Wednesday, June 29, 2022

see beyond

“We must accept finite disappointment,
but never lose infinite hope.”


~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968

This time of the year is especially conducive for outdoor writing. Perching on the sunwarmed granite front stoop to write and read has been consoling for many years. But now with the inevitability of losing my housing, even benign routines have become tainted with mournful tones. Necessity and survival demand that I force myself to see beyond these liminal times. While I witness the steady evacuations of my neighbors, as we are all anticipating the “redevelopment” by the next landlords, I am also wildly scouring the grounds for a place to call home. Yet, still, the stately Victorian architecture remains, as do roses, leafy trees, and ants scurrying across the stone steps. Occasionally, an ant will run right at my book, realize it’s an obstruction, and either climb over it or scramble around it. Then I’ll stand the book up, to see how it tries to figure out how to navigate, determined to hold its direction. Not wanting to antagonize the poor thing, I remove the barrier and let it scamper on. Like these small creatures, I am also trying to make sense of setbacks. Most of us have them; sometimes the hardships are compounded. Job hunting, apartment searching, seeking grace- all look the same, all pursued with the same desperation. Perhaps it’s all too similar, and this will require some thoughtful parsing. In crisis mode, too many things seem alike. All the begging, scraping, and strenuous attempting to impress are amounting to levels of humiliation unusual even to me. Yet the fight must not cease, neither should the refinements of my pitches. There is surely much more to lose by clutching a status quo, than in making a move.




Another annual summer reminder is my memory of arriving in Portland. After my hardworked endurance of the New York City school system, I graduated from the High School of Art and Design. Commencement was at nearby Carnegie Hall, and the speaker was alumnus Ralph Bakshi. I had saved my money to travel back to Paris so that I could spend the summer with family. I had missed everyone very, very much- especially my grandmother- and there was nothing I wanted more than to be there. It was undoubtedly a great decision in every way. By Labor Day weekend, with a great many thoughts and ambitions, I arrived in Maine. The building containing my first apartment is down the street from the place I will have to leave. Through eight different apartments, I remained close the center of the city.

I remember very well how desolate it was to be a seventeen-year-old stranger in town- even after beginning at Maine College of Art. I’ve since been active in numerous community efforts- creating, befriending, giving, serving, teaching, and working- but this housing crisis has me no less on the ropes than when I first arrived. A stranger in my own town. Maine is a wilderness at multiple levels: Yes there are thick and endless woods, as the state is mostly rural, with beautiful landscape. But it is also a hard culture. Somehow I wound up fitting in among kindred spirits, especially as I got more involved in civic and artistic life. The cultural differences surface as I seek advice and help from among the hundreds of people I know. A city person like me prefers to communicate directly and unabashedly (but with the best of manners). The stereotypic Yankee mindset is to go about things indirectly and laconically. People tell me about this-and-that empty apartment across the street from them, but they can’t tell me who owns the place because they either never speak- or the owner is an “avowed enemy.” I’ve heard that latter expression many times. Social media is well suited for such personalities, because they can suspiciously snoop around without directly communicating. I’d like to think I’ve evolved over the years, but never into that. My purpose in life is to be a doer, not a spectator. As much as I inhabit this world, I am not of it. Still, try making any progress with housing or employment without help from others- especially those “in the know,” and the “gatekeepers.” Even if you ask politely. Even if they know you.


I’m reminded of a Maine College of Art memory; a very subtle one that I somehow remember. I had written a paper for a literature course, and my professor wrote an interesting reflection after my last paragraph. Professor Aldrich concluded his positive comments with confessing there was something he couldn’t quite agree with, and then wrote “but maybe it’s just the mood I’m in today.” His candor was commendable enough, but the admission also taught me something about context. We tend to perceive according to our circumstances. The covid era is now 29 months running. We can look back across 2½ years of world-altering plague. While we all heard daily about fatality numbers and immunization, both the housing and job markets spiraled into merciless stratification. Before realizing how different everything became, everything began to look different. Like many others, I kept on working- setting up a remote space at my dining table with an extra laptop computer I had purchased, when not pitching in for various departments on-site. The imperative has been to keep on working. While I witnessed furloughs, layoffs, and countless voluntary departures- I kept on working. Lunch hours became isolated twenty-minute breaks, and vacations became impossible. All was subsumed for the causes of relevance and productivity. And survival. The mood I’m in today is that I’ve kept on working, obstacles notwithstanding.


