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

Thursday, May 30, 2024

consoling angels

“I and Pangur Bán my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill...

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his...”

~ Medieval Irish poem, ca.9th century,
The Scholar and his Cat, Pangur Bán.

mutuality and friendship

Gradually familiarizing myself with the newer apartment and neighborhood, after two years of housing instability, the recent weeks have been very much about taking stock. Indeed and also without doubt, even in a spartan building with a longer commute, peacefulness far outweighs inconvenience; as well, the place is more affordable and larger. No regrets. What was endured has somehow been survived. Glancing back at journal entries, essays, and photos from 2022 through early 2024, I’m astonished at the daily reality against which I had to function. Now on incrementally higher ground, I’m slowly rebuilding my physical and spiritual reserves, amidst fulltime work. Many things are still packed, albeit in familiar and carefully-labeled boxes. It’s been only eight weeks; healing takes time.

All the while, this region’s severe housing crisis remains in front of me. I continue to witness homelessness in my midst, and I continue listening to my neighbors’ stories- occasionally offering referrals gleaned from my two years of apartment-scavenging and countless conversations. Early this month, I was featured on a local radio programme, promoting the concept of networking neighbors-helping-neighbors, for a variety of community-reinforcing purposes. I’m hoping to be the sort of person I needed to meet during that agonizingly protracted time during which I met with far too much dismissive reticence. To really improve conditions, there would have to be a serious group of human-sized grains of leaven. I broadened the radio discussion to include more than networking housing referrals, and connecting those in need with supportive hands to assist with chores. Among the limits many of us contend with, encouragement is in short supply. Who will be compassionate?


In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, lingering beyond the physical health risks is what the U.S. Surgeon General calls “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” We adapted so well to quarantining and isolating that much of our human continuum dissolved. My experience included dispersion as colleagues, neighbors, businesses, and parishes left the area- chiefly replaced with remote-economy and short-term arrivals, largely inhabiting elite and gated housing. How friendships and communities now manifest is fluid. How shall we define friendship? Are each of your social media friends actually people you know? Do we know the souls within the names of our contact lists? Will we step up for those we call friends, and will they step up for us? Perhaps there are levels, imitating such service industries as travel, subscriptions, and various tiered “products.” Maybe there are economy-class friends, or gold-card inner-circle communities. In elementary school we counted our friends and best-friends; by high school it was friends and acquaintances. Alas, there were enemies, too. Bullying and fickleness have been around since time immemorial, long before the term unfriending existed. Let us treasure our loved ones, make it known what gems they are, and invest in those connections.

As encouragement is a form of compassion, so compassion is in the expression of consolation. How well do we know to be tactful consolers for those within our reach? Heartfelt reassurance expresses divinity; the Holy Spirit is also known as the Consoler. Petitionary prayers are essentially for consolation, for comfort, for mercy. We wish for this ourselves, as well as to be conduits for others. The gospel recounts how Jesus endured torment and provocation in the desert; as evil departed in defeat, consoling angels appeared. We cannot predict our times as consolers, or when consolation comes to us.

those who console

Arriving at the previous apartment and narrowly avoiding eviction, the intensity of distress combined with that loud and cramped space, filled with heaped personal effects, the mealtime seat was outside on the front steps. There was no place to sit comfortably indoors for at least a month. I naturally looked to the skies, just to see wide open space. In my sorrow about being in that demoralizing place, after losing my home, I’d tearfully pray for better days. In a few weeks’ time, a neighbor’s cat found me on that front stoop. Boo was the friendliest neighbor and consoling angel throughout that difficult time in the East End.

Indeed, Boo has a family and a home on a nearby street, though he liked to roam around among various other neighborhood cats. Some neighbors would pet Boo, or cause him to dart away, but Boo and I reciprocated an extraordinary bond of friendship. Beginning with feeding him bits from my plate, I later bought proper cat treats, ironically called Temptations, which he loved. In fact, Boo received treats every single time he’d come visit. Ordinarily, I’m allergic to most cats- but not to Boo; we were very companionable. Perching outside in all weather, I was always easy for him to find: I was regularly escaping claustrophobia and the bombast of upstairs neighbors, and Boo seemed to like the familiarity of a gentle friend with treats. Boo soon figured out when I’d commute back from work in the evenings, and he’d wait at the door for me to arrive- always polite and never imperious.

