought that typewriter in 1965 for $35 during a workday. At the time, company employees’ handwritten reports and letters were typed by a secretarial pool according to priorities assigned to the secretaries. Apparently, these were standard procedures. Dad didn’t see a point in having to wait to get something typed up for him, when he could very well do this himself. He descended to West 23rd Street, a very busy Manhattan thoroughfare- near the Flatiron Building, and walked to a typewriter shop to buy the Signet. From then on, he typed his own documents. Dad also explained to me that he favored ribbons that had both black and red inks, so that he could flip the lever to get red ink when he wanted to emphasize something to his recipients. With such spirit and ambition, success followed success.

The Royal Signet belongs to me, and I’ve proudly left the ‘60s embossed label with Dad’s name on the machine. As with many other gifts from him, this is a living treasure, because it gets used. Like the pocket watches Dad gave me, they work best as long as they are used. He taught me plenty about using and maintaining these mechanical marvels. Neither of us could type in the “proper” office ten-fingered way, but we both found ways to type quickly and effectively. In more recent years, he sent me a set of beautiful pens and I keep the letter which he put in the gift box which refers to our common passions that include fountain pens, opera, trains, and a good portable typewriter. And that was just the beginning of interests we shared and talked about. We did not agree about everything, to be sure, but we had enough in common to provide plenty of subject matter.

equipping for the rest of the way

In my father’s absence, a wise friend suggested that I write my gratitude for the ways I’ve been equipped to go the rest of the way. Typing in the park, using the Signet, I began writing about some of the essential things I’ve learned from Dad. Indeed there are many and detailed practical skills, beyond the tools of writing and the precise ways of play-by-play scoring of baseball games. To this day, whenever I begin a new notebook that does not have a pocket in the inside back-cover, I use a trick Dad taught me a long time ago: folding an envelope flap backwards so that the adhesive adheres to the back cover, creating an instant document sleeve. He taught me how to read and interpret maps when I was very young, showing me how to create a “trip ruler” out of a piece of paper, scribing the scale of miles on it and moving the paper along the lines that represented the roads. Dad taught me to drive, shifting the gears smoothly so that passengers would not sense the jolt of transition. And the deft art of feeding a toll booth coin bucket while still in second gear- and then rocketing out of the gantry at the “paid” signal. Knowing which portion of a subway train to enter, in order to alight at the stairs that will take you to the best street exit for your purpose. Dad taught me that in New York, and I translated that savvy much later in Boston. Numerous nuanced abilities, most of which had to do with making forward progress. He had lots of travel stories about having to combine air and surface transportation, in order to connect locations during weather-related cancellations. The important thing, he’d say, was to keep going in the needed direction. Logic took the forms of navigating, analyzing a baseball strategy, and DOS shortcuts. Always destinations to be reached, puzzles to be solved. As Dad used to like to say, “That keeps things interesting.”

Always a mileage log, and always a tire-pressure gauge:
I will always be my father's son.

As my recollections surface of practical skills learned, I’m writing about them in my journals. Transcending all of these things are the subtler abilities, more like traits, and they have occupied more of my thoughts when I consider what has been left to me for the long haul. The more I navigate the roads of this life, the more I see the extreme rarity of my father’s character: that consistent sense of understated dignity, genuineness, and humor. The torch extended to me, in his physical absence, is his gift of intellectual inquiry. By their examples, both my parents gave me the running start to be able to think on my feet. Question what does not look or sound right- not just ethically, but also aesthetically; this foundation is also owed to both my parents. Dad’s high standards, ever beyond my reach, are somehow also my high standards and expectations. But no two souls are alike, and I must keep in mind that our contexts are as different as our generations, pursuits, and paths. These things notwithstanding, I’ll always admire that practical style of integrity and quick-wittedness amounting to being nobody’s fool. If there’s any downside, it’s how the wit is understood by fewer and fewer by the day.

