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

Thursday, December 14, 2023

domine, ut videam

“When darkness falls; when nighttime is at its deepest,
and day seems far away; whenever we seem caught and blinded
by the powers and principalities of this present darkness,
there’s only one thing to do.
Turn on the light.

Many have said it across the years, in philosophy and stories,
in words of wisdom and song, and yet we are so quick to forget.
But there is a simple solution to the darkness of a room
in the middle of the night, of mind and heart,
of civilization and society. Reach for the flashlight,
for the word of hope, for the prayer.
Open the door to light, to grace, and to glory;
invite in the Light of the World, and allow that light
to chase away the shadows of nighttime fears.
Turn on the light.”

~ Carrie Gress, A Litany of Light

The paragraphs quoted above are reproduced with Dr. Gress’ permission; her text was given to me last April at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, when I spent a week there. That was my last significant time off from work. Such respite has not been possible since. Stresses and excessive fatigue have intensified my already longstanding insomnia. Not an easy topic, and I’ve been resisting any sort of permanency for a condition that must not last; just like a miserable housing situation. Let hardship generate needed motivation to transcend. Typical insomniac nights are restless. Imagine being at the conclusion of full and arduous workdays, yet unable to fall asleep- or remain asleep. None of the usual tactics help- from shutting down the lit screen early in the evening, to routines for bringing the day in for a landing, to reflective reading. I’ve always been told to walk around and have a glass of water, instead of tossing-and-turning in place. That doesn’t work, either. Listening to the radio is another repeatedly bad measure. The cast of culprits includes employment, housing, worries, regrets, frustrations, and other various obstacles. In this context, the Litany of Light I’ve quoted here offers a discipline to stem these daunting tides. “Turn on the light” is occasionally literal- so that I can write something down- and is more often metaphorical. As well, the discipline is not rigorous, but in forms of gentle reminders. Gentleness is surely not something experienced in daily life, not even in the boorishly cacophonous apartment building. Forms of gentleness worth my practicing include chaplets, prayers, and turning the light on- either by redirecting thoughts or by flashlight. This is to survive to see better days, and ahead of that to being open to seeing better. The biblical Bartimaeus miraculously received his sight by praying, Domine, ut videam, which means O God, help me to see!

The present state of my self-discipline is to refrain from fixating my sights far beyond the immediate. There is nothing easy about this, especially after pulling my own weight- and then some- for many, many vigilant years. But in rescinding my grasp, in modest increments, it becomes easier to sense the guiding consolations of saints and angels. It is essential for me to stay the course of good conscience, smart work, and responsibility- even though I’ve yet to see favorable results. I know enough not to expect favors, and I remember very well how my father would encourage me to keep at it: he’d say “Keep on stepping up and swinging the bat for the fences!” My wakeful and repeatedly fractured nights are riddled with reminders of how badly all my efforts are going, and I understand enough to consider my circumstances as an engulfing trial of as-yet-unknown duration. What I do know is the immediate, and the next right thing is what needs my attention; there’s nothing nebulous about that. Continuing to productively work is paralleled by continuing to network and search for better. Anguish serves to generate ambition.

Finding light in the darkness is a constant pursuit, yet paradoxically thinking about that very pursuit itself winds up helping me get back to sleep. I recently remembered something I’d do while on cherished travels such as pilgrimages: at the close of the day, I’d fall asleep while recalling the good things I experienced. With eyes closed, lying back, my thoughts would effortlessly return to the day’s scenery, people, sounds, tastes, and ideas. A grateful review of the day. Now under twin yokes of work duress and miserable housing, I try closing the day and gratefully asking, “what did I like today? What went well?” The temporary apartment is cramped, oppressive, and often invasively loud. When I’m wakefully clambering to look out from the windows, using a small flashlight to help me squeeze my way to pouring a glass of water during the midnight hours, I always notice the rare quiet. Working two careers that required the sharpest, clearest photo images, I marvel at the dusky, grainy, grey light of the hours long before dawn. My ache for better days and situations keeps me ambitiously working, and also keeps me awake at night.

During a recent sojourn at the Boston Athenaeum, I studied the 17th century text, Tender Counsel and Advice by way of Epistle, by pioneering Quaker William Penn. As always during my prized study days in the manuscripts room, I made numerous notes for my later reading. Providing his tender counsel, applying the Quaker emphasis to mind the Light, Penn bids the reader to walk in the holy Light of Christ, and thereby be preserved through all trials and difficulties on earthly life’s pilgrimage:

“For even Jesus was tempted and tried, and is therefore become our Captain, because he overcame. Neither be ye cast down, because the Lord sometimes seemeth to hide his Face from you, that you feel not always that Joy and Refreshment, that you sometimes enjoy. I know what work the Enemy maketh of these Withdrawings of the Lord. Perhaps he will insinuate, that God hath deserted you in his displeasure, that you must never expect to see him, that he will never come again: And by these and the like strategems, he will endeavour to shake your faith and hope, and distract you with fear, and to beget great jealousies and doubts in you; and by impatience and infidelity, frustrate your good beginnings.”