Above: Boo often waited at the door for me to return from work.
Below: We shared our tastes in philosophy and seafood.

Being a longtime insomniac, I’d admire how Boo could simply curl up, fold in his legs like retracted landing-gear on an airplane, and simply sleep. Just like that. I’ve tried imitating Boo. When Boo would jump onto my lap and sleep, I’d ponder what a dear soul he is, and that Saint Francis of Assisi sent Boo to my lonely stoop. “You’re such a good, good cat,” I would say to Boo. He really was a consoling angel, and I was sure to make that known; his cat-mother was appreciative. No doubt, he is greatly missed, but in my gratitude I’m glad he has a home, and I have dozens upon dozens of photos of Boo to treasure. In this example, a sweet consolation emerged in contrast to a bad situation. In the depths of despondence, it is vital to keep from desensitizing.

Above: Boo demonstrating expert napping skills.
Below: No matter what Loretta Tupper said in those old commercials, Boo kept his paws on my Parker.

The souls that cross paths with ours, especially friends, and no matter our age, profoundly affect how we live and perceive. Losing a close friend, not because of moving away but due to their passing, intensifies my sense of esteem and their great value. Saint Bonaventure wrote about how we are mimetic by nature, and that we do well to mimic our mentors. I recently lost a friend and role model of more than twenty-four years. My acquaintance with Maddy began when she hired me to organize, process, and conserve the archives of her forebears- Maine’s Gannett family, whose innovations in journalism, publishing, and broadcasting in this state began in the 19th century. The project was a real success, I published some of the results, and Maddy and I became friends for life. Over the years, she connected me with two wonderful unprocessed sources which I brought to equally successful archival fruition: the Children’s Theatre of Maine (her favorite cause) Archives, and the Gannett newspaper photographic negatives (which required my salvaging hundreds of thousands of pieces of film from a gutted building). Painstaking labors of love, to be sure. Through the years, we were both colleagues and friends. She would regularly call me with archival and research queries, and I would call her for wise advice. Maddy was so popularly loved, due to her unpretentiousness and great spirit. We always had interesting things to talk about. She introduced me to many friends, and my permanent gratitude also includes diverting me from my housing misery with tea visits at her home on Littlejohn Island. Healthy distractions, a bit as with Boo the cat. Within my gratitude is the occasional ability to recognize the consoling angels in my midst, and the remembrance becomes all the more vital in their physical absence.

Above: Keeping watch from a cold-weather blanket nest.
Below: Boo is truly a Magnifi Cat, and I'm forever grateful.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

healing takes time

“In remembering, there is always present to the soul
the result of some past operation, and the soul acts on that result,
as on a new object. The soul has its being in eternity, but lives in time;
and the ideas of past and future are not derived from the relation
of the facts of memory to the soul,
but from the relation of those facts among themselves.”

~ William Batchelder Greene, The Doctrine of Life (1843)

Three weeks ago, I made my second relocation in the last nineteen months, all the while working full time. The August 2022 move had to be made, under the duress of the evacuation of the abruptly sold building I’d lived in for 37 years. The recent move had to be made, under the duress of intensely oppressive conditions which were unaffordable. The region continues to be plagued by the misery of a protracted housing crisis. My search essentially took two years of scouring, answering ads, pleading for leads, and traipsing through dozens of hovels. I’ve also been trying to assist others in similar straits. I’ve seen for myself that southern Maine is replete with community leaders and officials who cannot (and will not) relate to the obvious crises reported every day in the news. It’s been a continuing adventure through a paralytic universe of tone-deafness. Now I’m trying to connect my better contacts into some sort of helpful and needed community network. I’ve learned how the able are unwilling and the willing are unable.

Above: The old place had a miniscule patch of outdoors, underneath exterior stairs.

Below: How a bookbinder relocates.