Dad once quipped that my keeping his typewriters working represents his legacy. Of course it was said in jest, in the midst of our usual multi-faceted discourse. His real legacy as I see it, is his consistent sense of decency. That’s the most important way that I want to be like my father. To be civil, classy, unclichéd and genuine; and to keep making people laugh- not at any person’s expense, but about the amusing and ironic things in life, along with that lighthearted way of pointing out such attributes. Dad’s jovial sense of decency. What a great way to be; the world is missing this trait. Amidst learning about high standards- higher than “just good enough”- was my growing to understand my father’s dislike of mediocrity and half-hearted efforts he called “slap-dash.” In this comprehension were his directives to be ambitious. As I got a bit older, more responsible and aware, I grew to also avoid the “slap-dash” in things- and occasionally in people, as well. Such awareness is not uppity, and sensibly unpretentious. It’s much more a judgment of oneself- to unceasingly seek learning, improvement, and continuity.

daring eclecticism

The clergyman who officiated the funeral service, a Midwesterner and also a friend of my father’s, reverently remarked that the breadth of Dad’s cultivated mind was “so very New York.” Undoubtedly, we all agreed. But one might say “urban,” to describe a spectrum of pursuits that encompassed worlds of the arts, sciences, sports, and politics. Yet to say, “so very New York” acknowledges more than the variety of pursued topics of interest: it’s the intensity and enthusiasm of the pursuits. Stereotype that it may be, there are still many who exemplify the energy of such a densely vast and extraordinary place. Enough has been said about the pluck of old-school New Yorkers to fill many volumes, so I’ll choose one exemplary comment: "You just learn to cope with whatever you have to cope with,” said the legendary actress Lauren Bacall. “I spent my childhood in New York, riding on subways and buses. And you know what you learn if you're a New Yorker? The world doesn't owe you a damn thing." Accomplishment must be earned, and the perfunctory is to be exceeded. The mindset is one that tends to be impatient with the mediocre and slipshod, and our quick wits and sharp tongues are often misinterpreted. We don’t think of our critical minds as being “attitudes,” but rather passionate convictions that need to be expressed! Urban common-sense is often vented this way, and notably so among New Yorkers. Dad’s living expression of this was nothing short of lovable. We used to sing Frank Loesser Broadway show tunes to each other on the phone.

Above: The view from Lexington Avenue at 34th Street.
Below: Dad's beloved Caffe Reggio, Greenwich Village.

In the spirit of a legacy that has taught me about ability and perspective, I’ll add what I call inherited instincts. Dad had an admirable knack for reading a situation. This reminds me of how he would say that part of the fascination in baseball is how analysis is built into the game itself as it unfolds. He loved the symmetry of threes and nines- especially in the National League. But reading a situation in real-time is also being a participant. Among the times during which I’m certain of an instinct inherited from my father is when I “break the ice” in a stiff room of inactivity. Another is how I’ve become able to speak with anyone- and getting them to talk. Yet another is having a healthy way of questioning what I perceive: There can be a negatory way of doing this- and I’ve also learned to tell the difference between constructive reflection and simply being a combatant that sets out to confuse things even further. Such traits, practiced at their best, are surely attributed to my father’s example. Finally, “keeping things interesting” is also knowing to have plenty of other things in my life, aside from employment and its related struggles. Learning and being teachable keeps the mind youthful and expanding. Indeed, continuity and improvement, one giving purpose to the other, must always ride together. And thus- like Erasmus of Rotterdam, and like Dad of New York- great strides are made.

Monday, June 28, 2021

o let me ne'er forget

“This is my Father's world:
He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass,
He speaks to me everywhere.”