Reaching for light, along with recollecting positive experiences, help to uphold a sense of wonder to be able to look forward. As much as it runs against the grain of desolation, it is all the more essential to force the effort to stay hopeful. Trading consolations one morning with a colleague that is also a good friend, we compared how we wryly express our perseverance. In a comedic gruffness, looking up from a computer, my friend said, “I’m happy, dammit!” I replied with my sarcastic equalizer, “I’m being positive ‘til it kills me!” Even amidst austerity, there’s room for some kind of humor. Sarcasm, however, can detrimentally ingrain itself into one’s every perspective. I described catching and adjusting my own propensities as being similar to a car with misaligned wheels. With some focused consideration, I’ll steer my thoughts forward, preventing myself from swerving off the road. Balance and luminosity need one another, and all the more in dark and unmarked valleys. “For with you is the fountain of life,” wrote King David in the 36th Psalm; “In Your light we shall see light.” Philosophizing about the verse in the 5th century, Saint Augustine observed, “we are, and understand, because of divine illumination.” Have I got enough of this light of understanding, and do I obstruct the headlamps of guidance? As the matter of the heart is the heart of the matter, I try holding up my end of things with all I can provide. Sure, there’s grace, but typically it’s been costlier for me than it’s seemed to be for most everyone I know. Whether or not that’s true, with contrast being the mother of clarity, it honestly looks that way to me. Leaving such notions aside, and now insistently swerving away from them, the road ahead must include surrendering the failings and the incorrigibles. Living an ascended, resurrected life is needed for new beginnings. Let the way upward be lit by aspiration and gratitude.

Sunday, November 12, 2023


“The Spirit moves the faithful to plead
with sighs too deep for words by inspiring in them
a desire for the great and as yet unknown reality
that we look forward to with patience.
How can words express what we desire when it remains unknown?
If we were entirely ignorant of it we would not desire it;
again, we would not desire it or seek it with sighs,
if we were able to see it.”

~ Saint Augustine, The Spirit Pleads for Us.

Maybe you’re a bit like me, and your morning routines include tuning into the news of current events. If you know better than to do this, you’re much smarter than me. An old habit of mine for many years has been to wake-wash-dress-caffeinate with the radio tuned to the news. Added to the ensemble is online news and checking for messages. In recent years, the “ensemble” is more like a barrage to me. Invariably, I’ll glean just enough to know what’s happening and something about weather prognostication, increasingly choosing to begin the day with writing and reading. Indeed, lit screens are integral to each day- especially at work- and can be very useful, if not essential for connectivity, communication, and construction of resources. After all, I’ve been a blogger for 17 years, gratefully authoring essays, and the results have opened doors to extraordinary writing opportunities and fellowships. Simultaneously, considering the internet’s persistent abundance, controlling even a limited stream is equally essential for clarity of thought. Especially at the start of the demanding day. The pandemic era revealed to the isolated many that it is left to the individual to manage their own mental and spiritual health. And develop an intellectual, artistic life. Without such pursuits, it becomes even easier to be lulled into digital complacency. Days flow into months and years. “We have only so much time,” said a pastor friend of mine, “to gladden the hearts of those who make the journey with us.”

As I try experimenting with apportioning my sparse, unsold slivers of time, I’m minimizing media to make space for unfettered constructive thoughts. Making a few written notes in my journal, the words are re-read and built upon later in the day. Thoughts at daybreak seem as unimpeded as any I’ll have. Extending to my uttermost reaches to improve a desperate situation, I’m repeatedly writing about hope. A soul that hopes is one that aspires to see and inhabit better days. And persistent hope does not cease to seek ways to succeed. A living hope somehow generates its own adrenaline supply: a saturated strength, especially as it’s captivated by the unseen. Ideals may seem abstract, but conceptually striving efforts toward better work and housing are tangible motivations. Hope’s objects may be out of view, but these intentions are solid. Many individuals want to talk about their hopes, sharing them, even assisting others with theirs. Unfulfilled hopes drive many to the extremities of their abilities, becoming pleas for assistance, and further as outpourings of prayers.

