Friday, February 3, 2023

repairs

Meno: What do you mean by saying that we do not learn,
and that what we call learning is only a process of recollection?
Can you teach me how this is?
Socrates: I told you Meno, just now, that you were a rogue;
and now you ask whether I can teach you,
when I am saying that there is no teaching, but only recollection.


~ Plato, Meno.


Going by the numbers on what is commonly called the Western calendar, here comes a new year to be seized upon. I began journaling in 1994, albeit sporadically, and then consistently beginning in 1999. Even back then, I’d reserve an evening leading up to New Years Eve for a “year in review” journal entry. These are great to read back over, and I highly recommend this for those who write their perspectives. As 2000 approached, I wrote a “decade in review,” and have had occasion to do this twice since. Such practices are not meant to handwring and rehash, but I naturally took to preserving reflective summations of time spans, such as years, or weeks at work, or eras at schools and jobs, or lengthy travels. Having taught writing, I’ve created years of lesson plans built around journaling prompts, and encourage writers to make up their own so they can keep going. My favorite prompt materialized as I’d write in an Exchange Street café now long gone: I heard myself say... Coffeehouses, prior to the pandemic, were great places for lively conversations and for reflective writing. When I’d shift from some animated discourse to assembling written thoughts, something always lingered from what I’d heard and what I heard myself say. It’s a way to visit what is really in one’s thoughts. What have you heard yourself say? Living under covid-era restrictions (and now fewer cafés), configurations have changed, but eventually we can catch our spontaneous thoughts and still make note of them. Resolved to emerge from the last year’s housing misery which led to an inhospitable living situation, recently I heard myself say, “I think the only way to not crumple under all this is to see the dynamism in the open-endedness in front of me.” That’s how to start a new year.


I’ve always admired restorers of objects, structures, and historic artifacts. Gratefully, my speed-dial numbers include my typewriter repairer, fountain pen restorer, camera technician, and auto mechanic. These individuals are also esteemed friends. When any of us talk shop, we’ll often note the parallels between their crafts and mine as a bookbinder and conservator. The purposes of our respective restorative work is to keep things in fine operational order. Often when I stitch a set of signatures and add silk bands at the extremities of a spine, I’ll invoke how the owner of Cambridge Typewriter says, “it doesn’t just have to work well, it has to look good!” Tom says this while polishing the parts and cover of a Royal or an Olympia- just as Greg across town used a special chamois to make my sterling silver Bossert & Erhard fountain pen gleam as crisply as it writes. When I use decorated endpaper material to conserve a book, I’ll usually make matching bookmarks and dustjackets out of the excess. Among my workplace colleagues, the maintenance workers take as much interest in what I’m doing as the librarians. Now 24 years in professional practice, I’ve always considered preservation to be the archivist’s operatio Dei. Conscious of that, I’m sure to use the best alkaline, long-fibred materials I can find, so the books and documents will have lengthened lives of utility and integrity. Too many aspects in societies, workplaces, municipalities, and throughout the world are woefully broken. While wishing all along to practice a tangible compassion, some things I can do are to continue preserving the documental record and the written word, and try to be an encouraging ingredient to all those with whom I interact.



As startling as it is to ponder, the covid pandemic era is now at its 3-year mark. If the present time is a latter stage, its duration remains unknown. Social and mental health impacts have yet to be fully evaluated. An immediate shock for many were the sudden disruptions, quarantining requirements, and isolation during the scrambling for immunization. Surely a topic for a later essay. Sufficient for the moment, as a social being and public employee, I had to fall back upon skills cultivated during my years of solitary work. While we were all learning about “supply chains” and shortages not seen in more than a half-century, many turned their efforts toward “do it yourself” work-arounds to such practical matters as producing household cleansers, clothesmaking, and doing more cooking from scratch. A great many of us that had never “worked from home” found ourselves, by necessity, pressing our apartments and computers into service to be able to stay employed. I created a remote version of my service desk by using a corner of my dining table, also purchasing headphones and a refurbished laptop- even repairing books in my kitchen.


As a longtime bookbinder, as well as a bicycle repairer, I could simply use my various sets of tools to remedy basic mechanical and electrical problems. During the 14 months of rotating my work site, between the library and my apartment, I took to carrying tools from one location to the other. In order to stay organized, I separated the materials and flash-drives by their function, helping to always have on hand what was needed. With just about all my commerce done online, along with most everyone, I had to deal with purchases arriving after long spans of time- and damaged. For example, a small toolbox for archival marking tools, hard enough to find, broke in transit. The vendor did not have any others, and kindly reimbursed me. Really wanting to use the box, and taking a good look at it, I replaced the completely broken hinges by melting small holes in the plastic with a bookbinding awl which I heated in a candle flame, and using 2 pairs of needlenose pliers to create rings out of bent-out thick paperclips. My repair worked like a charm, and has been holding up now for 2 ½ years and counting. Like my stitched bindings, the repaired item has more strength than the original structure. I use the box daily, it’s become one of my reminders of these times.