One of my colleagues recently said to me, while discussing what we’ve been able to accomplish in the past fiscal year, “We’ve all been through a lot.” Stopping and looking up, I replied, “We have, indeed.” The covid era has weatherbeaten and accelerated the aging of most of us across all the generations. Ambitions held so preciously in the depths of our lockets, tenaciously carried through our school years, collide at the compromising crossroads of plague. The imperative is to survive, but what are the rewards of survival? Like the ants on the front stoop, it would be good to know that I’m scurrying to something better in this life. I seem to have met many of the descendants of the friends of the biblical character Job; they like to tell me I’m being tested, and that my life is a trial. And it’s much more than being on the brink of losing my home. Well, if this is indeed a protracted spiritual test, there isn’t much else I can do but to stick to my scruples. It means to believe without seeing, to pray insistently into the opacity, and to forgive all the tin-eared people from whom I’ve asked for help. Speaking with a wise friend, I mentioned the weight of some kind of bewildering punishment. He told me to do all in my power “not to go there,” and to be reminded of Divine compassion. Going further, he told me to be sure of that. Perhaps if this is a test, it’s about how I perceive God. Purposes are often discovered amidst struggles.


Maybe I’m not being punished. Maybe I’ve heard the expressions no-cause and at-will a few too many times to be reminded of my own humanity. Everything looks very different now. But while I continue straining to perceive through cluttered apartments and dilapidated buildings, my self-prescribed imperative is to see beyond reticent neighbors, see beyond this smallminded culture, see beyond constant setbacks, see beyond roadblocks and rejections, see beyond exclusivity, and see beyond all that tells me to just give up. Seeing and proceeding beyond limits may lead to a clearing, a pasture, a wellspring. That inner locket is still where it has always been, with me since my school years when I was thrashed around by bullies who outweighed and outnumbered me. It’s still kept safe, and the preserved spirit of forgiveness and devotion will repel the tarnish of these times.





Monday, June 20, 2022

shreds

“Where the Spirit of God is, our souls are set free.
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the glory of God,
are being transformed into the Divine image with ever-increasing glory,
which comes from God, who is Spirit.”

~ 2nd Corinthians 3 :17, 18



My “off-duty” time, through the recent three months, has been more hectic than during my job hours. Following a solid six weeks of purging and packing, yet another weekend of apartment-searching has now passed. The impending loss of my decades of housing, due to the landlords’ liquidating the building, is an alienating- even a disenfranchising- ordeal. Indeed, it never leaves my thoughts that numerous others are embroiled in similar struggles. My daily journal entries are filled with descriptions of things I’ve seen and heard, including my astonishment at persistent slum conditions in too many overpriced southern Maine apartments. While trying to vigilantly persevere with arranging for viewings, along with preparedness for an unknown move to an unknown place, it is impossible not to hear the unnerving stomping and thudding caused by people dislodging their things out of the building. At least I’ve got my household downsized, crated up, and ready. But there isn’t a place to go, yet. That latter adverb represents evidence of lingering optimism. Adding to that, I hope and pray the next place has a window next to which I can place my writing desk. Natural light and fresh air are two things I cannot experience at the job. Maybe a perch that is even better than the old one. Dreaming is assumingly permissible, atop the daring pursuit of stability.



Recently, I’ve heard myself say that I miss taking things for granted. For years and years, I’d walk home from work (yes, I’m a Mainer who walks to work), kick off my shoes, sit down and say, “It’s good to be home.” The walking commute is likely to disappear in this gentrified area, and my definition of home has been jarred out of joint. My sense of home has become a sense of the past without a clear future. This uncertainty of physical place has sent me fleeing further to the solidity of the interior life, a foundation long-established.


Contemplation encompasses more than writing, study, and reflection; there is imagination, visual art, and listening. I’ve left two radios unpacked, one for the kitchen counter, and the other for my desk. Hearing classical music, along with various spoken broadcasts, provide for some healthy distraction, as well as connecting me with that elusive sense of home. A shred of familiarity among all the packed boxes is my pared-down writing perch. I’m keeping this somewhat intact, until the as-yet-unknown thirty day countdown. My desk is empty, and a translucent Sterilite box labeled Desk Drawer is among the nearby crated personal effects. The din of my days is one of homesickness, but the sentiment is overshadowed by an impatience to move to a stable and safer place. If anything, something in a much better state of repair, without the funereal ambience.



In this bizarre race against time and economics, my instincts try to find ways to be reminded of the ground of my being. At best, this is to find solidity for the present while thirsting for a good future. The housing market is an unfortunate ocean of piranhas, and I’m getting a close view of an underworld of which I hadn’t been fully aware of before. But the present is relegated to little more than a launching pad replete with shards, shreds, and shavings. And this sort of status-quo is easy to leave, especially as I step through dilapidated halls to reach the habitat of my boxes. Witnessing neglect and decay is its own brand of exhaustion. Surely there must be many others (at least I’d like to think so) who long to see something good, some signs of general improvement in these times. Having met with dozens of people during this ongoing search, I hope to be part of some kind of neighborly effort that connects those who struggle as I am now. Not one of the community or municipal agencies I’ve approached for advice or advocacy have helped. I don’t wish this sort of scenario upon any person. Circled wagons and closed doors serve only to stratify things even more. If I’m able to transcend these ashes, perhaps this experience may become a helpful component for others, later on.