Amidst such anxious times, there’s a shelter in the storm for which to be grateful. Discovering a place and quickly moving in winter amounts to an unusual scenario for this area. My elation at finding a good way out of a bad situation generated its own traction gear, powering me through muscling the move and deep-cleaning both the newer and the former apartments. The season-that-was lasted nineteen excruciating months, devouring more than two-thirds of my earnings. There was nothing else to be found at the time. Now that episode is past; enough said here about numbers. Through the crucible, I could not have guessed at its duration, having to depend upon a housing market as feeble and fickle as the job outlook. But surely I know enough to be thankful. I mailed my first rent check in a thank-you note.

a new perch

All along, I knew enough and was determined to hasten the end of the previous tenure, and by grace I did it. Now in the aftermath, I’ve observed in my journal entries that healing takes time. It cannot be hurried, no matter the need and the eagerness. My tendency, especially with work projects, is to pursue conundrums and deadlines until appropriately vanquished and tested. Healing is quite a different matter: it must run a natural course. Acclimating to a different living space (is it presumptuously daring to say “home?”), the crosstown neighborhood, and a new commute, cause me to reconsider the meaning and worth of temporal things. The previous space was so forbiddingly cramped and loud, I unpacked only books and clothing, leaving the rest in transparent totes I carefully labeled that were stacked around me. Now, I’m gingerly unwrapping possessions I haven’t seen since packing them up two years ago in the West End. This is the unearthing of buried and migrated treasure.

Accompanying the nostalgia of again wearing knitted scarves made for me by my grandmother, and sipping coffee from bowls I’ve carried back from Paris, the new place is coincidentally around the corner from where I lived as an art college student. “Rejoined” with a familiar neighborhood which I’ve always appreciated, I’m amusingly making note of various items I’d had with me during those school years which have “returned” with me. As examples, my desk and my bicycle have “been here before.” Revisiting these streets, I’m effortlessly remembering people and places I knew back in the 1980s, with impressions that have lived on to this day. Indeed, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Yet, still, I speaketh much like I didst when I was eighteen years old. Out on a neighborhood stroll, one recent evening, I mused about what would transpire if my present-day self met my undergrad-student self on this shared intersection. Cause for great conversation, but it will have to suffice as journal entries across time.

“Are you really me, sir?”

“I think so, man. In fact, I think I still look like you.”

The new bus stop is canopied. No more being pelted while standing in mud and slush!

Oh, the trouble from which I could’ve saved myself. Continuing my walking, I remember businesses that used to be in some of these luxurified storefronts. The street patterns are as I left them. I’m now becoming acquainted with the No.9A and No.9B bus drivers, after a year-and-a-half with the Congress Street No.1 bus drivers. More new people I’m inviting to the library. “How you doin’, Mister Archivist? Find anything good today?” Always. Between the lurching bus rides and the work shifts, there are plenty of interesting reminders for me, right nearby. How temporal is this residency? I’m noticing myself shrugging off such thoughts, knowing how much effort and expense went into this move. Now out of the former place, it continues to astonish me to realize how egregious it was, and how thankful I am to have survived. There wasn’t a single evening of peace in there. But now it’s past. Let the healing really take effect.

Felix the Cat, warmed from the zero temps, gets to ride up front.

After moving all I could with my car and a rented van, I hired professional movers for the heavy boxes of books and the furniture, to complete the job. One of my former neighbors saw the big vehicle beeping its reverse motion, and asked me the obvious: “Moving day today?” “Better than that,” I replied, “it’s Liberation Day.” True to my word in these pages, my childhood Felix the Cat rode shotgun with me for one of the last carload runs across town. As promised, I found a better place. And I thanked my praying friends at the Saint Anthony Shrine, in Boston. The building here has a wide front porch that nobody else uses. It’s ideal for writing, studying, and fresh air; a great perch for increments of healing.

I’m reminded of the one episode, back in 2015, when I had to deal with a serious back injury. The severity of the pain was such that each motion I’d previously taken for granted was accompanied by wincing and gasping. I made as many medical and therapeutic appointments as possible, tenaciously intent to be done with pain so disruptive I had to tie my shoes while lying on my back. The healing process could not be hurried, so I was told, and took about two months. On the first day without any noticeable pain, I elatedly took a meandering bicycle ride. It was amazing to me. Naturally, I returned to taking my flexibility for granted, though since then I’ve become adept at healthful stretching- not to mention wise ways to move heavy objects! The new dwelling place is in an old, creaky building- but it’s tidy, quiet, and gets a lot of sunlight. My general sense is that of a restart. Between work commitments, I’m enjoying the porch as much as I can, and look forward to the more verdant months. Healing is taking time, but I know where all the totes are that house my writing materials. Everything is labeled and ready for use.

the final night in the compartment. of course I wrote about it.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

liminal trails

“Cultivating hope
means strengthening the will.”