Essential to the repair of an item is understanding how it works. Having to do much more of my living and working as a reluctant shut-in, it invariably became necessary to organize my household. (This proved helpful when the building very sadly had to be emptied of its residents last summer and all of us had to move out.) My usual studies and writing had to be done in and close to home (but at least I had a spacious place to live, at the time). Very thankfully, a supply line was opened to me via the Boston Athenaeum’s mailing and database services. I also continued teaching via Zoom, joining the many who became fluent in the medium.


Amidst these times, I reacquainted with old writing tools, and put them into working order. Pens present their own forms of mechanical puzzles. While rinsing a much-loved Reynolds fountain pen from one of my many sojourns in France, I watched the ring from the nib section roll across the kitchen sink and irretrievably down the drain. As with the toolbox mentioned earlier, a study of the pen showed me how the ring was more than decorative trim- it actually provided the needed margin of space to allow the pen to be tightly capped by pushing the nib section into the mechanism that snaps it closed. I set the disabled pen on my desk, not sure what to do with it. One night, while writing and listening to the radio (a supply-line of culture itself), I stopped to look at the poor old Reynolds and an empty yoghurt cup I used for calligraphy. That curved rim got me thinking, and it occurred to me that perhaps if I could slice the plastic just right, I’d have a replacement part. Using my narrowest bookbinding mat knife, and masking tape to hold the container in place, I sliced thin strips of the plastic. It took a few tries, as I saw how exact the fit had to be, to get the pen to snap closed with the same click as it did before with its former metal ring. After getting the precise breadth and length, I sliced an extremely thin slice of archival plastic tape for the inside of the replacement ring. It worked perfectly, and I was able to use the pen as before- albeit sporting a white yoghurt container ring.


I later found other uses for the strong, yet thin, plastic material to create spacers for altering new refills to fit older pens. Either due to cost savings, or forced obsolescence, inserts for even the higher-end ballpoints are manufacturered shorter now than before. Unlike a fountain pen, a ballpoint is essentially a “handle” that houses an inserted refill combined with its writing-point. The two components, like a textblock and book-cover, need to perfectly fit to be functional- and look right. Using very tiny pieces of the yoghurt cup plastic, I created spacers to customize and “push out” the points as needed for both the writing and the retracting. Getting the right fit was followed by adhering my homemade parts to the backs of the refills, and using a heated sewing pin to create a “breather” for the ink. Again, the repairs have held up to use, and the tools have been in the fine operational order of my preference!


Having field experts as friends makes for great conversations. As well, I can turn to their professional expertise, supporting their enterprises, too. As it became possible to visit with neighbor and longtime friend Pat Daunis at her shop, I brought her my Reynolds pen, and asked about creating a permanent part to replace what I had made. She liked what I’d created, and used it as a reference point. We had a great visit, talking about the crafts of lettering and calligraphy- and I hired her shop to fashion a new pen ring. Daunis jewelry is among the very best and most highly-regarded that is made in Maine. Pat made the new and precise pen ring out of brass. This will surely last for the life of the pen- and I’ll make certain to rinse it over a tray, with the sink drain-stopper in place!


Last week, I visited with another old friend whom I respect very much, and that’s Andy the owner of Classic Camera & Repair of Maine. I’m continuing to work full-time through these extremely difficult times. The slivers of personal time I’m able to find are for reflective writing and photography. I made sure to keep my faithful Rolleiflex unpacked, and have been making new images during snowstorms again. Andy helped me by testing the camera’s shutter, and that occasioned a heartening visit.



Repairs and restoration are expressions of healing. I think of this when I bring books back to life, as well as when I see how fellow craftspeople and mechanics perform their own renditions of this. Of course, the treasures made for written and photo arts are meant to be used en route to new creative ventures. The damage done by the displacement last year, like collateral social ramifications of this pandemic, have yet to be assessed or remedied. I won’t know the extent of this current nightmare, until landing in a peaceful and comfortable living space- away from stomping, blaring, odors, and congested confinement.


Finally and for the moment, I recently stepped away from the fray for the first occasion in a year, with a week in Boston. Soul repair takes much more time than it does to calibrate an instrument or to fabricate components. And iron-willed patience. Between the always-welcoming environment at Beacon Hill Friends House, and inspirational studies at the Boston Athenaeum, I especially savoured the sweet familiarity of beloved communities. Not only could I hear myself thinking, but I sensed myself breathing, being in the presence of many kindred spirits, and in the absence of overhead bombast. Indeed, the idea is to bask amidst the moment, though admittedly it became a distraction to want to load up on peaceful civility for the road ahead. To say the least, I took many notes, aperch in some beautiful places.




Friday, December 23, 2022

unseen visible

“Blessed is that nothingness,
and blessed the secret depths of the heart
that possess everything. It desires to have nothing for itself,
casting away all cares so that it may burn more brightly
with compassion.
Live in faith and hope even though you are in darkness,
for in this darkness God enfolds the soul.”