Sunday, June 5, 2022

beautify


“Love of beauty is taste... The creation of beauty is art.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, ch. 3


1

Years ago, I had a friend named Robert Park. He was an elderly neighbor, and I would run errands and shovel snow for him; then we would enjoy great conversations over coffee in his very cluttered and book-filled living room. He was originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts- and he pronounced his name without sounding the R’s. Invariably, we would talk about politics. With exasperation, he would say, “It just gets worser all the time; worser and worser.” It was difficult to completely agree with him, wishing so much to follow my aspirations. Even though he’s gone now, I continue to muse about his sad admittance. Is it true? If it is, would I start saying this? These are brutish and grim times, all around. Globally and personally. While I flail at my dubious career and strive against the brink of losing my housing, I remain at heart an artist who thinks about hopeful aesthetics. For a long time, I’ve been crafting things that accentuate beauty in the midst of ugly times. There is profound worth, understated as it may be, in beautifying the commonplace and the daily components of living. Having inherited aesthetic tastes from my family, I think of them when I create things and decorate, using good materials. Cooking and baking, I choose my ingredients with care, and set out meals as I was raised to do. Presenting sensitively made objects and foods to others is a way to demonstrate compassion, even if it is modest and simple.






2


Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that “beauty is a wayside sacrament.” Tangible signs of invisible grace are to be respected, and that itself is a reverence for aesthetics. Indeed, beautification and its appreciation directly affect the life of the spirit. Moreover, in such destructive and violent times, spiritual health is all the more imperative. I am well aware of the greater need for balance, eloquence, good reading, and sundry reminders of the sacred now more than ever. Recently, in the Boston Athenaeum manuscripts room, I read the words of Philip Doddridge (18th century) which include: “The care of the soul is the one thing needful, because without it you cannot avoid a state of eternal misery,” adding that- as we all know- misery can be aggravated if we aren’t paying attention to the health of our spirits. Of the topic of the One Thing Needful, as coined in the Bible, Ezra Stiles Gannett (19th century) wrote that it would be a living and active personal faith. Gannett observed that a conscientious and practical faith provides foundations for our pursuits and our work, as it can:

“...endue a person with a divine spirit, can clothe them with an invincible energy, can empower them to go on their course rejoicing through good report and through evil report, through labor and sickness and penury, through loss of friendship and of home even, till death closing this scene shall introduce them to the reward of their faith and patience. The feebleness of our faith prevents our experiencing or illustrating the full efficacy of religion. O Lord, increase our faith; that it may triumph over every obstacle, and may preserve us in obedience to thy holy will, and in hope of thine everlasting favor.”


Handmade box, which I also lined, for my typewritten manuscripts.


In my pursuits of continuing my artisanry and active faith, while desperately trying to find a place to live, I’ve decided to keep on being creative. The life of purging, packing, searching, and going to work amount to a wall of hurry-up-and-wait. Writing needn’t cease to be important; in fact, my journals and thoughts have increased as sheltering venues. Having already packed up most of my things, various loose papers accompany me through my daily rounds. I thought I’d design and create folios made with beautiful materials, for carrying and organizing my projects.

Large sheets of Tassotti paper which arrived damaged, and my attempt to remedy the paper.


Months ago, I had purchased large sheets of Tassotti paper which had arrived from Europe damaged by the shipping. The sheets were meant to be for bookbinding projects, but creased and dented as they were, the paper seemed perfect for “welding” via adhesives to rigid chipboard stock- though I still needed to flatten the damaged paper as well as possible. Trimming and designing the folios, the nautical motifs looked all the more appropriate, as I am striving to persevere in forward motions. Matching the colors of the paper, I used brown bookcloth and ribbon which were among my conservation and binding supplies. Reinforcing the folios with strong and acid-free components, I lined the interiors with thick, handmade paper: blue for the ocean and sky. I tried two different sizes, and made a few extras with an additional nautical-themed paper.



__________________________________________





Making these, and giving some as gifts, further reminded me about my love of beautifying the ordinary. Ironically, devotional books and Bibles tend to be made with drab covers and poor-quality bindings. I remake these, too, since I regularly carry such books with me, and tend to keep them for long periods of time- often personalizing their structures.

Sacred texts with sanctified bindings.




3

My toolbox which I use every day in the Archives, and I lined the trays with handmade paper.



About as ironic as drab-looking production bookbindings that are filled with inspiring words, I currently experience more stability at work than at home. The latter was always the other way around. These intensely anxious times tinge and threaten the most routine of activities. When my errands cause me to drive along pretty residential streets that are lined with neat houses and tidy lawns, my grief surfaces with the intensity of an exile. Surely a broadbrush observation, I see an ocean of haves from the excluded vantage point of a have-not. The gentrified-out are driven east of Eden. And far, far too many have much less than even my modest means and employment. So very many are homeless, subjected to misery and injustices that are unconscionable. I wonder what tourists think, when they see people sleeping in doorways and along the sidewalks of this now-blatantly stratified small city.