~ Maltbie Babcock, This is my Father’s World

Last month, I had the profoundly sad experience of having to bid farewell to my beloved and brilliant father. He has been quoted many times in these pages, and I expect that to continue, having committed so many of his words and anecdotes to memory. The funeral was last month. It is one thing to travel and visit, and even be at a gravesite, on adrenaline- but quite another to return home. Suddenly re-seated at my desk in my apartment, I became aware of the ocean of reminders of Dad in my midst: the fountain pen and radio on my desk, the typewriter nearby, the operatic recordings on the shelves, as well as numerous mementos and recollections.

Returning home to my place also meant grappling with a culture that does not provide sufficient time and space to mourn. I’ve had to buy time and push as many things back as workably possible. I see how people do not want to acknowledge death. Thankfully, I always know to write in all circumstances. But the grieving has been wavering in its intensity, often as crags and sometimes submerged. My photographer’s mind calls forth decades of vivid memories, especially from childhood. I’ve been particularly conscious of these, and decided to write down as many as possible lest I lose them. People who know me well have long been used to hearing me use the expression, I am my father’s son, after all. That will always be true.

Driving home, I passed plenty of places with references to adventures with my father. He used to give me historic explanations to go with town names, especially in New York. Cooperstown has the Baseball Hall of Fame, of which he would say, “that’s the museum you can’t get me out of.” The Hudson Valley, the Adirondacks, and the Catskills are filled with Native American and Dutch names. Road trips with Dad were the pleasant kinds of learning experiences. Throughout my growing-up years, we would walk and talk together; doing this supplied my visual and verbal stock of memories. He had stories to go with everything, and I was listening. I enjoyed being the sidekick on my father’s errands and weekend workplace chores, navigating the length and breadth of The City That Never Sleeps. I met all his coworkers and ate with them, too- even as a young child. Dad and I used to walk together late on Saturday nights to buy the freshly-printed Sunday New York Times directly from the sidewalk newspaper stand assemblers.

Dad taught me how to precisely score baseball games, play-by-play, according to Brooklyn Dodgers' broadcaster Red Barber. This is the style (above). For example, starting off the bottom of the 1st inning Mookie Wilson tripled to center field (he was very fast), and scored on Wally Backman's infield hit to shortstop.

Dad taught computer sciences at New York University, and I tagged along there, too, noticing how his students loved how encouraging and jovial he was. I recall how he gave out number 1 pencils for coding, because the dark marks reproduced much better for later transcription. This occasioned more adventures for us; sojourning the cobbles of warehouse shops on the Queens side of the East River, we’d visit the Senator Pencils factory so Dad could purchase soft-lead Ones by the gross. As he’d say to me- much more recently- “Each day is a mini-project.” Always an adventure, always puzzles to solve. We’d also buy just-made doughnuts from the Silvercup Bread Company bakery- still warm in the box, causing the acetate window to fog.

"Like watching a painting." Eastern Promenade : Portland, Maine

When I was about nine years old, while we were walking and talking along Junction Boulevard, I noticed Dad walk over to a beggar and give her all the change he had in his overcoat pockets. The woman was astonished and thanked Dad with a litany of gratitudes and blessings; after several paces, he looked down to me (I was just 9) and said, “Try to do someone a favor before they ask.” I’ve never, ever forgotten this and have quoted it in my essays, too. There is no finer personal ethic. Our father-and-son adventures included baseball games (including road trips to see games in Philadelphia and Boston), operas and concerts, libraries, hockey games (including a New York Islanders Stanley Cup playoff), barbershops (in adjoining chairs, so we could talk with each other looking toward the mirror), department stores, specialty shops, theaters, workplaces, subways, and countless New York City diners and restaurants. Dad knew everything about New York, and I loved all his animated references. From my earliest memories, when he’d say, “Want to go with me?” I always said yes. Errands were actually adventures, but in commonplace settings. We were like this wherever we went- New York, Paris, Chicago, and along Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue. Dad loved the Eastern Promenade, in Portland (he said, “it’s like watching a painting”)- pointing out how Casco Bay has an island for every day of the year (The Calendar Islands). His general encyclopedic knowledge was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, even to this day. So very many good stories, I can paraphrase the portion of the Gospel in which John observed that if the many anecdotes could each be recorded, "I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written."