~ San Juan de la Cruz, Letters XV, XX


1

It has now been four months since my displacement from the sold apartment building within which I had my home of many years. Though each day slogs across quagmires of unease, the work weeks capably string together larger parcels of time. Responsibilities along with demands connected to semblances of normal life force an equilibrium to meet each day. Adaptation, in this case, does not mean enjoyment. If anything, the whiplash effect of diminished conditions has sharpened my senses in pursuit of better living space- of a real home. Perceptions have also sharpened in the direction of transcendence. With merely my thoughts to shelter, while freezing beneath the elements at bus stops, I often gaze skyward. The expanse of distance strikes a contrast against the oppressive apartment which is transitional at best. I also read during my waiting, choosing anthologies portable enough for the transitory. So as not to endanger my rations of inspirational words, I’ve cultivated a knack for page-turning with winter gloves. Routines, in their varied forms, are necessary for many of us to accomplish things in sequential order, such as being prepared for the day’s demands. But memory devices must last only as long as they’re needed, until improvements change relevance. Recently while gazing up at the night sky, from the pavement at the corner of Congress Street and Exchange Street, I considered how we all adapt to survive. After some time and trial, the temporal status quo begins masquerading as a foundation; it’s a temptation for which I refuse to fall. All that I found constricting and objectionable four months ago is no less now. The most solid foundation during a provisional situation is that of the spirit, standing unadorned on frozen streetcorners. The Author and Perfecter of my faith will lead me to better and healthful conditions. When housing and daily life humiliate, the fires of ambition can only burn hotter.


2

Beneath the temptation of acquiescence to an objectionable status quo is the notion that efforts at improvement are worthless and in vain. They are not, no matter how high the defeats stack up. Good and intelligent efforts must amount to positive results. What does keep me guessing is whether intensity and thoroughness meet their reciprocal forms of fruition. I’ve had to painfully learn that hard work is far from the recipe for success I’d been led to believe. Following that was being told that “working smart” needed to go with “working hard.” Granted, efficiency is a cultivated craft, and true to self I’ve mastered every methodology I’ve taken on. Though my results have amounted to numerous completed projects, what might be tangibly considered success remains elusive. Also dauntingly elusive is assurance. By this, I refer to a strongly assuring sense of validation that I’m on the right track. Where is the open door? Where is the welcoming place? Where and when may I unpack boxes that have been sealed since last spring? Liberation from the oppressive little hovel and the overhead circus cannot happen soon enough. Things are not looking good, although faith insists there will be open doors and a good future. I’m putting in my honest eight hours every weekday and I’m paying all my bills. The Advent season is about preparing the way, awaiting with expectant hope for the road to finally crest. Exhaustion, frequently made into a badge of accomplishment and survival, is more than anything a manifestation of overwork. Perhaps my efforts needn’t be overdone, and maybe success can happen on less-severe levels of outpouring. It is my nature to strive to make the best impression in all situations, but contemplative wisdom asserts how the most communicative language is silent affection.


3

With Saint Bonaventure, I’ll cultivate reason upon the foundation of belief. At the same time, I’ll echo the unabashed Psalmist whose very depths called to the deeps of everlasting. A withdrawal of the Consoler’s presence challenges that aforementioned stabilizing foundation. As any of the best of us, the anguished Psalmist incredulously cries, “why am I forgotten?” He needs an assuring spring of water for the desert of his life. Nicknamed the weeping prophet, Jeremiah persevered and cultivated through deprivation and even exile. But he held against desolation, clutching the message, “if you seek Me wholeheartedly, I will be found by you.” The imperative in this testing is to believe without seeing. In this case, there are no reciprocal proportions: in order to see, there must be complete belief.

But divine mercy is invisible and cannot be grasped. And the more persistently out-of-view, the more critical it is to press forward. This is neither passive, nor for the weak-hearted, because visualizing the unseen requires reveling in the lacking. Grace and mercy may yet be present to us, without our knowing. Mysteriously, these things are absent right up until the moment of discovery, yet we are called before we can know to reach. I’m reminded of instances during which I’m looking for an object I had set down moments before, such as on my workbench while binding books. A frequent culprit is a transparent measuring triangle. In its pursuit, I’ll say, “it’s in front of me, but I can’t see it.” My eyes scan the work surface and my hands palm the tabletop, while trying to recall when I last saw it. Eventually, I find these kinds of objects, at times in exasperation. Too often, the certain is not apparent.


4

Reveling while lacking is followed by yet another notch for the raised bar, and that’s an honest gratitude amidst hardships. Thankfulness while wishing for leisure, favor, and fortune. The present moment requires my meditation upon divine mercy. These alienating trials of unknown duration demand the confidence Saint Augustine had when he said:

“All my hope lies solely in Your great mercy. Solely in that, Lord. On Your mercy rests all my hope. Not my merits, but on Your mercy.”


