Sunday, April 4, 2021

notandum


“Teach us to love a life hidden with You.”

~ from the Divine Hours, for Easter eve


“Notandum quod iste...” reads a manuscript of Thomas à Kempis’- which is to say “make note of this,” or, “let it be observed.” Kempis wrote the compendium of inspirational essays called Imitatione Christi during the early 1400s. At first, the book was meant to encourage novices among the Brethren of the Common Life, and the Sisters of the Common Life- communities that brought monasticism to eclectic cities in what are now Holland, Germany and Belgium. Kempis’ works continue to be in print today, with a readership that is unconfined by denomination or affiliation. His order was also known as the Devotio Moderna, reviving ancient Christian practice in contemporary context, more than a century before the Reformation. Much of the communities’ self-sustaining income was made through teaching and book-production. The order spanned into the era of the first printing presses (and some of the monastic houses developed highly-accomplished printing establishments). But for the most part, the work was all done by hand, and Kempis was also known as a master calligrapher. Being a calligrapher and teacher of the craft myself, I admire the expression of “making note,” on many levels. That simple expression reminds me to continue to observe, remain aware, write, create imagery, and attend to others. Spring’s arrival is signaling observers to hope with great intent, even against our circumstances.


Central to the wonder of the season that I call winter-into-spring are the abrupt changes in temperature and light. Senses are ignited out of their winter dormancy. In northern New England, there’s that one day upon which I can suddenly notice the aromas of earth and trees, while still walking through snow. In the midst of global tragedy and seamless successions of months, making note of some kind of positive progress is a providential distraction. Perhaps it’s a survival instinct of ours, to divert attention toward things that appeal to the will to transcend. We long to be invited to scenarios of welcome.

In this part of the world, spring ushers in baseball season- even during these times of limitation. In a recent Boston Herald article, a poignant reminiscence of the four-year-old boy (now a parent in his forties) rescued by star Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice after being hit in the head by a line drive looks back at the event in 1982. Rice, now a celebrated hall of famer, ran into the stands and scooped up the seriously injured child and ran to deliver him to the medics that were on duty at Fenway Park. The boy recovered, and now at 43 the man told the Herald interviewer that “you’ve got to live every second,” and cherish every moment. Mr. Keane added that the “smells of the park” are sweet to him: “from the hot dogs to fried onions for the sausages, and the field that is green unlike any green in the world.” Then he reflected, “this year baseball is needed more than ever.” Making note can also be a show of gratitude, as well as an alertness to the immediate, always with the undertone of taking nothing for granted.


For the most part, diversion must be sought. We have to know to look for it. Not every day is a sunny one at Fenway Park. And in my note-taking, which is both written and committed to memory, I remind myself of an elder friend’s wise words from long ago: “If you don’t like how you’re feeling, change what you’re doing.” I try to do this, whenever possible. This very same friend also taught me this saying: “Hardship is inevitable, but misery is optional.” This speaks to what cannot be changed, but what must be worked around- at best. Thomas à Kempis, with his teachers and his students were all living their vocations during the worst times of the late-medieval plagues. Zwolle was the hardest-hit city in Holland. Dozens and dozens of the Sisters and Brothers of the Devotio Moderna died of the plague.

They continued to carry on their ministries to the poor and homeless. Kempis himself survived the sickness, while he saw many of his brethren pass away. He was also the chronicler of his monastic community, named Mount Saint Agnes. Kempis essentially kept the journal of the house. To this day, we can read about the fallen, including highlights about their lives and characters. His chronicles preserved many other aspects about daily life in his community, including what they ate, how they dressed, and features related to the physical landscape. They, too, witnessed the passage of time. Now this season offers us a display of the upward progress of nature in spring- something preciously rare during this pandemic. Predictable progress that parallels the unfolding of time is an irresistible prospect. It drives us onward. Kempis made many references to the hidden life of a contemplative, even a working contemplative outside a cloister. Interestingly enough, some of his unsigned works are identifiable by his handwriting. He did not make efforts to be noticed; his life was one of service and being a compassionate witness to those around him. Indeed, that is a life to be loved and one that ministers through plagues and toward renaissance.



