Friday, August 18, 2023

o paradiso

“O paradiso, dal onda uscito;
Fiorente suol, splendido suol.
In voi rapito io son.
Tu m'appartieni.
O nuovo mondo.”


{“O Paradise, emerging from the sea,
Flowering earth, brilliant sun,
You entrance me.
You belong to me.
Oh new world.”}


~ Giacomo Meyerbeer, L’Africaine.

1
It has been extraordinarily difficult to write. Indeed, there are no shortages of ideas, structured thoughts, and experiences. Arnold Toynbee famously (and infamously) observed how people in places like northern New England must consume so much energy and time grappling with protracted winters, their innovations and industriousness are severely limited. As a Mainer, I’ve typically taken exception to such underestimation. At the same time, the harshness of my surrounding culture has driven me to the brink. Housing and sustaining employment have never been as tenuous as they are presently. Globally, we’ve all become accustomed with the concept of sustainability; there are also surely personal implications and applications. Individually, I am making every honest effort to search for better situations, networking and offering marketable skills. Parallel to Toynbee’s observation, when I’m not fulfilling commitments, I’m tailoring credentials in response to announcements. And praying with my every ounce for welcoming developments. All of which prevents me from being as innovative and industrious as I’d like.

My father gave me a life’s worth of anecdotes and consolations for the journey. From that ethereal encyclopedia is a story he loved about how legendary operatic tenor Enrico Caruso sang for convicts in prisons to console them. The prisoners would ask Caruso to sing the poignant aria O Paradiso for them. It is an impassioned song of longing, of heartache for better places and times. The sense of incarceration can take a variety of forms and even places. We become aware of this, as we find ourselves driven by the longings of our hearts. The Welsh expression, hiraeth, represents yearning for the place of one’s home. There is surely a homesickness for the kind of welcome and belonging one has yet to see, but faith says that it exists. Or, it will exist. I would not be so driven from within, if I did not believe an as-yet-elusive welcome will really find me.

Spending five-sevenths of my time working in windowless confines, I make sure to be outdoors as much as possible, even if just to read or write on the tiny steps of the cramped and rackety apartment house. Waiting twice-daily for buses always includes gazing to the skies. O Paradiso, when do things finally let up and improve? The bus commute is short in duration, and I’ve taken to reading brief essays during the rides. Through the past year, I’ve been studying the books I collected called In Conversation with God, by Francisco Fernandez-Carvajal. Each of his lectionary day’s reflections are divided into thirds; they are substantial and thought-provoking. Good reading always helps me stretch my mind, transcending the numbing tedium. One recent doldrummy morning, I read Carvajal’s sendup of the pearl of great value (Matthew 13), and immediately recognized how he, as I do- interprets this as being about one’s vocational calling. The realm of God, as the Gospel reads, compares to a field whose buried treasure inspires a person to sell everything they have to purchase that land- just as a merchant of pearls sold all he had to buy the pearl of great value he recognized. In Carvajal’s words:

The discovery of the pearl presupposes a great amount of effort, a search, while the treasure buried in the field seems to have been discovered almost by accident... Many find their vocation almost without looking. Other people are restless in their hearts until they find the pearl of great value... After the pearl has been discovered or the treasure found, one more step is required. It is the personal response- identical in both parables. The man “went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Generosity and detachment are indispensable conditions for perseverance in a vocation.


A discovery so profound brings together all the disparate parts of a person’s life. It’s why I’ve never stopped hunting and applying- ever since I was still in graduate school. Walking from the bus to the workplace, I saw two colleagues, and we spoke about the biblical parables. Beyond their intrigue that I read such things on the bus, we had a great chat about what each of us considers to be the pearl of great value in our lives. But we all agreed that one must be “all in,” and dive headfirst toward our highest priorities. We all want to practice our best gifts.



