Sunday, May 28, 2023

en plein air

“Adopt the pace of nature.
Her secret is patience.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

With an extremely rare weekday off, I chose to stay in town and write outdoors. Not only that, I decided to write on the Eastern Promenade- a writing perch I’ve enjoyed for many years, long before having to move from my home in a suddenly-gentrified West End building. Indeed, last autumn- until it got too cold- I walked to the “Prom” as often as possible, getting away from the puny apartment, just to be able to look upward. Going outdoors to write allows me to transcend “addresses,” and their confinement. People travel to Portland from great distances, to be able to perch along Casco Bay. The scenery continues to be inspiring to me, just as it was for me last month in the Berkshires. Getting out gets me away from oppressive and bland spaces, as well as from the static recirculating air of the workplace. “Retreat” needn’t mean extensive travels; it’s really about stepping back and away from structure and demands. I could be from anywhere and come here to write, at the same time as being from here (which I am) and forget about annoying confines. The outdoors also provide an escape from alienation. Open, and accessible spaces strike a needed contrast from offices, phones, and lit screens- allowing me to listen to my thoughts and make some notes. Skies provide a taste of ceilinglessness (and how cooperative that my typewriter doesn’t redden or rewrite my made-up words).

Writing at the Eastern Prom, which includes a busy playground, brings to mind the day camps that were lights to my adolescent summers in New York City. Asphalt jungle childhoods comprise scarce amounts of trees and clean grassy spaces for playing and perching. There was always a lot of broken glass to sidestep, along with other detritus I stopped seeing after moving here to Maine to begin college. No doubt, the air was a comparison I could immediately make, and since then has always been rolled into what I’ve come to know as “the outdoors.” But humble as it was, day camp gave me a taste of things easily taken for granted in northern New England. In the city, the change of context brought kids like me on long yellow school buses out to the lush and landscaped parks of Queens- namely Forest Park, and for a number of years Kissena Park. Hardly any of the other kids were from my neighborhood: the blighted and dangerous projects in Corona; they were from just about everywhere else. But we were all together, frolicking outside, jumping through sprinklers, and fanatically playing baseball every single day. We were easy to please, once we had time and space. Perhaps some of us retain those traits. There was no structure and no technology- even for the camp counselors that watched over us, also serving as our umpires through all those raucous ball games.

From my high school years:
Above: Greenway Terrace, Forest Hills, New York City
Below: High School of Art & Design cafeteria, as we all wondered what was really in those sandwiches.

I’m one of those adults that can still think very much as I did when I was ten. The ache to have time and space to muse, around those fettered and adversarial school days, resembles the ache to have time and space to muse between job tasks and inane meetings. Free time becomes increasingly costly. For most of us, liberation is rare and at best incremental. Reflecting back, childhood redemption arrived in an unwitting combination when I was 13. My year began as I completed rigorous and intense religious studies, thus declared an adult at that rather young age. In my naive determination, I survived my final year in what happened to be New York City’s most overcrowded public school, which went by the heartwarming name of I.S. 61. Its schoolyard was surrounded by housing projects and scrapyards. The city was a good 2 decades away from gentrifying, and my daily walks to school were imperiled by gangs and packs of feral dogs. Almost all the threatening and thrashing ended for me with the post-middle-school summer at a healthy summer camp in the mountains of Upstate New York, followed by my parents’ purchase of a house in a strikingly beautiful and safe neighborhood- still right in the city. And finally, still at age 13, I began my sojourn of secondary education at the High School of Art and Design, on the tony east side of Midtown Manhattan. A whole lot in a short year. My father gave me my first bicycle, enabling me to run a lot of errands, including grocery shopping. I explored all the streets of Forest Hills and contiguous neighborhoods, also toting my first camera- which had been a 13th birthday gift.

My Rudge-Whitworth bicycle, which I purchased used for $20 to replace the new bicycle robbed from me by muggers.
Above: Photo I took in 1981, in New York City.
Below: Photo I took (I still have the Rudge) recently at Acadia National Park, Maine.