Saturday, April 3, 2021

traction


“I am like a desert owl of the wilderness,
like an owl of the waste places.


~ Psalm 102:6


endurance

The need for endurance never dissipates. It is surely emphasized during this exhausting pandemic that vigilance cannot be interrupted. Lived experience- in real time, as opposed to looking back to the past through truncated perspective- is often vulnerable to mirages. Does time really “heal all wounds,” or is it simply that amidst our lived passage of time the immediacy of our thoughts and urgencies create distancing distractions? A lot more scrupulosity is required to accurately remember, than to supercede events with more events. I believe we are more prone to passively forget, as opposed to actively recollecting. Returning to the odyssey of surviving the pandemic, it is too easy to be fooled by the mere passage of time. Some significant developments have certainly transpired during the past year, but time has not made the danger go away. We could say that we’re buying time with our preventive measures, hoping to extend enough space for medicine to catch up and surpass the contagion. For the passage of time to be of constructive use, it must be combined with perspective...


...And levels of patience uncharacteristic of the on-demand culture that was indefinitely derailed last year. Discerning observers have seen, too many times, how impatience and self-centeredness can kill. But the pressure is not only in the swirl of wanderlust, but also steeped in economic duress. The need to earn a living is yoked to how most of us are scrambling to be relevant. Somewhere in the middle is a rarely-seen sense of prudent moderation. For a worker on the margins of sustenance, there are few means for influence. It’s a steep drive uphill with insufficient traction. Surviving this episode of undetermined duration is anything but passive: while the necessary kind of vigilance toughens, I am trying to prevent resistance from leading to callousness. Not easy, but worthwhile for the sake of conscience- albeit with thickened skin. Abiding in my thoughts is the unforgiving aspect of time; as it marches on, we all get older. Proving to be relevant is joined by the yokefellow of marketability. Those whose quests for better employment began long before the covid era wind up forced to apply even greater effort to compensate for the intense losses of rejection. But survival means standing up, dusting off, and recovering that requisite traction. Quarantining intensifies the challenge of perspective, and a spiritual backbone is all the more a sustaining means. Survival is also the willingness to improve every possible approach, from the present adversities, to open ends to the future. More than simply being aware of my surrounding factors, it is vital to be critical of them- but without being negative. Such constructive criticism- as it is in the arts- is meant to motivate change. Normally, and for years before April 2020, I would distract myself by “getting out of Dodge,” with road trips, cultural venues, and pilgrimages. Recently (as I wrote last month), the open horizons are through the inner life. Journaling, more than ever, is a storing-up of strength and recollection. It is less a buying of time, and more like “renting time,” considering how little I actually own.


traction and inertia


As spring arrives, notwithstanding the time mirages I’ve just written about, I’m expecting improvement. I’m also humbly remembering mild days aperch with books on the front stoop of my apartment. Perching on the granite steps will often bring me in contact with six- and eight-legged neighbors. For the most part, when a large ant rushes in my direction, I’ll flick it away. Fascinatingly, if I set the edge of my book down to obstruct an ant’s path, it tries to go around the barrier. Then I move the barrier, and the ant tries another route, not interested in backtracking. I can relate to this type of ant, quixotically trying every possible way-around. Inevitably and usually, I’ll simply raise my book and let it pass along on its determined way. Wouldn’t I love to receive such mercy.


