Friday, September 29, 2023

more than this

“I'm hearing right and wrong so clearly
There must be more than this.
It's only in uncertainty
That we're naked and alive.
I hear it through the rattle of a streetcar;
Hear it through the things you said.
I can get so scared.
Listen to the wind.”

~ Peter Gabriel, That Voice Again

Major efforts are composed of small measures. This often occurs to me, when in the throes of processing large archival aggregates out of many thousands of single components. Years are made of days which comprise hours. A friend talked about their job search, comparing it to throwing big rocks at a wall until it crumbles. That’s the desired outcome. Thinking of the present as an indefinite trial, linking unresolved days, generates its own brand of exhaustion that only loads more upon existing burdens. I try to avoid doing this, but like any forward-moving driver, I must check all gauges and mirrors. Patience in tribulation is essential in these staggering times.

Now 13 months into housing displacement and its accompanying instability, there remains no rest for the weary. As my friend with the wall metaphor, there isn’t a day without searching and inquiring. And constant, earnest prayers. It’s how I push back against oppression and thwarted hopes. Other vital tactics are to persevere in my studies and writing; these are solid sources of inspiration and means to higher goals. Such things are extremely hard to find; if you find literary sources, forms of creative expression, and devotions that uplift (instead of “dumb down”), hold fast to these things and grow with them. Keeping vigil for better situations parallels my interests in learning and trying to understand the broader world. For many years, I’ve started each day with radio-accompanied ablutions and coffee. During my graduate school years, that routine would typically begin at about 5am. In high school, it was New York City’s Newsradio88; life in Boston and its orbit got me into 1030-WBZ. Invariably, the repetition of basics and ads sends me to the checkerboard realm of religious radio. At the tops of hours, I bounce back to WBZ for much less-stilted news. Within that minefield, however, are a few edifying and useful homilists. Most of the preachers are terrible orators, sounding to my New Englander’s ears like something between auctioneers and Huckleberry Hound. But this professional archivist can separate wheat from chaff. Radios can always be switched off, too, as much as I’m intrigued to hear what’s out there.

Among the more scholarly and nonsectarian Christian resources are the broadcasts from Chicago’s Moody Institute. Recordings of the late Rev.Weirsbe’s brilliance, delivered with his gentle Midwestern lilt, continue to outshine almost all of what proliferates. The successor to Weirsbe is Moody’s Rev. Lutzer, also with an academic and folksy yarnspinning style, though much more stoic than his predecessors. Well, on a recent workday morning with hot water running and coffee on the bathtub’s edge, I caught one of Lutzer’s installments on his theme, Making the Best of a Bad Decision. I’ll add that many of us must make the best of other people’s bad decisions. Can I get an Amen? Back to Lutzer. Through the noise of first-thing scrubbing, I heard the radio voice beckon, “If you’re still alive, God isn’t through with you.” Surely he wants to encourage his listeners, but considering my state of affairs of recent years, I can easily look at those words ambiguously and through my snowballed sarcasm. Sometimes I do, yet the resultant bad feeling makes me take it back. Reverting to a bleary-eyed positive, my leanings reach inward and upward, through my imagination. That’s my supplicatosphere, which is the stratum immediately beneath clouds of unknowing. “Through with me,” in the wrong context, sounds threatening; but in a healthier frame of reference, my wish really is for Divine intervention. Why is grace deferred? Did I misstep? How am I supposed to know, if nobody tells me? Have I overstayed my welcome? Perhaps I’m inhabiting the very attempt to comprehend the meaning of hope.

While trying to glean insights about things eternal, I’m also constantly reckoning with the ways of mortals. Recently with my philosophy students, I taught about the Golden Rule, framing this in the context of ethics. Our group discussion, probing the time-honored “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” went right into dilemmas about what happens when there isn’t any reciprocity for our respectful acts. Do we keep on being honorable and forbearing, or do we conform to the hardball tactics that confront us? You can imagine our very lively Socratic forum discourse. Whatever we do, we need to choose our reactions and responses. Generally, there’s the trigger end, and there’s the barrel end. Are you the issuer, or are you the inflicted? When so many critical factors are out of our control, what is within a person’s reach? With each day, questions arise in my thoughts as to whether landlords, employers, and community leaders should care about their inhabitants and “stakeholders;” in a word, neighbors. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect such people of influence to care, as I care. Ever the cockeyed idealist, I believe everyone should care. That’s how things stand a chance of changing for the better. A genuine sense of respect, even in simple transactions, runs against the currents of pessimism.