The bicycle symbolized freedom and an enduring sense of self-propulsion. I would joke about drinking a glass of milk, then bicycling the length of Queens Boulevard and over the 59th Street Bridge en route to a library I frequented on East 38th Street. All on one glass of milk, as I’d say. One afternoon, while bicycling with a neighbor through Flushing Meadow Park, I was accosted and mugged at knifepoint, forced off my shining new bicycle. I still remember this well, and can recall the sheer powerlessness of that event. At my summer job in a supermarket, I saved my earnings to buy another bicycle- a used one that I defiantly considered to be too ugly to draw any thug’s attention. I still have it today, driving it throughout the Portland area, including all the carriage roads in Acadia National Park. Self-sufficiency continues to be its own brand of liberation. Alas, and as I’ve learned, childish and childlike are really two different traits. At best, that early spirit endures by adaptation. As well, self-sufficiency shows its hard limits, particularly in the powerlessness of housing searches, employment scavenging, and economics. Recalling Saint Augustine, “I do not know what I do not know,” and thus I want to know what I don’t know. If there’s any way to improve things, it must begin with avoiding prior mistakes.

Outdoors on the 2nd floor terrace at the Boston Athenaeum.

How much of a factor are our interpretations that are based upon our subjective perceptions? Obviously, something entirely subjective is my taste for perching outside to write and read in 40-degree temperatures, which I find perfectly comfortable. Then there’s the fascinating aspect of how syntax plays a role in how we view and depict our discoveries. For example, traveling to a location with a variety of cameras allows me to photograph similar motifs with different formats. The images will look distinct from one another, based upon the tools I’m using. Same with writing: pencils, pens of varied construct, typewriters, and computers will each lead to results reflecting the tools’ influences. Within this is the example of journaling with a dip pen, requiring many regular pauses to re-ink the pen, while the mind continues its train of thought. Those pauses surely reflect what is written. I’ll often switch writing instruments, when I notice aridity in my words. Varying the vantage point is also as effective with writing as it is in photography. Getting outside amidst the swirl of nature permits for an appreciation of Emerson’s description about the patient paces of nature. Light, skies, and horizons will surely affect how I interpret what I see, and how I interpret my thoughts. In a similar sense, I write during my mid-day breaks inside the Archives stacks, as well as aboard lurching city buses. What I notice and the ensuing words are affected by their situations of notation.

When I’m not on the job, and I turn away from doomscrolling online searches for apartments and employment, while the blaring and trampling from upstairs disturbs the peace, I know to go outside. Beneath the skies, there are no upstairs. Life gets to return to looking open-ended as it did when my friends and I would lie on our backs in green and sunny Kissena Park, just talking and looking up at airplanes going to and from LaGuardia. The paces of nature are surely not those of such humans as those among us who use the expression, hurry-up-and-wait. Coaxing the inertia out of the wheels of progress is exhausting. During the thick of childhood, time slogged like a schoolday. It felt endless. In retrospect, that was a brief period of time- its space on my timeline diminishes as the adventure continues. Looking back exclaims the necessity of looking ahead. My decades of tireless efforts have yet to pave ways to my profoundest wishes, to exercising and really seeing my best abilities coming to fruition. How close is success? Is it completely out of reach? I’m daring to believe it isn’t, notwithstanding my scarce resources and lack of influence or allies. Echoing Saint Anselm’s prayer in the Proslogion, “I have still to do that for which I was made.” Yet, the stuff of eternity does not include accolades or material. The moment and all subsequent time stands for me to redeem. Knowing how to redeem liminal time is a daily and constant challenge. Having little more than faith and gumption, I’m left to heeldigging trust, insisting upon finding the sacred in the ordinary. Such thin rations need the light and rain of the outdoors, for the vines of latent presence to proliferate and provide.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

misericordias domini

“A soul should be faithful to prayer despite torments,
dryness, and temptations; because oftentimes the realization
of God’s great plans depends mainly on such prayer.
If we do not persevere in such prayer,
we frustrate what the Lord wanted to do through us
or within us. Let every soul remember these words:
‘And being in anguish, He prayed more fervently’”

~ Saint Faustina, Diary, 872
[with reference to Luke 22:44].