~ Josemaría Escrivá, Furrow (780)

The liminal season I call winter-into-spring is often more striking than a New England autumn. But subtly, those housepaint skies are atop fifty-degree middays as well as ice storms. These extremes happen hours apart. Liminality represents threshold space, margins between paragraphs. If you can find yourself the luxury of pausing between obligations and demands, there you’ll find those mental spaces to muse. I remember a professor from graduate school, a brilliant lecturer, who would occasionally stop speaking and look out the window. I admired that, realizing he was reflecting in mid-flight. Because the constantly streaming media in our midst obstructs our natural musing tendencies, misconstrued as unproductive, threshold thinking becomes intentional.

Within the mercurial fluctuations of this unpredictable season, I’m amidst moving my household across town to a better abode. Two extremely difficult years of apartment-searching while tolerating an intensely oppressive and nightmarish place became impetus to make a sudden, cold-weather move. Transition is itself a jarring, liminal circumstance- yet it is much better to make a move by choice than to be forced to move (as with two years ago). The move will get its written due, but for the moment I’ll express liminality by noting how the past month has straddled two apartments. When I needed a sponge-scrubber or various tools in one place, having left them in the other place, I took to using my car as a kind of trolley for cleaning and packing material. At least the distances have been just a few miles apart, and true to the transitional the straddling is short-lived. The reward is a more peaceful place that I can better afford. Though I know all the neighborhoods of this small city, it’s threshold life nonetheless, having to find my bearings between the known and the unfamiliar.

My father gave me this radio as a birthday gift when I was 15.
Now it's perched on a red formica kitchen counter.

Through all the shuttling between living spaces, employment, and errands, I’ve maintained such constants as journaling- and a beloved icon of the transitory: radio. A listener all my life, and in this part of the country I know where all the frequencies are. When I’ve test-driven cars, I’ve always checked to make sure the radio can at least pull in AM1030 WBZ. Having several radios, plus the one in my car (and another at work), I’ve subconsciously maintained such threads of continuity. From the basis of the familiar, transcendence springs. Drowsily dozing among boxes in the soon-to-be former place, my radio was tuned to a commentator talking about the implications of contemplative prayer. It is subtle, understated, yet far-reaching. When he said, “ten minutes can reverberate into eternity,” I made sure to write this down. From liminal vantage points, horizons are abstract at best. I particularly liked the radio commentator’s remarks- simple and unostentatious, unlike that which too often dominates the airwaves. Many know the unpronounceable simplicity of enduring faith, and how it often seems unsubstantiated. But perseverance in the liminal is vital. My several-times-daily journal entries represent perseverance, as well as provide private space to express frustration. Much of the writing really is about hope, tedious as the repetition might be, it’s as critically necessary as air. Or a sane living space. I continue to consider writing to be my documented pilgrimage into the future, longing for better living and working situations. This current move is an intentional step in the right direction, while fully aware of the need for improvement and how there is nearly nothing left of the “old life,” or the city I used to enjoy so much. The liminal trail from winter into spring, combined with new slants of light, must lead to renewal. A life of hardworked prep must give way to practical application. A life of readying is ripe for followthrough. Why this has been taking so long is beyond my comprehension, thus it is necessary to believe better times are ahead.

Getting the place clean enough to move in
(and unpack my philosophy books).

Sunday, February 11, 2024


“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth;
but imagination is the organ of meaning.
Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old,
is not the cause of truth, but its condition.
It is, I confess, undeniable that such a view indirectly
implies a kind of truth or rightness in the imagination itself.”

~ C.S. Lewis, Bluspels and Flalansferes

Giving lectures and reading to audiences have evolved into very comfortable and pleasant experiences. My teaching background certainly helps, but knowing my topics frees me from excessive rigidity. Obviously, it all depends upon the audience, and no two groups are ever alike. A recent presentation about archives lent itself especially well to some storytelling. On that particular afternoon, during a dreary winter day, I had brought out examples of treasures such as rare books, maps, prints, and city directories. These types of artifacts are especially conducive to time-traveling musings. I’m surely with the patrons, students, and all the curious- as we all marvel at photographs of specific places then-and-now, noticing the changes.