Just the other day, I helped a researcher with a query so complex we needed to go back and forth rather extensively in order to unearth the actual question. Having some specifics that mutually made sense, I set about producing what I could find to help this fellow. In the midst of my retrievals, the man frustratedly stormed out of the research room. While I began putting the materials away, he returned and apologized. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I think this world of instant gratification has gotten to me.” He pointed disdainfully at his smartphone. After expressing my understanding, he sat down to read through what I had found, and we talked about his projects. His initial and abrupt impatience was disappointing, but his later presence of mind was impressive. In a handful of minutes, I witnessed metanoia- on both our accounts. Reflecting upon this, later in the day, I was reminded about a barely-known spiritual exercise called examination of conscience. I use parts of my daily journal writing for this purpose, considering such writing as the safest space for articulating thoughts. “Make an appraisal of the entire situation,” wrote Francisco Fernandez Carvajal, adding that we must know what means are available to us, and how to be faithful and thorough. In addition, we must also contemplate how we can remove obstructions in our intentions, as “knowledge of self is the first step the soul must take in order to arrive at the knowledge of God.”

Collecting and digesting knowledge comes very naturally to me, always taking notes. My notebooks become reference sources themselves and they’re great for me to reread when distractions throw my studies off course. These many pages of annotated gleanings remind me of the philosophical texts I’ve been so carefully reading, while struggling to prosper above the fray. As it is with examining my conscience, there must be focused intention to transform head-knowledge into heart-knowledge. What is there for me to learn, from my experiences? “When a person accepts a great undertaking,” as Carvajal recommended, “they must consider various possibilities and look for the opportune means for bringing the work to successful completion,” adding that “we have to be aware of what is lacking so that we can ask God confidently.” In my repeated recoveries from rejected applications, trying to figure out my deficiencies (because reasons are never specified), while left to figure things out I remind myself that more attempts will be accompanied by more failures. More at-bats increase the odds of striking out. Yet still, and even now as the setbacks persist unabated, my efforts continue and amplify. It’s imperative. The here-and-now is at once stifling, uninviting, and tentative; it’s more than enough to keep the search coals stoked. As an extension of my certainty that all we see is not all there is, during the present drudgery I’m convinced there is more than this, and the accumulation of my being is meant for better and more conducive circumstances.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023


“An apostle must not remain at the level of the mediocre.
God calls that person to be fully human in their actions,
and at the same time to reflect the freshness of eternal things.
That is why the apostle has to be a soul who has undergone
a long, patient, and heroic process of formation.”

~ Josemaria Escrivá, Furrow


Journaling steadily for a number of years invariably leads to something of a personal encyclopedia. I’ve also found the notebooks themselves amount to forms of portable refuge, with my written words constructing a unique, personal lexicon. It’s been as vital as ever to continue exercising my imagination, against such scarcities of opportunities. Envisioning and aspiring are both outworkings of faith, pushing against narrow confines in employment and lodging situations. These are also vantage-points from which I’ve incidentally developed expressions and ambitions. Alongside all hoping and criticizing are streams of nicknames and inventions. Deep-seated creativity simply cannot be held down. Speaking as a lifelong visual artist, imagery is essentially my first language which subsequently gets translated into words. And then there’s metaphor: that expandable world of allegory and multidimensional definitions. Inhabiting this present-day spartan culture of “smart” technology, subtlety is nearly extinct. As we’re lured away from lives of untethered thought, our abilities to understand become dulled. Blunt literalism thwarts the adventurousness of synthesis and musing.

the entirety of Woodfords Corner: Portland, Maine

Take, for example, the word crossroads as a concept. By definition an intersection of two roadways. Or maybe even paths. Perhaps more than two trails. Now we’ve already begun playing with words. In my region of New England, there are five-way and six-way intersections, often known as corners. That doesn’t really make sense, but those names- as we say here- are older than dirt. For me, a crossroads has as its primary definition a merging precipice of life direction. This past year since having lost my housing, due to the abrupt change in the building’s ownership, only intensified already-existing career and income tenuousness. At widened crossroads, the present finds itself in a watertreading context. Determined to rise above dead ends, I’m daily pondering and posing questions such as What don’t I know? and What should I recognize? Crossroads attest to limitations, but may also point to throughways. Rather than to regard crossroads as destinations, I’m considering them as points of decision to be followed by action. One may choose in favor of a direction, or choose away from other furrows. Carvajal described the path to holiness as passing through the way of the Passion, and that it is the basis of the Christian’s vocation. “If we want to rise up with Christ,” he wrote, “we have to accompany him on his journey to the cross.” If one is brought to a crossroads, vulnerable as that is, it has the potential strength of any starting-place. San Juan de la Cruz, in 16th century Spain, wrote of the soul choosing to join in the Divine work of creation, albeit “not yet fully as in the life to come, but nonetheless even now in a real and perceptible way.” Pleading with his very being in the Spiritual Canticle, Fray Juan asked:

“O my soul, created to enjoy such exquisite gifts, what are you doing, where is your life going? How wretched is the blindness of Adam’s children, if indeed we are blind to such a brilliant light and deaf to as insistent a voice.”