While I’ve been pushed to the brink, I also bear witness to the present landscape along with the years that led to these prohibitive conditions. Mere observations with open eyes reveal the sicknesses of these times. But alongside sensitivity and acts of compassion, mental strength is vital. But we must also attend to the immediacy of our midst, particularly as it involves matters such as housing and sustenance. While distracting myself with slivers of creativity in a wilderness of undetectable mercy, my thoughts ponder the question of what to do when something beautiful comes to an end. It has long been in my nature to preserve, to restore, to reinforce. Perhaps the wider question is to consider that which should be designed to last.





Friday, May 20, 2022

unsettled

“There is to be action to accompany faith:
we are to struggle and fight on, but while we yield to the Spirit’s impulse,
it is God who works within us to do what is honorable.
If we will but resign ourselves, and no longer be obstacles in the divine way,
we will be carried to greater heights of grace,
and be transformed more fully into the likeness of Christ.”


~ Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Unconditional Surrender


1

My previous essay discreetly made reference to the impending loss of my housing of several decades. If functioning productively through the ongoing pandemic hadn’t been enough, my nightmarish fog is thickened by not knowing where home will be. Often through the years, my place of residence has been the steadfast sanctuary amidst turbulence and trials. Now, the very ground beneath my humble and reliable perch is being shaken away by the sale of the building amidst the city’s scourging gentrification. My neighbors and I talk about how frightened and frustrated we’ve been. And we are far from the only ones dealing with this sort of displacement in Maine, or throughout New England for that matter. I’ve reflected about the subject of pilgrimage throughout my years of writing; the whole of life is an earthly pilgrimage of trust. In the spiritual expression of making a journey, there is typically the journey home. Ordinarily there are intentional travels- sometimes quite arduous- to a place of communion and community, or solitude, or all aforementioned, during which there are heartening experiences followed by voyages of return. In my case, I have been returning to my same apartment through most of these years. But pilgrimage, being a physical form of contemplative enquiry, can surely tunnel into undefined darkness. Understood principles of the momentary are put to perilous manifestation.



2

My father used to say that hunting for housing is in that same category of horror as hunting for employment and hunting for a worthwhile automobile. I’ve known all three. The former two are more than both armsful, and the latter is something I stave off with the help of a good mechanic. As it has been for just about every aspect of life, short of the teleconferencing and remote-work software businesses, this is an egregious time to be hunting for a place to live. The pandemic economy has untethered workers from physical confines of large cities, prompting many to relocate to fresh-air places such as northern New England. Maine has been gutted by closures of local businesses, while the resort-style economy has exponentially inflated everyone’s costs of living. The outmigration of displaced and discouraged locals has been more than equaled by incoming remote workers and retirees; these factors, combined with successions of local officials who typically look the other way, serve to exacerbate the housing shortage. Having witnessed these phenomena through the decades, I have seen how constructed residences are either six to seven-figure condominiums, or compartments for the destitute. The rest of us claw for our lives and livelihoods. A good friend of mine manages a well-regarded downtown restaurant, and he recently told me that in spite of how he has helped his employees find housing, he constantly loses staff due to their losses of their homes. Now that I am forced into the battlefield, I’m experiencing what has happened to the process of searching for an apartment: much as it is with job-hunting, but acutely worse, it is a combination of lotteries and beauty pageants. On top of that, there is a disturbing prevalence of scamming and fraud, leading searchers to have to verify if the places in the online pictures are really those of the addresses listed. The days of cardboard “For Rent” signs in windows are long past.


3

Negotiating this uncertainty oscillates between trepidation and open horizons. Purging, packing, selling, and giving away things are all part of a protracted farewell. The load is lightened. I’ve seen some repulsively squalid apartments, and a couple of better and more liveable places. Determination and desperation drive the search forward. The behaviors and decisions of landlords, much as with workplace administrators, are out of the reach of an ordinary person of modest means. What is more within reach is to be prepared and ready to make that necessary move. Perseverance is running up against daunting odds. As yet, there are no conclusions.



The unsettling uncertainty is as intense as what I’ve begun referring to as The Glaze. For those of you who have had to force yourselves to sift through every single thing you own, at the most rapid pace you can manage, you know The Glaze. It is a kind of emotional and intellectual disorientation and exhaustion that results from the overwhelm of examining personal effects. Being a lifelong apartment-dweller, I don’t consider myself as having an enormous amount of things. I noticed it when I began purging paper-based material. The experience was such that I decided to categorize all my material by genre, as I do when I curate archival collections in professional life.