My ancient namesake not only embraced an unseen promise, Abraham had only perceptive faith to sustain and light his way to the end of his complex life: “By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents...” His very, very distant descendant in Sephardic Spain, San Juan de la Cruz, taught and wrote about embracing the nothingness that holds everything. Sounding like our common ancestor, Fray Juan’s The Ascent of Mount Carmel includes the enjoinder, “hope in detachment and emptiness. The good that you desire will find you before too long.” He went so far as to discipline his temperament to renounce seeking consolations. Such depletion becomes a clear slate- a lens cleaner for the heavenward gaze. Frozen and overcast night skies conceal brightness yet to be revealed. Grace is at hand, without seeing or otherwise sensing its imminence.


This year has been an extremely difficult year which followed one of loss and sadness. I can merely manage as possible, within very tight limitations. While flailing to rectify a regrettable relocation by scouring for something better, admittedly the biggest mistakes are the ones not learned from. The recent move was surely under duress with few choices, but it stands out as a terrible mistake. Needless to say, the painful learning experience continues, and I know much more about what to really avoid. Yet another temptation is that of setting up shop in the wheelrutted inventories of my failings. An old reflex of mine is to turn away from distasteful things- things that are gaudy, unappealing, cruel, dissonant, and unwelcoming. I’ve always turned my camera toward eloquent simplicity and compelling motifs that inspire. That newer reflex I’ve noticed, looking to skies and horizons, counteracting my confinements, is the pull of contemplating the transcendent. This has been my closest way of looking toward home and being enfolded by hope.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

radio silence

“And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire:
and after the fire, a still small voice.
And it was so, when Elijah heard it,
that he wrapped his face in his mantle,
and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave.
And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said,
What doest thou here, Elijah?”


~ 1st Kings 19:11-13


Refuge, these days, has become entirely a state of mind. The most critical aspect resulting from the loss of my housing is the absence of physical sanctuary. Chased from our respective homes in the recently-sold apartment building, my neighbors and I suddenly had to find places to live. Some moved far away, most to various parts of this region, but all reluctantly. With employment in mind, precarious as that is, I’ve managed to stay in the city, yet at a heavy price and in an inhospitable place. Along with many of my fellow Maine workers, I’m an offer or a loss away from leaving the state. The grim reaper’s name is Gentrification, nipping at the heels of most of us, regardless of how industrious and loyal we’ve been. For the unwealthy, things are closing in. Looking around my tiny, temporary quarters, filled with boxed belongings, the closing-in is blatant and suffocating. There remains a great need for refuge, above the din of discomfort and anxiety- all the more when assurance continues to be out of range.


Silence, like music, is received and internalized uniquely by each individual. There is a silence beneath surfaces of desolation, of deprivation. There are also qualitative, nourishing silences which soothe the soul. The latter is obviously the sort of quiet that is welcomed and desired. I cherished this long before it became elusive- as it is now in the temporary space. Healthful quiet is a treasure; if you have this in your life, count it as a major blessing. Throughout the recent months, my search for a sense of peace has meant going outdoors to breathe and stretch- often closing my eyes and awaiting those measures of grace. I’ve noticed myself doing this at bus stops, as well as during the late hours after the stomping, thrashing, and television racket overhead finally gives out for the night. It’s a daily staggering for peace, as though on a frenetic and exitless highway. When my friends tell me how “this too shall pass,” my response is “when?” The search continues, to be sure, notwithstanding how consolation, peaceful living space, good job ops, and spare money are all equally scarce.


The constant and compulsive clatter reminds me that many people are afraid of silence. And just as many are unaware of the existence of others in their midst. Aspiring to be compassionate, it is essential to be forgiving of the inconsiderate. After all, somebody needs to be aware of the unaware. As this life is in preparation for eternity, here is the time and place to refine the ability to forbear. But as a flawed mortal who finds forbearance unbearable, I try distracting with noise-canceling headphones (which I can hear through), listening to music, running a household fan, and turning to a lifelong friend: radio. As with any means or instrument, it is for each listener to discern and discover that which suits. Due to all the noise in the building, I’m applying a dulcet layer of classical music to try masking the din of disturbance. My less passive form of listening happens when I seek out noteworthy programs and lectures. If the bulls-in-their-china-closet are too disruptive, especially when they rattle the walls, I’ll use earphones. Amidst the chaos, I’ve taken many inspiring notes from timely broadcasts. With all of this mentioned, when I sense a late night hour when the building falls silent, I’ve noticed how I turn the radio off- just to savour the silence. My shoulders and brow noticeably settle back. It’s the good silence.


The expression, radio silence, has migrated from its technical origin to popular parlance. A command to “go radio silent,” generally meant stopping any transmission due to security concerns about signal interception. This was also employed so that a weak distress signal might be detected. Whatever the case, radio silence is when no broadcast signal is transmitting. In our common discourse, one can remove themselves from interactions, or withhold specific information. If there is a receiving end awaiting a message, there is no signal- just air- and the listener is at a loss for knowledge. Radio silence then becomes a not-knowing. Turning up the sound only reveals static. One might as well switch off the radio, although doing so eliminates the possibility of picking up a signal later. Waiting and potential are intertwined concepts. Non-broadcast air space and static often follow housing and employment applications, often known as ghosting. Inquirers disclose personal information and credentials, and anticipate responses that never arrive. The passage of time accompanies the radio silence. Companies and landlords never worry about offending anyone; they seem to have all they need.


