“It is not in vain that the fires of this divine discontent
have been kindled within.”
~ Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica ch. 1
In an attempt to regain a sense of normal creativity, I’ve glanced back at the recent weeks of my journal entries en route to this essay. Indeed the apartment house which had been my home for many years was sold by the progeny whose family had owned the property for a century. All nine apartments had to be evacuated, and my household was the penultimate departure. For every person, the experience was emotional, as nobody wanted to leave the elegant old landmark, but it was necessary, and none of us wanted to face eventual eviction. The extreme stresses revolving around hunting for a place to live during this state’s worst-ever housing crisis was as intense as the trauma has been for me. In my determination to climb out of despair, I’ve kept on writing, along with going to work every day. The emergency move finally happened 4 days after the sale of the building closed, so I can say I outlasted the former landlords. Being gentrified out of one’s home is a woefully common plight in present-day southern Maine.
Four months of scouring the region for an apartment acquainted me with dozens of stories that remain with my thoughts. The picking being slimmer than nil, due to my income, I found a painfully small place- two neighborhoods away- unsurprisingly and absurdly expensive. Strain and exhaustion led to the current disappointment. Of course, the entire scenario would have been positively cathartic, had I found something really nice. There was no choice but to move, and despite having to sign a litigious 13-page lease, this can only be considered temporary. As for the old place, which is now being gutted as I write these words, I’m grateful for all I enjoyed there: all the dinner parties, guests, space, and general tranquility. At the same time, it is critically important to remember that I never owned a square inch of the edifice. Finally leaving an empty building, depleted of all my neighbors, revealed to me that it was merely a tired old shell. Settled and caring souls are what make for a home. The music of life had disappeared. A row house that comprised the lives of doctors’ offices, writers, a piano teacher, families, eccentrics, and artists is now an object of investment real estate. Like covid, the housing crisis has struck far too many people. I tried my best to desensitize for the move. I find that I cannot call the present apartment home; it is referred to as the place.
Amidst times that force countless among us to absorb increasingly greater expenses with decreasing resources, shall we permit ourselves the luxury of ambition? Is it unreasonable to expect advancement and stability during economic recessions and housing crises? How costly is hope? These recent months have shown me that housing is essentially for the affluent, and better employment is for insiders. From my diminished perch, the currently propagated logic that says inflation will slow down when there are fewer jobs looks terribly twisted. I know that I’d have found appropriate housing with a much better salary. For anyone, that would exceed the obvious. My own experience is the juxtaposition of fighting on through underemployment and inferior housing, upon the din of temporality and glaring imperfections at all hands. Indeed, I am very far from alone in such circumstances- yet speaking for myself, there must be improvement. The urgency is crippling, but my awareness of the temporal is oddly assuring. It is nothing particularly new or unique to have to get used to detestable things. In a place so cramped and unappealing, I’ve only unpacked clothing and books- along with kitchen and bathroom contents. From the boxes to my bookshelves (thus clearing some rarified patches of floor space), I reached for Thomas Merton’s Life and Holiness. In the book, he described how people and institutions tend to “cling to subtle forms of inertia and mental paralysis.” Merton challenges his readers to actively see to it that a consistent sense of sanctity must prevail, while facing truths of the imperfections in our situations. Having this is mind, I set about scrubbing the floors of the oppressive little apartment- which is more like a compartment- to make things as livable as possible, and so that I can begin the work of repacking for another move.
Temporary, for many, is a convenience- such as a rented car or a nice hotel room. In my present case, it’s painful and anguishing. As I try to figure out any useful divine purpose in this, when I write my daily journal entries that are equivalent to surfacing for air, I try to recall the value of the dynamic of the provisional. I remember well enough how the temporal used to be hopeful and exciting- or at times a kind of fear that something held dear was about to reach an unwelcome end. Now with a visegrip of a living space, immediately after losing my home, I am beyond eager for this captivity to be short-lived. The tote I had labeled “desk drawer” prior to moving is still next my empty writing table, which took weeks for me to unearth from beneath piles of boxes. It is unavoidably a hold-pattern kind of life which I am striving to redeem. Where is home, when one cannot go home? If anything, this is a difficult and protracted learning about attachments to places and things. At worst a prelude to mortality, and at best an opportunity to muse about an open-ended future.