I made lists, based upon assessing my accumulations; in curatorial language, it would be series and subseries as the materials dictate. Going after my largest categories, photo-related material (prints and camera gear), papers, and books, I found that it was necessary to intersperse the work with smaller categories. That dizzying glaze was especially powerful and daunting, particularly on weekends when I was cramming in as much purging as I could. Eventually, I took time off from my job (“vacation time”) so that I could systematically march down my lists, adding in various intermissions so that I could back away from The Glaze as needed. Still, that stifling and stagnating stupor continued to slow my progress. After I packed all my music recordings, I kept the radio on, to help me keep going. I also took breathers to drive donations to charity shops. Inevitably, I collated all that I own, either for retention or for deaccessioning, in seven painstaking and restless weeks. On one particular Sunday night, I experienced a glazing that was so intense that I could neither write in my journal nor sleep. But the purging is done, and the packing is complete save for day-to-day necessities in anticipation of a thirty-day evacuation notice in the unknown near future.


Part of what made the covid era so life-altering was the forced change of all our perspectives. Lockdowns, social distancing, and wearing masks all became habits that worked their ways into unspoken daily life. My proactive readiness to be as mobile as possible is actually a preparedness to be reactive when my present housing comes to its inevitable end. My perspective of many years about the meaning of home has had to change. Another stark reminder of perspective occurred during a glazing day of purging last week. Down the street from my living room window there are several public benches which are mainly used by street people, and by smokers who cannot indulge in their buildings. Getting outside to divert my anxious glaze, I noticed the flashing lights of emergency vehicles and at least a dozen medics trying to revive a fallen man. They were rotating their administering of CPR for a long time, making great effort to rescue this unfortunate, ragged man who may have been homeless. I refrained from staring, but intermittently went outside joining some of my neighbors hoping to see that he would be all right. After what seemed close to an hour, the large group of first responders finally stopped. It was gut-wrenching to realize the man had passed away, and the valiant medics looked depleted. Then more city officials arrived on the scene of this unsettling sight. Someone like me being put out of my home still has a life and can at least find another place. I needed to get out and look at some different scenery, and the sky. It occurred to me that I hadn’t been out of town in nearly two months, because of this crisis. Rolling tape and tying string around boxes, one after another, marking the contents with a big squeaky marker that smells like shoe polish, I thought about how I will miss my crated prized possessions. To be sure, I left some selected writing materials and a few beloved books such as The Cloud of Unknowing unpacked, to be handy right up to crunch time. It’s the burying of treasure, with struggling hopes that I’ll be able to park, unpack, and regather in a better place.




Saturday, April 30, 2022

crises are opportunities

“You pass the doors of the library,
and the smell of thousands of well-kept books
makes your head swim with a clean and subtle pleasure.”


~ Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain


Recent weeks of this nascent spring reveal to me how the passage of time combines newness and anguish all at once. Amidst the ragged persistence of pandemic, there are crocuses along the sidewalks. Which of these do we deserve more? In the struggles of these times, it seems more consistent to live against turbulence than to abide alongside the bucolic. Crunching over the leftover detritus of winter, I recently made one of my routine sojourns to Boston. Alighting from the Red Line and emerging to a notably snowless Tremont Street, tangible signs of spring looked novel to me.


The pandemic-era Boston Athenaeum, as with all libraries, has had to apply varying degrees of public health restrictions. Following the changes in regulations, I’ve reacquainted myself with how I use the library as a place of study and writing- even adhering a laser copy of my immunization card to the flyleaf of my journal, for easy presentation. On my March visit, face masks were no longer required for the members-only upper floors, and once more the place that has been familiar to me for more than two decades looked new to me. Merton’s words about entering the splendor of imagination and potential in the library of his visiting came to mind. The Athenaeum’s collections, community, and physical spaces have never lost those aspects for me. For this particular visit, I carried my selections and writing material up through mazes of stairs to the quiet of the “third floor gallery” perch. There are times to be social, but this was a time to be silent. In this part of the world, the Lenten season parallels the austerity of late-winter. Looking up from my writing, out toward the Granary Yard and Tremont Street, the line from Psalm 51 came to mind, “renew a steadfast spirit within me.” So long as I live, fresh starts must be implicit. More often than not, these are as subtle and overlooked as morning routines of waking and washing.

Above: Boston Athenaeum



Above: View from seaport area & University of Massachusetts-Boston



With the Maine temperatures vaulting into the forties and lengthened daylight, long walks and light clothing make for some welcome changes. My lifelong habit of strolling with a camera goes with my coined expression, “I’m going out to find photographs” sends me outdoors. Lately, it’s been sufficient to simply be outside, merely reacquainting with the milder elements, and absorbing what is good about being aperch outdoors. Another enduring memory which continues to educate me, comes from my year at UMass-Boston when I sought out the chaplain for desperately consoling advice. That was one of the most difficult and traumatizing years I’ve ever lived through. The chaplain evidently could see that, and in her wisdom and grasping for words she walked me outside. It happened to be a strikingly bright spring day, and we walked along Columbia Point, overlooking Boston harbor. The chaplain pointed heavenward and instructed me to notice. “Look up,” she said to me; “Look at that sky.” More than a clever directive to distract me from my miseries, looking up at the blue and the clouds above the sparkling water and city structures immediately expanded my perspective. We talked about the sky, and then about wishes for the future. A turning point I’ve never forgotten, and advice I have offered to others and applied to my own self many, many times since. The vast firmament can be as significant above cities as above any environment. The other day, I went out to find photographs at a spot I’ve long cherished here in Maine, and noticed the signs of the skies. There remains a raw chill in the air, and the landscape is invitingly unrefined. Writing outside in early spring is an early awakening with a sense of starting anew. Somehow, commonplace things can still make first impressions.