The luxury of enacting a broadcast silence of my own is an tempting idea, especially as I embark upon my 33rd straight month of being a one-man department at the pared-down workplace. It’s been an even longer time since it’s been possible to make the kind of monastic sojourn that I’d take twice a year. The pandemic era has comprised a marathon of work and workarounds for lots of us, but I’m very thankful to be working and managing my expenses. I’m always aware of those who are much worse off. Yet even with a sense of broader context in mind, the prospect of a healthful pause would be an oasis somewhere along the unknown way. This is among the topics of pondering while awaiting late buses in frigid, pelting weather. If only all the inflictions ceased, perhaps just long enough to not have to try being a perfect applicant, or with providential buffer space that is free from brutish situations. Or if things cannot stop, maybe they can noiselessly coast along like those fancy electric cars I’m seeing in the East End. The present experience emphasizes how contemplation needs the respite of quiet, or at least the ability to think above the din. Without the resources to create a large landscape, I can make small snapshots. Until substantial traveling becomes possible, there can be modest spans of reflection. Writing outdoors these days happens in colder weather, but I still make sure to intermittently set the pencil down and look skyward. If anything, doing this helps my perspective. Being attentively aperch is a shorthand regathering. Assiduousness is among my favorite words: rooted in the Latin assidere, it is to sit down by one’s attentive initiatives. Hardly the vacuum of radio silence.




The purgative passage of the soul into darkest night comes to mind in radio silence. There is a receiver that is scanning, attempting to tune for an elusive transmission. Indexing across all available bands, adjusting antennae and power supplies, no signal can be pulled in. The crepuscular radio silence of the spirit lends itself into questioning whether there is a signal at all. Temptation in the desert. Faith says there is a frequency, despite my flailing attempts. Atmospheric conditions can change to something more favorable, so it is critical to keep tuning and hold course. But the when is exasperatingly unknown. Too much time has been wasted. Waiting is anguishing; it is neither passive nor tranquil. A thread running through these times is surely the learning and testing of confident poise. Struggle is a necessary given. We are conditioned to reserve gratitude exclusively for times of success and goodness. The challenge is to maintain that vital resonant circuit in desolation, when there are no soothing broadcasts or music. Gratitude in the radio silence. As well, being a discerning listener means not adding any obstructions of my own.



Saturday, November 12, 2022

signs

“If we don't release the past,
We'll slap the face of the days to come.
Remember this melody;
Don't ever let it go away.
Sing it to your heart;
Day after day after day.”


~ Michael Roe and The 77s, The Days to Come

1

It seems the most availably productive way to recover my forces damaged by the trauma of housing displacement is to attend to what is immediately required. Learn the new commute, do exceptionally good work, serve those in my midst, and find redeemable aspects in these times. My former neighbors and I could not prevent the loss of our homes in a hastily-sold apartment house. As with countless many others, we’ve all had to navigate disrupted foundations. My home town is now equal parts of unfamiliar and familiar, detestable and endeared, all at once. The old, reliable stabilizing routines have had to be translated into inhospitably cramped and unfriendly confines. A crosstown move might’ve had the balm of improved living standards, but not in this case. The place is also economically unsustainable. Indeed, there will inevitably be another move in the near future; presently, workable compromises are as vital as undaunted ambition.


The pandemic era persists, and the lingering impression is one of a diminished world. Downsized in the sense that there are reduced opportunities. Perhaps there are too many metaphors in front of me, with the clenched apartment in mind. Existing in that claustrophobia-inducing compartment becomes representative of the compression of this stratified society, dead ends, and the intensified expenditure of energy needed to do all that had been previously taken for granted. It’s increasingly difficult to find any basic situation that isn’t forbidding- not to mention affordable. Yet all along I’ve had it in mind that light strikes the brightest contrast in the densest darkness. My own attempts to reckon with substandard housing and the inability to unpack things I used to easily reach for, have me stretching for any healthful inspiration. Perhaps I speak for many in my admission of these times as humiliating. Having admitted this, very consciously resisting identification as a downtrodden person, my focused attention turns to rebuilding confidence. It seems an unrealistic fantasizing to look forward when bleakness reaches to the horizons. News of current events worsen, and in the face of such immersion my journal entries keep straining for the light. I’m limiting my exposure to media sources, and am spending more time outdoors. Fresh air and skies are far more inviting than 8-foot ceilings and Le Cirque des Eléphants above my head within the puny building. And to be sure, the searching for something better continues. Looking, striving, searching, aspiring- so long as I breathe and dream- these must continue.