To do justice to my occupation, I taught myself about when certain various prominent buildings were built, extended, or demolished. Such facts continue to be invaluable for identifying undated imagery and supporting researchers. Years ago while sleuthing out the sites of extinct streets, writing narrative essays with an expression I coined: “ghost streets.” This is to say buried thoroughfares that are gone without a trace. These have been very popular. In a juxtaposition of past and present, cheering an audience on an especially damp day, I made reference to how the local art college is currently in a former department store building constructed in 1904. The store was called Porteous, Mitchell, and Braun (that first name is pronounced “POHR-tchuss”).

now that's a proper pen department

“Now imagine,” I offered to the group, pointing to my left, “walking up Congress Street, stepping inside that big building at number 522, and suddenly noticing bright chandeliers, colorful merchandise, the din of chatting salespeople and customers above the muffled piano music, and the aromas of cosmetics and perfumes.” There followed memories of people among my audience, chiming in with their own recollections. I held up a Porteous ad for Esterbrook fountain pens, printed from a 1952 Christmas season issue of the Portland Evening Express (which gave me a chance to explain the microfilmed newspaper collection). I am often in the role of informing patrons about what was, en route to explaining what is.

somehow, all I needed was the advertisement, and look what I brought back from my time travel errand.

Early 20th century archival theorist Sir Hilary Jenkinson taught that archivists do best to read the documents in their care, and to be acquainted with the contents. I’ve personally seen this to be an extremely useful idea, especially when it comes to the level of service I can provide, and how I draw together sources and researchers. It’s really about recognition and making connections. Like compassion, these are uniquely human abilities. I’ve been studying the materials, making notes, and committing many things to practical memory. Indeed, this has become the less-traveled road, but the relational touch is surely the most meaningful. Just as people are souls, archives are recorded activities that attest. Through the years of preserving and providing public access to archival material, by default I’ve also had innumerable occasions to be acquainted with many of the people who inquire and use these artifacts. Often, there are patrons who will show up daily for a stretch of time, feverishly nibbling away pursuing evidence of parts of their personal histories. I witness all ages seeking the past, looking for understanding and purpose. I’m no different. Each request is respected, never derided. So many among us simply want to know, then let the witnessing archivist be an eloquent accompanist. With the philosopher Blaise Pascal who pondered in writing: “I am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then.” Inevitably, archives are facts that can enchant the imagination. Once again, and along with my students and patrons, I’m affected, too. Frankly, I could never figure out why other archivists don’t write about their metaphysical experiences. Manuscripts, images, maps, ships’ logs, and even ledgers present much more than what superficially meets the eye. And then there are the interactive discoveries for researchers interpreting the records.

The preservation of the documental record is meant to inform the panoramas between planning ahead, as well as the fleshing out of historiography. Narratives abound in manuscripts, revealing human activities and communications. Indeed, we can understand the popularity of historic novels! And then there is reverie. Serving the public for many years, once in a while I’m asked by patrons marveling over century-old photographs of streets crowded with pedestrians and trolley cars, “Why can’t things go back to the way they were?” Many, many more people wish this without admitting so much. We imagine with our hopes; speaking as a New Englander in the local parlance: “So don’t I.”

From pinched and barricaded confines, imagination insistently pries at the horizons. Ambition is vital. Don’t expect anyone to remind you to flex your hopeful imaginings; we must know to exhort ourselves. Speaking for myself, I write my wishes and prayers as journal entries, often scribing them amidst woeful environments. Remember to dream forward: observe and read between the lines. What we see is not all there is. Our conditioned and compromised cultures reduce our palates to bland, surface bluntness. It is for us to challenge ourselves to think beyond what is “at face,” and cultivate our intellects. We navigate societies of documented hard numbers and literal databases, but the human-voiced manuscripts invite us into the poetry of metaphor. When I managed and facilitated the reference library in a Catholic college, I read the memoir of St. John XXIII in which he wrote of himself, “I am a songbird perched in thorns.” Such a powerful metaphor has never left my thoughts, and I’ve invoked it numerous times since.