2
Within tirelessly searching for a better situation is a staggering need for respite. I toiled at my job throughout the pandemic, even taking on extra duties to stay employed. The recent several years decimated many workplaces, including mine. At my end of things, the covid era continues- albeit with last year’s return of public interactions- yet still as a staff of one person for 43 months and counting. In late-April, after begging for a week’s coverage, I was able to make a long-awaited retreat; I used to do such things twice a year, for spiritual health and to renew creative energies. I used to travel. I used to live comfortably in an apartment I could afford. Those days are past. My accrued 230 hours of earned PTO are essentially made of Monopoly money. The unacceptability of present conditions urges me onward, intensifying my aspirations. Granted, I’m not so self-centered as to be ungrateful for any good that is, because there are blessings to count. But the need for stability and basic peacefulness continues to be urgent. Unable to find respite, or much of any quiet in an oppressively loud and cramped apartment, I find ways to try resetting through contemplation in the liminal spaces between obligations and pursuits. Again, I know enough to be grateful, and in this case it’s for things like books and writing materials. Now spending half my earnings on rent, I’ve invented ways to make toast and coffee more interesting.


It has been requiring all my survival skills, to find that pearl of great value, being fully tilted toward better horizons. Flitting around is not a luxury available to me, or to many other workers. Recently, while answering questions about projects and describing achievements to an administrator, I was asked “What are you doing here?” Though a high compliment, it left me very perplexed. I used to hear that when I was in the art field, as though one can be “too good” for their milieu. It’s reminiscent of the lyric in Billy Joel’s Piano Man, his famous song about his former life as a lounge entertainer: “they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar; And say man what are you doin' here?” As it is my habit, I broke the tension of that comment by quoting the song. Along with the parable about the pearl of great value, a biblical passage that is always at the fore of my thoughts is the exhortation that a light is never meant to be stuffed under a bushel: No one, when they light a candle, puts it in a secret place. It’s put on a lamp-stand so that others can see the light (Luke 11:33). Vocations must be applied to real life. I’ve been living a life of investing all I’ve got into abilities meant to be shared; knowledge meant to be imparted. A powerful sense of vocation redoubles the ferocity of my search.



3
To be professionally connected with places and people that want to use and benefit from my willing energies and abilities is akin to finding the field beneath which there is lifegiving treasure. Perhaps it’s a two-way street: could the opportunities be seeking me? The glutted Northeast has a job market that mirrors its housing market, with too few places for too many people. Here, the term recruitment is a misnomer. Positions dedicated to talent acquisition essentially manage tidal waves. Those in positions of managing applications for both employment and housing do not need to recruit; rather, they are passive recipients of overabundance. Sufficient work and respectable living space are life’s basics. Those who seek improvements are relegated to begging. For readers that are fortunately not in such straits, extreme versions of this can be seen on medians of urban thoroughfares and alongside municipal parking areas. Even applicants who have addresses must paddle in the open oceans of online resum√©-parsing upload tools, engaging in games of a perfectionism that may not be statistically attainable. Recruiters and committees that want perfect might not like such individuals who don’t want to be taught anything. Indeed, imperfect has its qualities! Data-slurping analytics cannot account for a person’s character, which in real life, is everyone’s lasting impression.

Indeed, a crossroads is no place to root oneself and take up residence. Since losing my housing last year, along with witnessing similarities among many people, I’ve really seen in an intensely troubling way how temporal life becomes. Living in a poorly-governed and chronically-depressed city, I’ve surely watched waves of friends and institutions respond to recessions by moving away. Immediately after art college, I went right to work locally and full-time, trading on my photographic printing and teaching skills; from that peculiar vantage point, I saw my former classmates leave. I managed to continue working straight through the post-stock-market-crash 1990s, even paying off my student loans. Graduate school followed, requiring the first 15 years of the 2000s to completely pay off my masters degree loans, also amidst more recessions and broadbased downsizes and departures around me. Wholesale gentrification is the worst scourge I’ve seen, in comparison to forty years of constant recession I’ve lived through in Maine. Smallmindedness looks quaint to visitors, but to locals it is a merciless betrayal. Indeed, it’s a big world, a short life, and I join numerous surviving neighbors on vigilant lookout for what’s next and where the welcoming fields and pearls of great value may be found. Today I helped a man with his research and books; he described to me how he had been living in his car for 14 years. I asked him about how he dealt with the winters, and he responded by saying he has several sleeping bags. “It’s all about hunkering down,” he said, “and praying to fall asleep.” O Paradiso, may God’s will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.