With time comes repetition, and with recurrence comes the question about whether there are limitations to fresh starts. How many resets are possible? It may not be knowable. What can one reasonably anticipate? Or perhaps it is not in the nature of forward-looking to think reasonably, while dreaming up to the skies. The will to continue has a faith in fresh starts built into it. We have all seen tragic imagery and heard about the Ukrainians’ anguish and ache for new beginnings amidst unimaginable ruins. War and destruction strike a terrible contrast against the burgeoning season of growth. Yet in the face of world events and economics, I notice people gardening, walking and dining together, creating art works. Who wouldn’t want to reset their lives, given the opportunity? I continue helping those around me with their work and their hopes for success. Of late, I am turning to my friends for their help. Quite suddenly, my landlords of many years are selling their building within which is my home. The eventuality of losing my steadfast home has launched a tireless marathon of purging and packing for the as yet unknown. The ache for new and solid beginnings has struck my little writing table, now precariously nestled at the center of numbered days.


My current journal book has an imprinted motto; though roughly translated from the original Chinese, it is poignantly appropriate. I’ve been paraphrasing the motto as, “everyone needs a sense of beginning.” Trying to keep on writing amidst working, the search for better work, and now downsizing and packing, I am striving to try to see opportunities in these crises. It is yet another Lenten season. Let there be fair skies.






Monday, March 14, 2022

observe

“Your eyes have only to behold”

~ Psalm 91


Having been an incessant and habitual worker through all my years, taking breaks requires an effort. Ironic as it seems, energy is needed to be able to wind down- especially now. And by winding-down, I mean being completely still. Without any background noise. Without cluttering and filling “leisure time” with strategized chores. Weekends can be made more strenuous than weekdays at work. Indeed, vigilance gets things done, but such unrelenting watchfulness feeds insomnia. The fires of the latter are fed all the more in these increasingly anxious times. Bewildered individuals everywhere wonder at “what can one person do?” Isolation only intensifies the sort of inertia that obstructs initiative and engagement. General advice many of us hear, outside of urgent fight-or-flight crises, is to gather at our breathing. Breathe and release the grip. Release the restraints, as much as possible, without deadlines or pressures. As a lifelong visual artist, another natural trait is to observe- noticing what is happening and memorizing the impressions. Bearing witness is not a straining effort. With this in mind, a standstill needn’t mean stagnation. I’ve learned that occasionally the way to stand my ground is to be still and observe.

Thoughtful observation can find lasting impressions in the understated. A recent travel, nearly two years in the waiting, was almost postponed some more due to a severe storm. I set forth anyway, clambering over felled trees with my luggage, en route to a bus terminal. As the Trailways vehicle merged onto the open highway, the torrential freezing rain worsened. Being a seasoned driver, I habitually looked toward the windshield, astonished at the blunt intrepidity of the bus. When I noticed my straining to watch the road ahead through the horizontally pelting storm, imagining the needed navigational maneuvers, I halted those thoughts. Exhaling, I reminded myself that I was not at the wheel this time; the driver was. Indeed, being freshly en route to a retreat, there was plenty of residual tension still stuck to me. As a passive passenger, I could enjoy the freedom to close my eyes- and even to look up at the heavy, ominous skies while anticipating some healthful respite.

We can learn a lot about ourselves by listening to those who know us well. An old friend with whom I used to take lunch breaks noticed my habit of stopping at the last few last bites of my meal, then finishing the repast right before heading back to work. On my part, this was subconscious, but I found the observation amusing. It’s similar to something I noticed myself, when occasionally pausing at highway rest-stops a few miles short of destinations to tidy up my car- then finishing the travel. Perhaps the protagonist can also be the observer. It certainly holds true for those of us who are journal writers. If our actions are insufficient when it comes to accomplishing our goals, our intentions leave room for more tries and ways to support others. Progress can take the form of reinforcing stillness, seemingly receding into the scenery. Writing about Saint Teresa of Ávila, Francisco Carvajal elaborated about how attentive listening and recollecting our thoughts can in themselves be forms of contemplative prayer. In quiet perseverance, the Holy Spirit is subtly discerned, “And when we are docile to those promptings and counsels, we find that our lives become fruitful.” Carvajal also referred to imperceptible graces, quoting another Spanish 16th century saint, San Pedro de Alcántara, who wrote that “our guardian angel is present to us, in our prayer, bearing our intentions and defending us.” I have no doubt that what we see at the surface is not all there is.