During the recent three years, my hopes for returning to Stockbridge and the surrounding region in the Berkshires never left my thoughts. As it has become less of a health risk to congregate and travel in this present time of late-pandemic, there are more possibilities for roving and visiting. If we’re really out of the covid depths, how shall we consider the past several years? Writing in the first-person, I never stopped working or meeting expenses, soldiering on as what I call one of the working wounded. The effects of last year’s housing loss continue and things remain unresolved, having humble resources in an incurably gentrified part of the country. When I hurried out on the road two years ago to visit with my father in his final days- and then returning after his funeral- I drove through the Berkshires. There was no time to stop there, neither were there opportunities to lodge amidst all the pandemic protocols. The circumstances were anything but leisurely. My years of memories of southern Berkshire County and the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, continued to provide inspiration. Along with physical health adversities and general economic hardships, the covid era has been marked by what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services acknowledges as a national epidemic of loneliness and isolation. I’ve fallen back on every useful self-care strategy I’ve cultivated, even dating back to my childhood years. It’s of critical importance not to mind one’s own company and stay constructively balanced, especially at work.


Though I cannot claim to be an expert at self-discipline and motivation, at least I know to persevere. And I’m sure to write about it. When Le Cirque des Élephants upstairs starts pounding away and blaring me out of my thoughts, I grab my books, writing, and a chair- and flee outside. During rain and snow, I perch in the building’s entrance, bundled up, writing, and reading. It all merges with my devotions. When I think of Stockbridge, I always recall the Divine Mercy Chaplet, its austere eloquence and thoughtfulness of the needs of others. Others can also mean those who inconsiderately stomp on their neighbors. Everyone needs a prayer. The revered Chaplet as recorded by Saint Faustina in wartime Poland was taught to me by a colleague- Sister Sylvia Comer- about eighteen years ago. The devotion never left me, and it only intensified during quarantining, lockdowns, and coffee-breaks while working in isolation. Meditate upon the Passion, and pray for mercy to strengthen others and for oneself. Be mercy for others, especially when generosity and consolation are painfully elusive. San Juan de la Cruz, in 16th century Spain, famously taught “impart compassion where you do not find it, and then you will discover compassion.” Customarily, as observed by the Marian community in Stockbridge, the Chaplet is observed at 3pm, referred to as the hour of Divine Mercy. In recent years, my insomnia awakens me at 3am most every night, becoming my additional hour of Divine Mercy. It is included by many, and I do the same, as integral with the liturgy of the hours. About 2 ½ years ago, when the intensity of quarantining made it so I could hear a pin drop downtown, those portions of daily psalmody helped provide lifegiving structure.


Conversely, when I think of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the environs of Stockbridge come to mind. The westernmost area of Massachusetts is contiguous to the higher elevations of southern Vermont and eastern New York State. The waterways and woods resemble parts of my home state of Maine, though without the coast that I see every day. Nonetheless, it is New England, complete with the unmarked, winding roads and very small towns. The site of the Shrine, Eden Hill, was the destination for the emigrating Polish religious community in 1943, and continues today as the much larger congregation of the Marian order who nurture the legacy of Saint Faustina. Her diary has been preserved and kept in print by the Marians. The community welcomes one and all, daily- including pilgrims such as myself. I’ve traveled there many times, always grateful for the place, prayer, and people as a complete experience of sanctuary.

True to pilgrimage form, some major effort was needed long before taking to the road. My usual marathon-minded durability makes it unnecessary for me to test the understaffed workplace logistics. Requesting days off however, despite my overabundance of earned time, demands resourcefulness and diplomacy. In the general emergence from winter in my midst, I saw an unclaimed week and seized upon it. Getting the time approved, seeing to auto maintenance, and exchanging messages with my destination, the pull of pilgrimage became an imminent journey. I began assembling writing and reading material for the sojourn, and in the cramped hovel those items were visible to me each day- including unpacking the hat I bring with me on all my retreats. It has a seashell sewn to it, which is the badge of pilgrimage. And true to personal form, I continued working as industriously as usual, and with a small Divine Mercy icon at the side of my desk computer.

