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


“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


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

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, ch. 3


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.


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.


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.