The spheres of metaphor and allegory have always provided places of habitation for me, though perceiving through these lexicons can be a two-edged sword when I have to creatively translate for those who cannot interpret subtlety. Fulton Sheen once said, “Introspection requires a lot of humility;” helpful words for speaker and listener alike. I’ll occasionally use archives as metaphor with my philosophy students. Wonderfully diverse as they’ve always been, they refreshingly think and speak at multiple levels. Archival work is entwined with axiological applications- as principles of origin, function, and value are integral to stewardship. Examples help provide crossroads for abstraction and practicality to meet. These also provide runways for metaphysical flights of fancy. Pointing to historic maps and photographs, I’ll ask, “Do places have intrinsic memories?” We’d like to think so. In my helpless insomnia, I imagine being cradled on the waves, aboard a peaceful vessel. In my curatorial adventures, I found documentation from 1948 about a Friend Ship that was sponsored by the Maine Rotary, which brought 107 cargo tons of food and clothing to France. The ship, built in Maine, was called the Saint Patrick, and it crossed the Atlantic in eleven days. Pleasant thoughts of calm seas and noble ambitions. Keep on visualizing better times. As confining situations constrict, my imaginings of comforts, vastness, and possibilities intensify as antidotes. I’d like to think there is still time for improvement.

the Saint Patrick sailing from Portland, Maine to Nantes, France

Monday, January 1, 2024

looking forward

"The kingdom of heaven only costs as much as you have."
~ Saint Gregory

Between the completion of various projects, commitments, and the subsequent holiday weekends, I was able to take a few days away for a quiet retreat in December. Respite time has been extremely rare in the past four years, now generally known as the “covid era” (albeit with the first year being under quarantining orders). Laborers on pared-down staffs often became the surviving hands-on-deck in their respective places of work. I wrote about being among “the working wounded;” yet truly thankfully employed and bill-paying, but holding course while staving off the burnout in my midst. This pandemic era may be tailing off now, but economic and societal conditions have been permanently altered. Suffice it to say, many practical matters are simply too dissimilar to those of four years ago to be as reliable as they were. Try finding an actual hardcopy newspaper now (and when you do, notice how the price is exponentially higher). Notice how social interaction is much more electronic than in-person, how commerce is relegated to impersonal self-checkout, and how a “wallet” is now stored financial data. A “menu option” left the context of restaurant dining, and became a term of robotic telecommunication. As recently as four years ago, taking earned time off meant physically turning to a colleague and comparing calendars; it has since become cajoling and electronic wrangling. Much more than the rigors of earning the time, there are added equations in being able to use the time. The bar having been raised, it is necessary to jump higher with the changed rules of the game. Of course I can do this, and I must.

As the will makes for the way, I recently managed to negotiate for a very modest amount of respite and backup coverage. Eight months in the waiting, the worthwhile carrot at the end of the proverbial stick was a stretch of days for slivers of spiritual health, silence, and writing. Having very little time to plan, as well as to find coverage, I searched for a place that would make space for a pilgrim during this time of the year. An Advent intermission from the beaten track and the routines was what I needed, and a very kind invitation came from a Cistercian community in Massachusetts. Getting through the subsequent complexities related to springing forth for a short time, the more pleasant parts of preparation ensued.

As I’ve known for years, most any sojourn can be a pilgrimage; it needn’t involve great distance. Intention is basically all that is needed. For a pilgrim of trust, the purpose is to sanctify time and place for immersion in the sacred. In anticipation, I began to assemble trip necessities such as writing and reading material, clothing, camera, and some groceries to add to the guesthouse provisions. This was my first time both at Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey, and in southwestern Norfolk County, though I know the general region. My drive to Wrentham took about three hours on roads that traverse familiar New England terrain that comprises cities with repurposed mill buildings, farms, forests, and villages. The winding country road leading to the abbey slices through tall pines, and must be navigated slowly. Arriving to gentle greetings, I proceeded to the guesthouse and found an envelope on a lit end-table which welcomed me in cursive flourishes resembling the tones I’d heard moments before. Setting my satchel and duffel bag in my dormered room, I immediately and gratefully felt the quiet of the place, along with like the country air. Two of the community’s guest sisters and I spoke about the vitality of contemplative silence. We talked about how burnout endangers the souls of this culture’s understaffed overworked. We also made reference to weather alerts pertaining to an approaching storm. From there, we all prepared for vespers. Above all, being in late-December I was among kindred spirits in anticipation of the Advent.

