“If we don't release the past,
We'll slap the face of the days to come.
Remember this melody;
Don't ever let it go away.
Sing it to your heart;
Day after day after day.”
~ Michael Roe and The 77s, The Days to Come
It seems the most availably productive way to recover my forces damaged by the trauma of housing displacement is to attend to what is immediately required. Learn the new commute, do exceptionally good work, serve those in my midst, and find redeemable aspects in these times. My former neighbors and I could not prevent the loss of our homes in a hastily-sold apartment house. As with countless many others, we’ve all had to navigate disrupted foundations. My home town is now equal parts of unfamiliar and familiar, detestable and endeared, all at once. The old, reliable stabilizing routines have had to be translated into inhospitably cramped and unfriendly confines. A crosstown move might’ve had the balm of improved living standards, but not in this case. The place is also economically unsustainable. Indeed, there will inevitably be another move in the near future; presently, workable compromises are as vital as undaunted ambition.
The pandemic era persists, and the lingering impression is one of a diminished world. Downsized in the sense that there are reduced opportunities. Perhaps there are too many metaphors in front of me, with the clenched apartment in mind. Existing in that claustrophobia-inducing compartment becomes representative of the compression of this stratified society, dead ends, and the intensified expenditure of energy needed to do all that had been previously taken for granted. It’s increasingly difficult to find any basic situation that isn’t forbidding- not to mention affordable. Yet all along I’ve had it in mind that light strikes the brightest contrast in the densest darkness. My own attempts to reckon with substandard housing and the inability to unpack things I used to easily reach for, have me stretching for any healthful inspiration. Perhaps I speak for many in my admission of these times as humiliating. Having admitted this, very consciously resisting identification as a downtrodden person, my focused attention turns to rebuilding confidence. It seems an unrealistic fantasizing to look forward when bleakness reaches to the horizons. News of current events worsen, and in the face of such immersion my journal entries keep straining for the light. I’m limiting my exposure to media sources, and am spending more time outdoors. Fresh air and skies are far more inviting than 8-foot ceilings and Le Cirque des Eléphants above my head within the puny building. And to be sure, the searching for something better continues. Looking, striving, searching, aspiring- so long as I breathe and dream- these must continue.
Those who know me well also know that I follow one sport, and that’s hockey. The best and worst of humanity’s universally iconographic traits are found in hockey. My father used to insightfully remark how the National Hockey League has always had a special annual award for “gentlemanly play,” the highly esteemed Lady Byng Trophy. One may choose to bear down on the rigors of skating, passing, scoring, and tenacious defense- or one may run up triple-digit penalty minutes in a league that inexcusably countenances brutality. But echoing my Dad, I love the game when it is just played, as in the Olympics, turning on skills and strategies without the violence. I’m grateful for the start of hockey season which brings in a welcome distraction. The ups and downs of the Boston Bruins, along with the Original Six, do a lot more for me than current events and workplace palace intrigues. In a recent Boston Herald article, I made note of a comment made by a veteran hockey coach who had been asked about the resourcefulness of his players, saying “The N.H.L is a find-a-way league.” That comment jumped off the page at me, as I recognized my admiration for such indefatigable pluck. Find a way. Get out there, find ways to score goals and hold a lead. Find ways to block shots. Back when I played hockey on roller skates, I was always told to “cut the angle” and “challenge the shooter.” None of this is easy and finding ways cannot be done from one’s elbows; it’s got to be full-throttle.
Like the coach’s comments and remembering what I was taught, I’m reminded of my instinctive and constant search for signs- for indications to point me forward. Something that draws me to reach forth unto those things which are before can appear in the least-conventional forms, including sports pages. The essential for discernment is openness to sensing the instructional elements in what I experience. Recently on the road, while merging onto the perilous Route 128 in Massachusetts, I gave a quick listen to the traffic report (“on the threes”) on WBZ, after my usual thrice-leftward lane transitions: one lane at a time, signaling like a Lady Byng candidate. After figuring out the necessary detours advised by the traffic report, I began incrementally ascending along the car radio AM dial. Tuning a radio without the presets leaves room for random serendipitous finds. Inching up from somebody prattling about wealth management- clearly meant for the haves, I caught a homily from a broadcast church service. While actively attentive to the rapid traffic, my ear latched onto the pastor’s theme which was compellingly about contending with hardships. His words had the cadence of a mentoring coach, pointing out how present-day lessons can be informed by ancient texts. He observed that personal struggles are means toward purification, that we mortals with our limited perspectives do well to consider how we may be fashioned and sculpted into life in God. He said that we are being pointed toward eternity. I listened intently to this, while the urban traffic thickened, and remembered as many of the words as I could throughout the day.