2

Breakfast and Bruins news on Beacon Hill



Those who know me well also know that I follow one sport, and that’s hockey. The best and worst of humanity’s universally iconographic traits are found in hockey. My father used to insightfully remark how the National Hockey League has always had a special annual award for “gentlemanly play,” the highly esteemed Lady Byng Trophy. One may choose to bear down on the rigors of skating, passing, scoring, and tenacious defense- or one may run up triple-digit penalty minutes in a league that inexcusably countenances brutality. But echoing my Dad, I love the game when it is just played, as in the Olympics, turning on skills and strategies without the violence. I’m grateful for the start of hockey season which brings in a welcome distraction. The ups and downs of the Boston Bruins, along with the Original Six, do a lot more for me than current events and workplace palace intrigues. In a recent Boston Herald article, I made note of a comment made by a veteran hockey coach who had been asked about the resourcefulness of his players, saying “The N.H.L is a find-a-way league.” That comment jumped off the page at me, as I recognized my admiration for such indefatigable pluck. Find a way. Get out there, find ways to score goals and hold a lead. Find ways to block shots. Back when I played hockey on roller skates, I was always told to “cut the angle” and “challenge the shooter.” None of this is easy and finding ways cannot be done from one’s elbows; it’s got to be full-throttle.


Like the coach’s comments and remembering what I was taught, I’m reminded of my instinctive and constant search for signs- for indications to point me forward. Something that draws me to reach forth unto those things which are before can appear in the least-conventional forms, including sports pages. The essential for discernment is openness to sensing the instructional elements in what I experience. Recently on the road, while merging onto the perilous Route 128 in Massachusetts, I gave a quick listen to the traffic report (“on the threes”) on WBZ, after my usual thrice-leftward lane transitions: one lane at a time, signaling like a Lady Byng candidate. After figuring out the necessary detours advised by the traffic report, I began incrementally ascending along the car radio AM dial. Tuning a radio without the presets leaves room for random serendipitous finds. Inching up from somebody prattling about wealth management- clearly meant for the haves, I caught a homily from a broadcast church service. While actively attentive to the rapid traffic, my ear latched onto the pastor’s theme which was compellingly about contending with hardships. His words had the cadence of a mentoring coach, pointing out how present-day lessons can be informed by ancient texts. He observed that personal struggles are means toward purification, that we mortals with our limited perspectives do well to consider how we may be fashioned and sculpted into life in God. He said that we are being pointed toward eternity. I listened intently to this, while the urban traffic thickened, and remembered as many of the words as I could throughout the day.


3

Being attentive to signs of promising directions, my senses have sharpened amidst times and situations that are harsher than I’ve ever seen. The friction and inertia between idealism and present-day realism are palpable. Mindfulness must proceed through minefields, testing even the most seasoned souls. The search for hopeful prospects, for substance, for satisfying applications of time and abilities is especially susceptible to clouding mirages. Ancient wisdom challenges us to test the spirits.


For my purposes, signs are manifestations and portents to suggest possibilities, as well as things to avoid. While adjusting to different surroundings and on the watch for something better, I have my usual photographer’s eyes and archivist’s mind. These discerning faculties help me notice and interpret my experiences, along with comprehending these attributes in context. I try to make sense of things by listening and looking- essentially attending to my surroundings. Even as a child, it was never sufficient to just go through the days’ motions. And to this moment, I need to see the why of things- utility and meaning always on equal footing. Impressions occur in an unprovoked flash. It is not a wrenching contrivance. The temporal present eagerly anticipates a good future. My daily striving is accompanied by taking in the signs of nature, such as the changing skies and lower temperatures. Colorful leaves that waft and fall signify the movements of time. Ubiquitous election campaign signs have not informed me about causes and candidates, but have made for an amusing sea of Yes and No statements. Voting against a cause is voting in favor of something else, and vice-versa.

The Portland Observatory - the signal tower built in 1807



Albeit temporarily, I’m becoming acquainted with the East End, after 37 years in the West End. Barely two miles apart, the two neighborhoods may as well be in two different gentrified cities. To the West End’s brick rowhouses, the East End’s woodframes include a 215-year-old signal tower. My inherent city sense has already figured out strategic shortcuts through the unlit narrow streets. The steep neighborhood has the feel of living on an island: the ocean is always in close view, and conveniences are not nearby. Mornings are damp, to the extent that I now keep a squeegee in my car. Commuting to work is now by infrequent city bus, after decades of walking or bicycling. I miss everything about the old life, but there was no choice for any of us to stay in the building that is now being gutted and luxurified. All there is to do is to continue searching and watching for opportunities to make a beneficial move. I’m reading the signs- both online as well as offline. Giving up cannot be an option; to that, I vote No.



A ubiquitous byproduct of displacement, especially to inadequate confines, is discomfort. More is uncertain than is certain. Signs of assurance may not necessarily appear as spelled-out posted markers. Friendly street greetings and bus driver acknowledgments are cherished. No longer having a budget for leisure, at least I can continue writing and photographing. And preparing comfort food for those humble front-stoop meals. I’m reading consolations in my philosophical studies and in the daily lectionary. In a library book, I saw these words of 17th century Quaker author Sarah Jones:

“Look not at your own weakness,
but look at Him who is calling you.”