Gradually settling into the old, familiar monastic rhythm, I immediately noticed how tightly-wound I’d been for too long. Equally old and familiar is the sense of reverse-inertia: slowing down to a halt needs quite a long runway. The soothing tones of sung liturgies harmonize with the natural landscape, helping to transit from stressful vigilance to receptivity. Even as the rainstorm arrived, the patter on the abbey church roof pronouncedly audible, the peaceful ambience of the place simply absorbed all sounds. During an evening service, the rain intensified into a backdrop for the readings, chanted psalms, and silent adoration. I later heard the continuum of pelting rain on the skylight immediately overhead in my little room.

The storm amounted to something similar to a hurricane, with torrential rain and 90mph winds persisting throughout the following day. I cannot remember ever seeing such hard rain. Looking from the guesthouse windows reminded me of driving through a carwash, but this went on for more than a day, eventually causing felled trees and a regional power outage. Along with the loss of electricity was the loss of heat, hot water, and backup generators. The abbey had to cancel services. We used plenty of candles in the guesthouse, dining on leftovers, still savouring the spirit of the community. Even considering the cold, dark night ahead, I did not try to make an early trip back to Maine; the storm was moving north, and I would’ve been contending with hazardous conditions all the way up. The best thing to do was to patiently wait out the weather. Inevitably the storm passed, yet the outage was predicted to last another day. Washing with cold water the following morning, and downing day-old tepid coffee from my thermos, I packed my car for the return in daylight. Before taking to the roads, I made sure to thank my hosts and to bask in the healthful silence of the unlit abbey church. While the retreat had to be shortened, there was plenty to cherish, such as an open-ended welcome to come back, some new friends, and the acquaintance with an oasis new to me. Driving between large branches and fallen trees, en route to highways and hot coffee, was that among other things I have hope itself.

the storm past; writing by candlelight

“Still will we trust, though earth seem dark and dreary,” William Burleigh composed more than a century ago; “Though rough and steep our pathway, worn and weary.” Indeed, I returned from a shortened sojourn, back to work and the search for better, holding fast to Advent light as night falls in the afternoons. A new year approaches. Perhaps a suitable excuse, as the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve may not automatically regenerate much more than a calendar. As the Battle for the Better continues, albeit via Advancement by Small Measures, I’m looking to the upcoming year with the usual ache for a good future. Fully aware of being in the thick of significant work, there’s every good reason to keep at it. Looking forward is the best thing I can possibly do. I needed at least a year and a half to write the housing-loss grief out of myself. Now it’s the forward gaze that indicates preparation for the granting of my most vigorous wishes. It isn’t really difficult to insist upon looking forward, with essentially so little left for which to look back. If anything at all, I’m looking forward to returning to the abbey in Wrentham during better weather. Grand things manifest because of humble things. While commenting about Psalms 13 and 14, Saint Augustine remarked that “Interior and unceasing prayer is the desire of the heart.” Essentially, one’s profoundest hopes are distilled into intentions of the spirit. He added, “The desire of your heart is itself your prayer.”

Reminiscent of my original profession and my most fluent language: photography, I find my reminders for the present. Practitioners of the craft like me can recall or point to studios, portfolios (effectively our resumés), projects, exhibitions, and tools of the trade. Far and away, the most important aspect is a cultivated sense of vision. This transcendent ingredient is also known as “the photographer’s eye.” Artistic vision, as I’ve found, can be applied to numerous types of work and facets of life- even the human imagination. As a working archivist and conservator for nearly 26 years, I’ve often envisioned completed results (and their remedies) ahead of time. But that doesn’t mean I can predict the events of the new year, as these involve much greater complexities than those of my sole efforts. Once again, and at the very least, I can put up my end of things, and I know enough to "forget those things which are behind, and reach forward to those things which are ahead, pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call*". Everything is in need of improvement; bring on the new year.

views from Saint Mary's Abbey, by ambient light only


*Philippians, chapter 3