Eastern Promenade, May 2021

Among the most painful aspects about witnessing his final days and funeral were not really about the past, but the present and future. This time, I cannot tag along- either as his young son strolling shotgun on 8th Street in Greenwich Village, or as his adult son chatting and comparing our handwritten scorecards at Wrigley Field. There isn’t a now; it’s a not-ever. I must walk the rest of the way- leaning even more upon my memories of our adventures, Dad’s intelligent discourse, and the gentlemanly ethics I tried to absorb. Remembrance is more than respecting the person departed- in this instance my father, it’s recalling the substance and spirit of his character. Remembrance is to continue being taught by his example. I suppose I must go the rest of the way, whatever the duration, without Dad’s storytelling voice. The world has lost some bright colors and is more of a bore than before. We used to sing Frank Loesser songs to each other on the phone. Recently, an elder and wiser person said to me, “You are the continuation of your father,” to which I replied, “If I am, I’m open to the improvement.” Some say I sound like him, but that’s less vital than to be able to apply more of his perceptive savvy and thoughtfulness.

After he retired, my father gave me his prized typewriter which he used for more than forty years. Notice the math symbol keys near the red tab key; he had the machine customized for his computer program coding.

The lyrics I quoted above, by New Yorker Maltbie Babcock, include the line: “‘round me rings the music of the spheres.” Such imagery will also have to be enlisted, for the remaining voyage. When I began publishing my writing with a book, Dad said to me that he admired that I was “contributing to the world of knowledge.” He was an encouraging voice through my employment struggles, but also applauding how my writing and teaching were leading to travels. He liked hearing about the conferences, about Wales, about Boston, and about Oxford. When I taught preservation at Harvard, I called Dad and said, “I’m your eyes and ears here,” describing the wonderful experience. During a residency in 2016 on Beacon Hill and at the Boston Athenaeum, I read a document by Babcock called The Success of Defeat. Reminding me very much of my own father’s words, Babcock wrote: “The only real failure is inside, not outside. It is not being true to the best we know. Inside failure is the only calamity. Outside failure may be the greatest blessing.” Dad seemed to think that I was a success, but I cannot quite agree. At least not yet. Here I will once more invoke Matlbie Babcock:“Success and failure subtly interpenetrate.” For the moment I will consider my inspirations rather than my results.

For the moment I’ll continue to treat the immediate, albeit cast adrift. And the waters are far from calm. My survival instincts cause me to keep rowing. Hopefully there’s still time for things to get better. Through the past seven weeks, I’m noticeably taking nothing for granted. Comfort is difficult to find, and understanding is nearly as scarce. Falling back on my reliable provisions, I reach for the good words I’ve known. Saint Augustine, in the late-4th century, wrote about grieving as a modern mind might express:

There are some who say people should not grieve. Then, let them try, if they can, to ban all loving interchange of thoughts, cut off and outlaw all friendly feelings, callously break the bonds of all human fellowship, or claim that such human relationships must be emptied of all tenderness. And if this is utterly impossible, it is no less impossible for us not to taste as bitter the death of those whose life for us was such a source of sweetness.

These words appear among the essays of Civitate Dei (Book 19). Along with the philosophers who continue to teach me, I add my father with his wise words- many of which came to me when I was too young. I heard myself say to a hospice counselor that I neglected to imagine that I would outlast my father. Perhaps most of us do this. Perhaps, also, none of us can know what that is like until we find ourselves on that regrettably bland and charmless road. If anything, it’s going to take time to navigate out of this fog. It’s going to take a long while before I go to ball games, listen to opera, singing “Bushel and a Peck” again. And I’m not going to hurry it, either. Dad used to tell me to enjoy the day because you live once.


From my mileage log book I keep in my car. I am forever my father's son.