Being attentive to signs of promising directions, my senses have sharpened amidst times and situations that are harsher than I’ve ever seen. The friction and inertia between idealism and present-day realism are palpable. Mindfulness must proceed through minefields, testing even the most seasoned souls. The search for hopeful prospects, for substance, for satisfying applications of time and abilities is especially susceptible to clouding mirages. Ancient wisdom challenges us to test the spirits.
For my purposes, signs are manifestations and portents to suggest possibilities, as well as things to avoid. While adjusting to different surroundings and on the watch for something better, I have my usual photographer’s eyes and archivist’s mind. These discerning faculties help me notice and interpret my experiences, along with comprehending these attributes in context. I try to make sense of things by listening and looking- essentially attending to my surroundings. Even as a child, it was never sufficient to just go through the days’ motions. And to this moment, I need to see the why of things- utility and meaning always on equal footing. Impressions occur in an unprovoked flash. It is not a wrenching contrivance. The temporal present eagerly anticipates a good future. My daily striving is accompanied by taking in the signs of nature, such as the changing skies and lower temperatures. Colorful leaves that waft and fall signify the movements of time. Ubiquitous election campaign signs have not informed me about causes and candidates, but have made for an amusing sea of Yes and No statements. Voting against a cause is voting in favor of something else, and vice-versa.
Albeit temporarily, I’m becoming acquainted with the East End, after 37 years in the West End. Barely two miles apart, the two neighborhoods may as well be in two different gentrified cities. To the West End’s brick rowhouses, the East End’s woodframes include a 215-year-old signal tower. My inherent city sense has already figured out strategic shortcuts through the unlit narrow streets. The steep neighborhood has the feel of living on an island: the ocean is always in close view, and conveniences are not nearby. Mornings are damp, to the extent that I now keep a squeegee in my car. Commuting to work is now by infrequent city bus, after decades of walking or bicycling. I miss everything about the old life, but there was no choice for any of us to stay in the building that is now being gutted and luxurified. All there is to do is to continue searching and watching for opportunities to make a beneficial move. I’m reading the signs- both online as well as offline. Giving up cannot be an option; to that, I vote No.
A ubiquitous byproduct of displacement, especially to inadequate confines, is discomfort. More is uncertain than is certain. Signs of assurance may not necessarily appear as spelled-out posted markers. Friendly street greetings and bus driver acknowledgments are cherished. No longer having a budget for leisure, at least I can continue writing and photographing. And preparing comfort food for those humble front-stoop meals. I’m reading consolations in my philosophical studies and in the daily lectionary. In a library book, I saw these words of 17th century Quaker author Sarah Jones:
“Look not at your own weakness,
but look at Him who is calling you.”
I make notes of findings in my chapbooks, adding balance to my journals. Indeed, others have struggled, navigated, and discovered long before me. Their words are clues, signs that can point toward a worthwhile future. Occasionally, signs and consolations find us. The front stoop has been a ready refuge from the apartment’s compression- even though I’m too tall for that, too, and must perch astride it with my legs hanging from the side. But it’s a place from which I can look up, and can greet neighbors.
An especially consoling presence that regularly finds me on the stoop is a friendly cat. Usually the cat notices me first, and sometimes perches on my books to get my full attention. He also gets a slice of smoked turkey. The visits are always timely and appreciated. Among the neighborhood cats, there’s a Maine Coon cat that greets me when I descend from the bus in the evening. The long day’s transactions leave me saturated, but I make time for these visits and sit on the pavement to thank the singing cat. I suppose we all have our causes for vigilance, in the context of realizing the intensity of mine and how much mental space they consume. Exasperated, I see how I cannot force the progress of my urgent conditions- try as I certainly do. As these friendly cats come up to me, and I welcome them, there is something to be read in the arrival of unprovoked blessings. Signs to be discerned. Perhaps what I consider to be vigilance is actually consistency of intention and preparedness.