I make notes of findings in my chapbooks, adding balance to my journals. Indeed, others have struggled, navigated, and discovered long before me. Their words are clues, signs that can point toward a worthwhile future. Occasionally, signs and consolations find us. The front stoop has been a ready refuge from the apartment’s compression- even though I’m too tall for that, too, and must perch astride it with my legs hanging from the side. But it’s a place from which I can look up, and can greet neighbors.


An especially consoling presence that regularly finds me on the stoop is a friendly cat. Usually the cat notices me first, and sometimes perches on my books to get my full attention. He also gets a slice of smoked turkey. The visits are always timely and appreciated. Among the neighborhood cats, there’s a Maine Coon cat that greets me when I descend from the bus in the evening. The long day’s transactions leave me saturated, but I make time for these visits and sit on the pavement to thank the singing cat. I suppose we all have our causes for vigilance, in the context of realizing the intensity of mine and how much mental space they consume. Exasperated, I see how I cannot force the progress of my urgent conditions- try as I certainly do. As these friendly cats come up to me, and I welcome them, there is something to be read in the arrival of unprovoked blessings. Signs to be discerned. Perhaps what I consider to be vigilance is actually consistency of intention and preparedness.

where the sidewalk ends



Wednesday, October 12, 2022

temporal


“It is not in vain that the fires of this divine discontent
have been kindled within.”


~ Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica ch. 1


1

In an attempt to regain a sense of normal creativity, I’ve glanced back at the recent weeks of my journal entries en route to this essay. Indeed the apartment house which had been my home for many years was sold by the progeny whose family had owned the property for a century. All nine apartments had to be evacuated, and my household was the penultimate departure. For every person, the experience was emotional, as nobody wanted to leave the elegant old landmark, but it was necessary, and none of us wanted to face eventual eviction. The extreme stresses revolving around hunting for a place to live during this state’s worst-ever housing crisis was as intense as the trauma has been for me. In my determination to climb out of despair, I’ve kept on writing, along with going to work every day. The emergency move finally happened 4 days after the sale of the building closed, so I can say I outlasted the former landlords. Being gentrified out of one’s home is a woefully common plight in present-day southern Maine.

Four months of scouring the region for an apartment acquainted me with dozens of stories that remain with my thoughts. The picking being slimmer than nil, due to my income, I found a painfully small place- two neighborhoods away- unsurprisingly and absurdly expensive. Strain and exhaustion led to the current disappointment. Of course, the entire scenario would have been positively cathartic, had I found something really nice. There was no choice but to move, and despite having to sign a litigious 13-page lease, this can only be considered temporary. As for the old place, which is now being gutted as I write these words, I’m grateful for all I enjoyed there: all the dinner parties, guests, space, and general tranquility. At the same time, it is critically important to remember that I never owned a square inch of the edifice. Finally leaving an empty building, depleted of all my neighbors, revealed to me that it was merely a tired old shell. Settled and caring souls are what make for a home. The music of life had disappeared. A row house that comprised the lives of doctors’ offices, writers, a piano teacher, families, eccentrics, and artists is now an object of investment real estate. Like covid, the housing crisis has struck far too many people. I tried my best to desensitize for the move. I find that I cannot call the present apartment home; it is referred to as the place.


2

Amidst times that force countless among us to absorb increasingly greater expenses with decreasing resources, shall we permit ourselves the luxury of ambition? Is it unreasonable to expect advancement and stability during economic recessions and housing crises? How costly is hope? These recent months have shown me that housing is essentially for the affluent, and better employment is for insiders. From my diminished perch, the currently propagated logic that says inflation will slow down when there are fewer jobs looks terribly twisted. I know that I’d have found appropriate housing with a much better salary. For anyone, that would exceed the obvious. My own experience is the juxtaposition of fighting on through underemployment and inferior housing, upon the din of temporality and glaring imperfections at all hands. Indeed, I am very far from alone in such circumstances- yet speaking for myself, there must be improvement. The urgency is crippling, but my awareness of the temporal is oddly assuring. It is nothing particularly new or unique to have to get used to detestable things. In a place so cramped and unappealing, I’ve only unpacked clothing and books- along with kitchen and bathroom contents. From the boxes to my bookshelves (thus clearing some rarified patches of floor space), I reached for Thomas Merton’s Life and Holiness. In the book, he described how people and institutions tend to “cling to subtle forms of inertia and mental paralysis.” Merton challenges his readers to actively see to it that a consistent sense of sanctity must prevail, while facing truths of the imperfections in our situations. Having this is mind, I set about scrubbing the floors of the oppressive little apartment- which is more like a compartment- to make things as livable as possible, and so that I can begin the work of repacking for another move.


3

Temporary, for many, is a convenience- such as a rented car or a nice hotel room. In my present case, it’s painful and anguishing. As I try to figure out any useful divine purpose in this, when I write my daily journal entries that are equivalent to surfacing for air, I try to recall the value of the dynamic of the provisional. I remember well enough how the temporal used to be hopeful and exciting- or at times a kind of fear that something held dear was about to reach an unwelcome end. Now with a visegrip of a living space, immediately after losing my home, I am beyond eager for this captivity to be short-lived. The tote I had labeled “desk drawer” prior to moving is still next my empty writing table, which took weeks for me to unearth from beneath piles of boxes. It is unavoidably a hold-pattern kind of life which I am striving to redeem. Where is home, when one cannot go home? If anything, this is a difficult and protracted learning about attachments to places and things. At worst a prelude to mortality, and at best an opportunity to muse about an open-ended future.


