“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.
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.