For someone like me that instinctively looks for solutions to problems and routine conundrums, I want reasons, purposes, and strategies to get me out of wheelspinning ruts. Thinking about transcendence is a much better distraction than to let stomping elephantine upstairs neighbors hijack my wellbeing. I used go home for the peace and quiet; now I run away from the place to seek peace and quiet outdoors. Illegitimi non carborundum, as the pseudo-Latin goes. The name Hosea, in actual Hebrew, means salvation. Hosea the Prophet (8th century B.C.) famously wrote (chapter 10):
“Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, ‘til He comes to you raining righteousness.”
The imagery of fallow ground never leaves my inquisitive thoughts. What is its meaning? Well, the biblical prophetic voices have always had the purpose of turning people to the Light of life: to God and to vocations of being instruments of holiness for the benefit of others. Hosea essentially bids the reader to self-reform, though it requires a broken and contrite spirit. He used the agrarian language of the ancients, “plowing up the fallow ground” to make the foundation of life receptive to renewal. Cultivate the ground such that heart and soul are cleansed of all that corrupts, removing weeds and thorns impairing the causes of uprightness and good works of generosity. Then my thoughts were drawn to the portion in Jeremiah, warning against “sowing among thorns.”
Me being me, I want a meaning, a message, something I can implement like a marching order. And like the Psalmist, I contemplate the words and digest them like food. What’s this about unproductive, fallow ground and sowing among thorns? Maybe life in the comfortable old place in the West End (which I could afford) was fallow ground that needed to be tilled. Maybe the moneycraving landlords and their doings (and misdoings) were part of this casting away into the abyss. Perhaps I live in a city and a state that amount to fallow ground, complete with thornridden recipients of one well-composed cover letter and résumé after another. If this is true, I want to know right away, before any more life forces are wasted. I could look back and grind away more in persistent defeatedness, or strain to look ahead for the miraculous.
While disciplining my thoughts to steer away from the brink of tempting despondence, I write my determination to leverage the temporal toward promising horizons. The pandemic era got most people to internalize “making the best of a bad situation.” Trauma lingers and anxiety remains: the latter due to the expense and unsuitability of the place. There needs to be another move, a liberation from such an oppressively claustrophobic environment. Last month’s emergency move notwithstanding, precious resources were sown in the wrong kind of soil, thus any sort of harvest I can salvage is out-of-joint.
My better musings return to gathering some functional thoughts to try recognizing Divine purpose in this intense trial. As I transfer my personal effects from cardboard to reclosable plastic totes (since the place is too small for unpacking, and I want to be better prepared for the next move), I’m reacquainted with treasures I haven’t seen in four months. I get to see what I’ve missed and what I did not miss. From a box of childhood keepsakes, I unpacked my Felix the Cat- the sight of which brought me to tears, and I apologized to him for these crabby confines. Felix is a keeper, though I am finding other things to give away or sell, as I make yet another comprehensive purge. It’s all unsatisfactory, yet coping is necessary, reconciling without settling.
In the midst of this continuing crisis, as I’ve surely seen throughout the last six months, multitudes cannot even find small places to stack their treasures, and still more are homeless. Along with the health crisis which has claimed almost 7 million lives worldwide, maintaining a sense of context is critical. An impartial observer that notices the fortunate that get good jobs and have nice places to live, must also keep an awareness of the less-fortunate. My definition of home has become elusively fluid. The best thing said to me came from one of the wonderful librarians at the Boston Athenaeum, who compassionately wished that I’d find a sense of home at the library, and at any time I open my journal to write. Having made decades of pilgrimages, it’s easy to call to mind how writing is a movable feast- even with just a morsel, a notebook, and a pencil. Still, the pride of place I had for many years in a lofty Victorian row-house has been brought to something lowly, clenched, and yet overpriced. It’s nothing to be proud of, and will be easy to leave behind.
If ambition really is a luxury, then I stand flagrantly overdrawn. Aspirations are pearls of great price and I intend to invest with them, rather than to hoard my credentials. Even in these harsh circumstances, I insist upon enriching myself with studies and knowledge. These pursuits long predate this year, and there have been plenty of rewarding adventures. Why not anticipate more? Living against the barricades of canned confinement and treadmill workdays must amount to a launch into something healthful and lifegiving. Several years ago, a counselor to whom I described my work situation replied with a memorable turn of phrase: “Well, that burns the platform hotter, doesn’t it?” It’s not to say I feel that I’m owed anything; it’s more like a marrowdeep desire to live and work in better environs. The perseverance muscles are flexed, as is the longing for the fulfilment of two careers’ worth of cultivated abilities.