For someone like me that instinctively looks for solutions to problems and routine conundrums, I want reasons, purposes, and strategies to get me out of wheelspinning ruts. Thinking about transcendence is a much better distraction than to let stomping elephantine upstairs neighbors hijack my wellbeing. I used go home for the peace and quiet; now I run away from the place to seek peace and quiet outdoors. Illegitimi non carborundum, as the pseudo-Latin goes. The name Hosea, in actual Hebrew, means salvation. Hosea the Prophet (8th century B.C.) famously wrote (chapter 10):

“Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, ‘til He comes to you raining righteousness.”


The imagery of fallow ground never leaves my inquisitive thoughts. What is its meaning? Well, the biblical prophetic voices have always had the purpose of turning people to the Light of life: to God and to vocations of being instruments of holiness for the benefit of others. Hosea essentially bids the reader to self-reform, though it requires a broken and contrite spirit. He used the agrarian language of the ancients, “plowing up the fallow ground” to make the foundation of life receptive to renewal. Cultivate the ground such that heart and soul are cleansed of all that corrupts, removing weeds and thorns impairing the causes of uprightness and good works of generosity. Then my thoughts were drawn to the portion in Jeremiah, warning against “sowing among thorns.”

Me being me, I want a meaning, a message, something I can implement like a marching order. And like the Psalmist, I contemplate the words and digest them like food. What’s this about unproductive, fallow ground and sowing among thorns? Maybe life in the comfortable old place in the West End (which I could afford) was fallow ground that needed to be tilled. Maybe the moneycraving landlords and their doings (and misdoings) were part of this casting away into the abyss. Perhaps I live in a city and a state that amount to fallow ground, complete with thornridden recipients of one well-composed cover letter and résumé after another. If this is true, I want to know right away, before any more life forces are wasted. I could look back and grind away more in persistent defeatedness, or strain to look ahead for the miraculous.


4

While disciplining my thoughts to steer away from the brink of tempting despondence, I write my determination to leverage the temporal toward promising horizons. The pandemic era got most people to internalize “making the best of a bad situation.” Trauma lingers and anxiety remains: the latter due to the expense and unsuitability of the place. There needs to be another move, a liberation from such an oppressively claustrophobic environment. Last month’s emergency move notwithstanding, precious resources were sown in the wrong kind of soil, thus any sort of harvest I can salvage is out-of-joint.

My better musings return to gathering some functional thoughts to try recognizing Divine purpose in this intense trial. As I transfer my personal effects from cardboard to reclosable plastic totes (since the place is too small for unpacking, and I want to be better prepared for the next move), I’m reacquainted with treasures I haven’t seen in four months. I get to see what I’ve missed and what I did not miss. From a box of childhood keepsakes, I unpacked my Felix the Cat- the sight of which brought me to tears, and I apologized to him for these crabby confines. Felix is a keeper, though I am finding other things to give away or sell, as I make yet another comprehensive purge. It’s all unsatisfactory, yet coping is necessary, reconciling without settling.


In the midst of this continuing crisis, as I’ve surely seen throughout the last six months, multitudes cannot even find small places to stack their treasures, and still more are homeless. Along with the health crisis which has claimed almost 7 million lives worldwide, maintaining a sense of context is critical. An impartial observer that notices the fortunate that get good jobs and have nice places to live, must also keep an awareness of the less-fortunate. My definition of home has become elusively fluid. The best thing said to me came from one of the wonderful librarians at the Boston Athenaeum, who compassionately wished that I’d find a sense of home at the library, and at any time I open my journal to write. Having made decades of pilgrimages, it’s easy to call to mind how writing is a movable feast- even with just a morsel, a notebook, and a pencil. Still, the pride of place I had for many years in a lofty Victorian row-house has been brought to something lowly, clenched, and yet overpriced. It’s nothing to be proud of, and will be easy to leave behind.

Boston Athenaeum terrace


If ambition really is a luxury, then I stand flagrantly overdrawn. Aspirations are pearls of great price and I intend to invest with them, rather than to hoard my credentials. Even in these harsh circumstances, I insist upon enriching myself with studies and knowledge. These pursuits long predate this year, and there have been plenty of rewarding adventures. Why not anticipate more? Living against the barricades of canned confinement and treadmill workdays must amount to a launch into something healthful and lifegiving. Several years ago, a counselor to whom I described my work situation replied with a memorable turn of phrase: “Well, that burns the platform hotter, doesn’t it?” It’s not to say I feel that I’m owed anything; it’s more like a marrowdeep desire to live and work in better environs. The perseverance muscles are flexed, as is the longing for the fulfilment of two careers’ worth of cultivated abilities.