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