As road day drew closer, I realized I would be arriving in Stockbridge right on the Feast Day of the Divine Mercy. As providential as it sounds, it just happened that way- though it did inspire me to leave Maine earlier in the morning than planned. The highway travel was smooth, even with showers and mountain fog; after all it was a Sunday morning. Indexing across the car radio dial along the Massachusetts Turnpike, I picked up a broadcast with interviews of various Marian friars talking about the liturgical holiday, Saint Faustina, and welcoming listeners to the Shrine. As I typically do, I glanced at the radio and said, “on my way.’ It was a good thing I had found that station, as I began to see single-file traffic after exiting the highway in Lee, extending all the way to Stockbridge. Impressively, drivers were civilized and patient. I wondered, “Are these all pilgrims, too?” The radio station began broadcasting the outdoor church service from the Shrine, and finding a parking space in the thick of the village, I proceeded to ascend the steep hill, hearing the singing choir’s music, my steps parallel to fellow sturdy walkers. I later heard that at least 12,000 pilgrims were in attendance that day, surprising the resident community and all present. How wonderful to arrive in such festive contrast to the misery I managed to interrupt back in Maine.

Descending the Hill later, the village center in Stockbridge was replete with visitors, albeit too early for tourism season. Many café patrons and pedestrians were recognizably clergy and members of religious orders. The stately Red Lion Inn offered special rates for the week, and very thankfully I was able to lodge there, close to the Shrine. The 250-year-old Inn was in early-spring maintenance mode and thus uncrowded and very comfortably peaceful. The full-width front porch made for an added place of retreat for me, between Eden Hill, nearby hiking trails, and the village. My room in the Red Lion consolingly reminded me of my old place which I miss very much. I especially savoured the high ceilings and the Inn’s muffled ambience, reminding me of better days. Integral to the pilgrimage was the pleasant company of fellow guests, trading stories and insights. I made numerous notes, wrote letters to friends, enjoyed time to read, and visited with the resident cats.

above and below: Jack and Jane

the Housatonic River, in the Berkshires

At the Shrine’s book store, I asked for a volume of Saint Faustina’s words, “small enough for bus commuting.” The little book has since joined my twice-daily trek and coffee breaks. Throughout my week in Stockbridge, I was sure to be in attendance for Mass followed by the 3pm Divine Mercy Chaplet. There are many to be commemorated, especially Dad and Sister Sylvia. The days were calm and salubrious, replenishing me for me return to the world of struggle and uncertainty. I’ve learned over the years that pilgrimage not only comprises the return travel, but also proceeds on with every day and every task. It is essential to keep these in mind, with all the beautiful things I saw and heard- along with remembering the mountain air, as the pursuits of betterment and stability must continue.


Saint Bonaventure wrote about the soul’s itinerary en route to God, and referred to how our pilgrimage is “kindled by the desire for the heavenly country.” The difficult road ahead is fueled by nourishing experiences and contemplation. The painful absence of respite in these recent years has been profoundly felt, and I must find ways to keep well- even while searching for a healthy place to live, and for better work. Writing of life’s itinerary, Saint Bonaventure added, “the route is illuminative and the pilgrimage is adhered to by love of the destination; philosophy is to be engaged in the understanding of the stages by which progress may be made along the route.” Ascension is made in progressive steps as on an upward ladder, and his words accompanied me in the Berkshires as they do on my daily city streets and transactions.

studying the Itinerarium of Saint Bonaventure

During my week at the Shrine, following the afternoon’s liturgy, one of the Marian friars gave all of us in attendance his blessing. He also blessed the devotional articles of all in attendance, such as icons and rosaries. Then, in a well-placed teachable moment, he said to us, “don’t just go home and put these things away in a drawer: bless others! Think of the many people who wish they could be here, and also those who don’t want to be here.” Another officiant earlier in the week preached about exemplifying the meaning of these prayers. Indeed, the work I do with the public and as an educator permit for many opportunities to apply merciful perspectives and ways of communication, albeit in a merciless world. It is unbearable to countenance thoughts of being a lamp concealed under a barrel, after years of consistently intense hard work and persistent defeat. I know enough to remind myself that few are fortunate enough to realize their potential, and many have it far worse. Saint Faustina surely could not have known- and would not have wanted to know- the reach of her words and her example of resilient faith. Among the assorted prayers in her journals is one of gratitude for her ability to love God by whom she need not lower her ideals. She elaborated:

“Although the path is very thorny, I do not fear to go ahead. Even if a hailstorm of persecutions covers me; even if my friends forsake me, even if all things conspire against me, and the horizon grows dark; even if a raging storm breaks out, and I feel I am quite alone and must brave it all; still, fully at peace, I will trust in Your mercy, O my God, and my hope will not be disappointed.”