During this week, notwithstanding the world’s present hostilities, my thoughts turn to the pandemic’s beginnings two years ago. In 2020, on March 12th I taught classes throughout the day, at the end of which I taught my philosophy class in a pizzeria as planned. The next day, Friday the 13th, turned out to be the final normal business day for this part of the world. A national state of emergency was declared that day. As the proverbial curtain dropped over society, I witnessed a lot of panic hoarding and startling strangeness- avoiding all of this myself, though writing about the surreal experiences in my journal. There was no avoiding the upheaval, particularly involving my employment. I had to cancel all travel plans. Suddenly, it became impossible to simply visit with friends. The shock combined sudden desolation, silent city streets, and the boredom of confinement. There seemed little else but to witness the times, albeit while working remotely, reading, and writing letters to those I could not visit. As early as March 18th, I wrote in my journal about my intention to “adhere to my usual schedule, up early, coffee on the ledge of the tub, with the daily written wit-gathering and steeling for the workday- online or not.” Even now, two years on, isolation is the contemporary and indefinite continuum. It is also the context I’ve had to function against, maintaining what I can of the old familiar normality. Indeed, with increased immunization and reduced casualties, more socialization is possible than in the past two years. But the present lacks the social freedoms of 2019. As throughout the past two years, I continue to find some of the old familiarity when I perch outdoors with writing and reading- especially by the ocean. Outdoors and writing amidst the elements of nature, the moment is complete and unimpaired; now as before. As for the tentative future, “make definite plans,” Josemaría Escrivá once said, “not for the whole week, but just for the day ahead- for this moment and the next.” My eyes have only to observe.




Sunday, February 13, 2022

envisage

“Too far for you to see
The moss and the mould on the cold chimneys,
The nettles growing through the cracked doors,
The houses stand empty at Nant-yr-Eira,
There are holes in the roofs that are thatched with sunlight,
And the fields are reverting to the bare moor.”


~ R.S. Thomas, The Welsh Hill Country

Do we each owe something to our personal journeys? This is a question which you may choose to evaluate in your own context. It is a new year, evidently. In these recent weeks, during my daily trudges amidst dead-of-winter throes, I’ve pondered this enough to make incidental notes in between obligations. Forward motion demands nothing less than a daring aspiration. Progress rises and falls on ambitious hope. As the pandemic wears on and distorts much of our perception, it’s been clear to me that applied hope is anything but passive. By applied, I refer to the day-to-day living application of hopefulness, as compared to an abstract theory. Such determination would consistently undergird attitudes and actions alike. In the face of relentlessly grim news, the insistence upon looking forward to better days is essentially beyond passive. Is daring to anticipate and stretch toward improvement, to envisage beyond the immediate and the visibly apparent, a kind of stubborn blind faith? Perhaps it is. And perhaps the combined forces of both fatigue and malaise in these times amount to a test.


One recent evening, after the sleetstorm crosstown trek home from work, I perched at my desk with dry change of clothes, and scribed this in my journal: What do I owe my voyage? My thoughts turn to sensing a motivating indebtedness to my pilgrimage, self-constructed since childhood. And this is quite different from owing something to the limits of my self. The full journey is inclusive of many other people, of institutions, and places. The pilgrimage is much more extensive than the adventurer. Pondering my indebtedness to years of countless miles, I think of the instances when I tell myself, “you’ve gone this far, don’t turn back.” To be fit for eternity, as it is written in the gospel, one that sets hand to plough must not stare in the opposite direction. Progress is forward motion. When the way ahead continues through daunting prohibitiveness, there are great temptations to give up my tireless pursuit of improved conditions. Settling into a status-quo, albeit unsustainable, is itself a temptation. Especially if it seems comfortably solid. But a diving board is no place to make a foundation. The path of least resistance appears in such forms as convincing me to give up and believe this is as far as I can go. There are so many legitimate and rational reasons to let up on the throttle and tune out. But my better sense, the one that annoys me with inconvenient truths, urges me against giving up the ship. Furthermore, that sense threatens me about what could happen if I were to give up the pilgrimage trail. Indeed, I’m indebted to the distance already covered and past hardships already endured. Despite the protracted barrage of rejections, with so many denied efforts, my consciousness of time invested and ground covered persuade me to carry on. And that is to carry on with wisdom derived from defeat. There remain significant goals; hard work and survival have yet to see fulfillment. Along with many of you, I’m also constructing a list of “after covid” plans.


Last month comprised the season of the Epiphany, reminding me to keep on unearthing embers beneath the detritus of these times. But as with hopeful aspirations for progress, foraging is far from passive. My enduring impression is one of coaxing possibilities out of elusive graces. The search for fulfilling opportunities finds an illustrative metaphor as I help neighbors move their stranded vehicles out of snowdrifts. As drive wheels spin and whine in quagmired desperation, the flailing car merely sinks further into the frozen ruts. In order for the car to advance onto tractioned terra firma, it needs to be repeatedly rocked and pushed, wheels positioned straight ahead. The motorized graces need forces of providence, so that the being can be shoved onto a passable way. Raw ingredients are ever wanting for an indefatigable iron will.