The text reminds me that perhaps something within my control is my willingness to see and hear beyond what is at the surface. Time is of the essence, and I’d be wise not to think much about what has already been lost.

resisting mediocrity

When I began teaching photography in a local art college, I was 22 and a fairly recent graduate myself. Having previously done some mentoring, I thought it would be a good idea to study the principles of art education. Learning plenty about preparation, lesson-plan creation, and outcomes, I got right into creating my own curricula. In response, my instructor told me that my lesson plans were too challenging. “Dumb it down,” went the criticism. I had never heard that expression before. What? People come to learn and go forth with new skills. I’m teaching for excellence. From semester one, I only designed lesson plans to train, edify, and inspire self-sufficiency for all students of all levels. It’s gone very well over many years, for legions of students; I’ve received service awards and recognition from multiple academic institutions. Instead of dumb down, I prefer smarten up, having too much respect for those I teach to cheapen the experience. And they have all responded with accomplishment and gratitude. There’s more than enough to water down our intellects; I’ve never wanted that for my own self.

at the Boston Athenaeum, with St. Bonaventure

Indeed, the pursuit of perfection is the enemy of what is good. That’s an axiom to always have in mind, aware of things such as purpose and practical limitations. The extreme opposite of appropriate completion is perfectionism. Between both extremes, there is elusive and subtle ground which demands patience. While not daring to consider myself exemplary, slipshod and slapdash have been anathema to me since childhood. Even in my adolescence, I was aware of how I’d bristle at the sight of neglect and sloppy work. Before my mature vocabulary, I’d call it “not caring.” At a job I had during college, a coworker used to say, “good enough for the government,” referring to the barest minimum to get something done. I had to ask him what that meant. Hearing expressions like that showed me how little I knew- and how suspicious I’d get when it came to principles that were strange to me. Though slightly less naïve now, while speaking with an old friend about job hunting, I heard myself say, “I’m not here to be mediocre.” Without some explanation, this might sound presumptuous. Simply put, it means I’m not putting in a halfhearted effort. I haven’t survived for the purpose of incompetence. The oft-cited Peter Principle which just about everyone has seen in various strengths, throughout their work lives, asserts how employees rise to the level of the mediocrity in their midst. “Dumb it down” to the status quo, is an example. Too many managers misinterpret leadership as the management of things and tasks, instead of the pastoral coaching of people. In his book, Furrow, Josemaria Escrivá exhorted that his readers must “refuse to come to terms with mediocrity.” Often, ripple effects play out in the idolization of meetings and placing statistics above service. Granted, numbers have their place, though I’m very far from being a technocrat. In helping professions, human aspects are of the greatest consequence- and the most memorable.


Many that struggle- including me- have seen our adversities intensify with the covid era. My working conditions remain in pandemic mode, as a department of one. The hypergentrification of southern Maine during the past four years has permanently altered the region. Dense enclaves of homeless encampments mushroom next to elite hotels and exclusive, gated housing. The ground I stand upon thins with every passing month, as city officials continue looking away. Treadmills point to crossroads.

the National Shrine of Saint Anthony: Arch Street, Boston

Over the years and to this day, I’ve been visiting the Saint Anthony Shrine during my writing and and reading days at the nearby Boston Athenaeum. The Franciscan brothers are always great to speak with, always welcoming. Coincidentally, for the past few years, I’ve been extensively studying the life and work of 13th century Franciscan philosopher Saint Bonaventure, developing a kindred devotion to him. Members of the Franciscan community invariably introduced me to Saint Anthony of Padua’s life and legacy. Anthony knew and worked with Saint Francis of Assisi; the former is nicknamed “the miracle saint.” True to form, this summer I’ve been reading biographies of Saint Anthony which I borrow from the Athenaeum, while continuing to study Bonaventure.

Saint Bonaventure medal, from the Franciscans.
An angel is delivering his hat.

The saints are standing with me at the crossroads. Two weeks ago, while awaiting the usual, perennially-late Metro bus en route to work, page 96 in Mary Purcell’s Saint Anthony and His Times beamed up to me, as I found the decisive moment in his life. The young Anthony chafed from misemployment to underemployment, yet never losing the vision of his vocation. The turning point happened as Anthony arrived at Monte Paolo to help with the community’s chores. There his path crossed with that of Friar Graziano, the monastery’s superior, who evidently listened and recognized something in Anthony’s demeanor and insight. The paragraph is pictured below:

from the book, "Saint Anthony and His Times," by Mary Purcell.

“Evidently, Graziano reasoned, God never meant this light to be hidden under a bushel.” Anthony was far from “just a dishwasher,” that his prior managers deemed “worthless.” Graziano today would’ve been called a “talent recruiter,” having identified and promoted the burgeoning future saint of Padua revered around the world. There was much more to savor than my lurching and lumbering bus ride lasted. I shared my scan of the book’s paragraph on a career social media page, suggesting it as reading for managers, recruiters, and human resources professionals. Everything depends upon connections, and the most meaningful, productive results are borne from such human aspects as perception and active compassion. I’d love my own version of a Graziano, and maybe you would, too. It would be as fulfilling to be a Graziano for others. I’m reminded once again of how it was said of Escrivá that he would arrive at gatherings of his community and say, “I am here to listen.” These studies and devotions add substance and fortitude to these harsh times. Reading and writing, always in tandem, as I navigate the day’s furrow; each day a restart from where I am.