A conscientious, focused suppliant turns the mind and thoughts to God. Contemplation essentially entails immersing the mind into the heart. Ancient wisdom as recorded in the Philokalia refers to prayer as “conversing with God, in reverent respect and hope.” Saint Dimitri wrote, “Collect all your thoughts: laying aside all worldly cares, direct your mind towards God.” As worries reflect fears, prayer reflects a driven hope. An aspiration that is anything but passive demands a paradoxical combination of persistence and surrender. And it must be lived, much more than observed. To be thwarted for many years at every turn is exhausting, yet still I counteract the weariness with increased striving. Navigating a careful balance between coasting and full-throttle intensity is a discipline in itself. A mystery, indeed, that is neither vague wishing nor obsessive grasping. Intent upon improvement, what lesson is there to be gleaned? Hope is essential, but perhaps one mustn’t hope too intensely? Wishing and hoarding are sentiments than run in opposite directions. We’re all susceptible to overthinking, particularly when straining to overcome deficiencies en route to goals. I surely know the dangers of the paralysis-of-analysis, yet I fall under them nonetheless. It’s a long, long haul and if improvements are merely incremental, they’re still positive factors.

Outside of such things as archival documentation (speaking from many years as a professional archivist), all that is past has ceased to pulsate: At best, it informs, whether we choose to look back a day or a decade. Trying to steer away from anxious wakefulness, my efforts are to channel thoughts to the immediate. Aware of juggling several unsustainable continua, I warn myself against pondering this. Just pursue and tack toward calmer waters. Endure and trust. I’ve witnessed countless friends burn out, and notwithstanding how much I’ve had in common with most of these fine souls, thus far I’ve avoided such straits and fates. Navigating as such by my wits doesn’t mean I’m better; it means I’m intent upon surviving to see and to live improvement. Competition is at all hands, and the last thing I’d ever want to do is damage my chances. Inevitably, the finest of hopes grow amidst discouraging, fruitless, and inhospitable thickets. And thus, the words hope and must are twinned by necessity.

Admittedly, treacherous shoals are far from limited to those offered by such outlets as those announcing what’s wrong and what’s deficient about us. There are parallel dangers in perfectionism, trend-chasing, and lack of compassion. “We’re human, all likewise God’s children,” wrote Josemaría Escrivá, “and we cannot think that life consists in building up a brilliant curriculum vitæ or an outstanding career. Ties of solidarity should bind us all and, besides, in the order of grace we are united by the supernatural bond of the Communion of Saints.” I read Escrivá’s remark while shivering at a deserted bus stop, admiring his big-picture view that inspires individuals to look beyond themselves. Has my manicured résumé really helped to pave a road for me? That’s the desired result, but so much of this entire odyssey reveals the limited control one person has over the critical complexities of living. Roadblocks attest to what cannot happen, but as with swerving away from dangers, these denials can become prompts toward magnanimity. One recent pared-down early morning, my gratitude came to mind that I’ve arrived at the impulse to ceaselessly look to God, and for the grace of perseverance. Manifestations of this type of grace, wrote Theophan the Recluse, “show itself on a person’s side in a yearning and aspiration towards God, and on God’s side in good intention, help, and protection.” At the very least, I am certain that God is. Perhaps there is more to that conviction than I’m able to comprehend now. In his work, Collations on the Hexaëmeron, Saint Bonaventure beautifully observed:

“The soul has to learn how to be willing and consistent. Grace lifts the soul above its own nature and effort, when grace elevates it to receive direct illuminations from God, which then become the subject of spiritual reflection and theological speculation.”

Considering the sanctity of the soul, and trying to remove as much that is deleterious as possible, mental and spiritual refuge must be carefully and judiciously replenished. Winnowing chaff and pursuing advancement, I’m reminded of the first Johannine epistle. To me, John is the archivist’s apostle, peppering his letters and his evangel with terms such as the record, that which he witnessed, and that which was written, as one connecting historicity, his younger audience, and his personal experience. “Test the spirits, beloved,” he wrote in chapter four, so that we can discern what is authentic and confirming of the gospel. He encouraged his faithful students with, you’ve overcome cruel spirits, because greater is the Holy Spirit within you, than that which circulates through the culture in our midst. A popular American financial institution advertises its credit card by asking, “what’s in your wallet?” Over two millennia ago, John asked his listeners and readers, “what’s within?” What’s enshrined in your sanctuary? Applying some language from the archival profession, “what’s your collection development policy?” and “what are your appraisal criteria?” Like stewarding multifaceted archives, being the curator of one’s soul implies confrontation of deciding what warrants preservation. At the same time, I’m maintaining room for growth on the shelves, leaving space for worthwhile acquisitions.