Bernard of Clairvaux, in the 12th century, left the world of contemplative thought a wealth of guidance. Monastic wisdom often strikes that assuring balance of the metaphysical and the practical. “That which was begun by grace,” wrote Bernard, “is accomplished by grace and free will, so that they work together simultaneously rather than selectively.” The statement has the ring of consolation, reminding the recipient of the prospect of not being left unaccompanied or thrown back solely upon their own reserves, having to try generating the graces of fortitude and providence. I’ve learned to better handle my end of things, which includes learning that my efforts are not occurring in a vacuum. What is immediately visible is not all there is.

Edgar Allison Peers, the Hispanist professor who translated and extensively wrote in the 20th century about San Juan de la Cruz, authored an anthology called “Behind that Wall.” In the book’s chapters, published in 1948, Peers presented how the inner life manifested among various Christian mystics. He prefaced the work by describing the drab veneer of walls that commonly surround colorful gardens. “Rough, ugly bricks, placed one upon another,” perhaps using his own vernacular in Liverpool. Then musing about workaday monotony of commuting “day upon day, the same dull routine... We sometimes ask, ‘what will it all lead to?’” Peers continued by referencing an experience during the time he lived and worked in Spain, walking a very steep and broken road that led to a house to which he had been invited. Noticing the dilapidated walls around the property, he imagined the house would look just as rough and run-down. To his astonishment, the orderly and colorful gardens surrounded a tidy, crisp villa- surprisingly encircled by the ramshackle walls of his first impression. Peers observed that people can be like gardens that are concealed behind ordinary and unremarkable structures. The inner life, Peers suggested, is a floral garden behind the ordinary wall. Appearances cannot accurately reveal substance.


The ability to envisage resurgence demands a full determination to look beyond the immediate. Full, and nothing less. As much as things are not looking good, these are things which must not receive permission to own anyone’s soul. And that is no small discipline. Remembering Bernard’s advice, a strong will is constantly needed to take up threads of grace as they are discovered. The old metaphor about the sculptor visualizing a completed work of art through the solid block of stone holds true in the mindset of applied hope. Having to thrive amidst too much sedentary time when not on the job, through the recent two years, I’ve been trying to redeem this pandemic era through my self-directed studies in philosophy. As always, my note-taking is for the purpose of sharing- for both writing and teaching; thankfully, there have been windows of time to do both. At the same time, I’ve been gradually bailing possessions out of my apartment, lightening the load for future forays as yet unknown. The cultivation of intellectual and spiritual fitness has far eclipsed the collecting of material, even for this curator. A sign of the times.


Along with keeping up the studies, journaling continues in various parts of every day. Noticing signs of these times, I’ve kept track of this era’s developing vocabulary and habits. “Keep well,” “Stay well,” and “Stay safe” have become mainstays in closures of conversations and written messages. I notice how greetings, even with strangers, include queries about physical health. I’ve even heard myself do this, along with the honestly caring, “how are your spirits?” Times of plague rooted the wishing of blessings upon those who sneeze. Conferring of blessings were noted during a 6th century pestilence in Rome, though the popularized “God Bless You” uttered for fear that someone might be falling ill dates from the bubonic plagues of the 14th century. I’ve also noticed hearing more of this in the recent two years.

It is obvious to see how we social creatures have sorely missed one another. Speaking with a small group of friends recently, we each had much to say about missing being parts of groups that would go to pubs, or cafés, or museums, or movies. “Movies!” exclaimed one of my friends, continuing with, “I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies!” We all miss hanging out, and unmuzzled no less. I’ll bet each one of us has taken up the habit of talking to ourselves- more than before. During some recent errands, driving by some triple-decker apartment houses on Portland’s High Street, I saw something that caused me to look again to see this wasn’t a statue: A man was standing still on his second-floor front porch, with one foot on a low crossbeam, holding a smoking briar, with the other hand parallel to his brow, gazing toward the distance. He looked every bit the ocean navigator aboard ship, but alas on a second-floor porch, gazing toward the streets. Alone in my car and indeed talking to myself, I said “aren’t we all at sea.”


Perhaps reflecting the wariness of these times, I’ve noticed recent circulation of the old saying, “It’s not enough to start well; one must end well.” My own abbreviated version of this, as I press on, has been don’t drop the ball. Keep going. Hold firm to the very end, and nothing short of the end. Undoubtedly easier said than done, in the unforgiving desert of the present economic and employment landscape. Added to the fluid lexicon of this era is The Great Resignation, though barely detectable in northern New England, the general effect is yet to be fully comprehended. But the determined insistence to press onward amounts to a restlessness which I consider a motivator. I owe it to everyone and everything that has encouraged me to get this far. There remains a long way to go.