Wednesday, June 19, 2024

collecting thoughts

“There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge available to us:
observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation.

Observation collects facts; reflection combines them;
experimentation verifies the result of that combination.
Our observation of nature must be diligent, our reflection profound,
and our experiments exact.
We rarely see these three means combined;
and for this reason, creative geniuses are not common”

~ Denis Diderot, On the Interpretation of Nature, no. 15 (1753).


With year after year of completed projects under the bridge, with more in progress and up ahead, there remain personal goals yet unfulfilled. Amidst achievements and recognition thus far, I particularly cherish a remark in the Comments section on my 2nd grade report card, from Public School Number 13, in New York City. Rating 6-year-old me, Mrs. Berger wrote: “He daydreams too much in class.” I think that comment was meant as a scolding, and certainly my parents were not impressed. I remember feeling embarrassed, but characteristically undeterred by the reproach. Gazing through windows is something compellingly natural to me, and whatever was interesting below on 94th Street was surely upstaging whatever was being taught at the front of the classroom. I’m actually proud of that remark. And I’ve grown to appreciate that, perhaps inadvertently, Mrs. Berger implied that a bit of requisite daydreaming was permissible- but not too much. For artists and all other creative thinkers, musing is essential. Untethered contemplation is a surer way to make sense of life, than to swish away at a smartphone.

By observation, we can really grapple and reckon with insights, in order to advance to our subsequent steps. Too much precious energy and time get squandered in wheelspinning ruts. Peaceful and uncluttered headspace is neither freely given, nor valued, in this culture of competitive perpetual motion. But the daunting side of an intermission is in the awkwardness of decompressing- worthwhile as it is- to be better able to recollect. Significant respite time away from the job continues to be practically impossible, so I cobble what I can when it’s possible, noticing the difficulty of turning my off-duty thoughts away from the workplace. Decades of diligence and industriousness have kept me employed, but a compounded effort is needed to remain artistically and intellectually fit for creativity. Good thing for daydreaming too much in class. I recommend it.

aperch at the window, College Club of Boston


Hopeful and constructive dreaming goes a very long way in the direction of bringing goodness to fruition. If you needed yet another reason to write daily in a journal, now you have this. And write manually, keeping in mind the untethered and focused aspects of musing and aspiring! While in the liminality of overburdened undercapacity, I’m egging on those musing traits with writing, photography, and dreaming of better days. If anything, this helps my frame of mind, dealing with the here-and-now. All such pursuits are enveloped in the all-comprising everyday life of the spirit, which also includes contemplative reading.

Pursuing my studies in philosophy is replete with discoveries, and I’m further encouraged as I teach some of these topics to students. The readings for my personal explorations are selected with personal development in mind. In turn, because I’m often studying such rare materials, I produce my own annotated indexes. These are very useful as references which I later share, and the notebooks themselves are great for me to read. Indeed, and true to my profession, I also digitize my indexes and notebooks; these are my “preservation backups,” as well as searchable. These personal studies are entirely fueled by my own interests and discerned needs; philosophy consoles, as Boethius knew very well. In Love Enkindled, Saint Bonaventure wrote about how contemplation brings us to the spark of discernment, which he called synderesis scintilla. This comes to mind, when I’m conscious about redirecting my thoughts. Conscience is awakened, Bonaventure wrote, by moving from error to consideration of the human condition, to meditating upon what is good. Finding ways through hardships, I’ve kept to these studies, as well as spiritual health, staying intellectually active and away from burning out.

a floricultural cabinet

Among the many ways to identify my full-time work, I most often think of day-to-day torchbearing and pouring-out; preserving and explicating. Essentially, this is the joining of words with readers. Visitors, researchers, and classes think of archives as cabinets of curiosity. In this sense, cabinet as a synthesizing, thematic compendium. Perhaps they are, increasingly standing out in contrast to the electronics that promote content over substance. And this isn’t to denounce literacy’s numerous formats; I use and present them all. Indeed, my preference continues for the reflective surfaces of imprints and manuscripts. The physical items themselves have stories. As a conservator I’m acquainted with how they’re made, and as an archivist I’m making comparative references and metadata for all manner of seekers. My role also takes the form of inadvertent confessor: patrons from teenage to old age tell me about how they favor real books and want to handwrite. Well, go ahead. Don’t let me stop you. I’ll often ask, “Do you keep a journal?” Muse away and expand your mind. Be that person getting seated on a bus with a book or a journal, instead of catatonically fiddling with a phone. As you glance between daydreaming out the window toward the streets and reading, notice the gawking expressions as the entranced stare into their devices. The side of me that is still a skeptical little kid at P.S. 13 says, “I don’t want to be like that.” If your musing and observing is bold enough, you’ll be better able to make fun of your self.


aboard a trawler, in winter

Integral to doing everything I can manage in order to stay mentally healthy is perseverance in seeking and exploring ideas. Yes, there’s the musing I’ve mentioned here. Plants need water and natural light to keep growing. My observing intuitively turns to words and imagery. Often, both turn up during a good stroll. An expression of mine from my teen years, which I still use when taking up a camera on the way out the door, is “I’m going out to look for photographs.” There are few things more sensible to me. Noticing the trawlers docked along the Portland waterfront reminds me of how I wind up pulling ideas from the depths. The nets on those boats drag down deep and far enough to bring up all kinds of shellfish and groundfish. Maybe our minds have their own microscopic versions of trawling pulleys. Similarly, I trawl for ideas- unforced and all quite naturally. Something seems always to remind me of something else. Moving through the day are gleanings of thoughts. Bus and train rides, lunch breaks, and laundromats provide scenarios for the culling and recording of ideas. Part of that is my making sense of changes, disappointed expectations, hopes, and things I witness. And ironies. As I’ve done for many years, the idea jottings are in pencil, and the elaborated thoughts get their due in pen-and-ink. Navigating by instinct implies a certain amount of individual roadbuilding. The voyage is not an end, but surely a means. Creativity, learning, and helping others learn broadly serves as an itinerary.

trawlers and ideas