Ever prying at the barricades, I can do only so much to try to influence circumstances. Admitting to my own naïveté, my persistent idealism continues to assume that honest, diligent, and excellent work leads to a better life. Or at least an open door. But what really opens the way to opportunity? How do social outsiders transcend the barricades? In much slower and with more complicated variables than those of the scurrying ant on the front stoop, I’ve yet to find significant success. With decades of pondering this, and conversing with numerous individuals, while observing many levels of these games of prejudicial sizing-up and upload-analytics, I’ve learned that traction comes from the receiving end. This is to say that without allies on the inside, an applicant is left to stand upon nothing more than their own substance. Ironically, the most valuable aspects- abilities, accomplishments, cooperativeness, and character- are made the least important. Traction and open doors are impossible without allies on the inside. I’ve conferred with no less than eight career counselors, and they each agree. There can surely be exceptions, but they emanate from the same unpredictable realm as that of the miraculous. And if the odds weren’t steep enough, there is the regional perception universally-known (and admitted by too many), which I call The Maine Paradox:

If you’re from here, we can trust you, but you’re no good;
If you’re from away, we can’t trust you,
but you’re better than us.


This is an unwritten truth finally written here. And it is as defeatist and universally acknowledged as the proverbial “gentleman’s agreement.” It is also sadly a major reason why most local talent reluctantly leaves this state for the cause of finding success elsewhere. I have witnessed this for more than thirty years. And it is more than unfortunate, not only for all the heartbroken souls that are barricaded out of building careers in their beloved and invested home state, but also for the cause of community depth and priceless historicity. Such widespread disregard for homegrown and locally-embraced ingenuity endangers community and corporate memory to the point of repeating mistakes. And this is not to mention unproductive and costly lunges for “outside experts” that do more harm than help. No-one I’ve met anywhere knows of a place attached to such an undercutting mindset. Of course, nativistic views are not productive, either, but what can really use some societal traction is fair competition for all. Are there Maine people in high places (and I have discussed this with various members of state government) who will address the paradox of which they dismayingly admit exists? Societal amnesia on a broader scale is such that prophetic messages as not being judged by race or ethnicity but by content of character (and I’ll add place of residence) seem as if they’ve never been preached at all.


time as preparatory


“People tend to overstate my resilience, but, of course, I hope they're right,” was famously said by the brilliant Boston University professor and radio commentator David Brudnoy. He poignantly titled his memoir “Life is Not a Rehearsal.” A strong sense of the preparatory dovetailed from graduate school into a protracted life of working while hunting for improved conditions. Far too much precious time has been consumed by treating the days and years as a kind of warmup for grander things- for something that will finally do justice to my hardworked cultivation. Grit, sweat, knuckling under, wincing through bullying, and settling for less. But the pandemic has forced downsized dreams upon countless souls. Now the victories are found in water-treading. For what are the dress-rehearsals, now?


The past year’s desert exile has led into a second round of perilous haul. As relief seems to near, it gets batted away, and we that survive must trudge on. And even-keeled, no less. Throughout this time, and long before, my energies and ambitions have been fueled by faith. In a strange and oddly biblical sequence, as my continuum worsens, my backbone strengthens. Indeed, things do level off- and then the threshold lowers some more. This is surely not to my preference, and I’d much prefer spiritual and intellectual growth in comfort and stride. Maybe that will come later. Within my personal belief is a real admiration for the directness in the journey between Creator and individual. Reading the literature left for us by faithful mortals, along with the scriptural texts, there’s even an admirable bluntness that weaves among the more poetic strands of psalmody. Let’s not perpetuate the unreality that “the saints” walked around all mild-mannered and aura-surrounded. They knew plenty about disappointment and frustration, and their holiness was tied to how and what they did with what they had. It’s normal, human, and downright honest to get sassy; it’s better than to be bitter. God can handle it.

I’ve often said to students and audiences that the best writing is honest writing. Be true to yourself, and tell the truth. It goes the same in the spiritual realm: be true and honor what is true. Express that disappointment. There are millennia of prophetic (which means “truth-tellers”) speakers who have done the same- however doing so dares to toe a fine line, and the sojourning individual must beware to not cause injury to their conscience or to their spiritual relationship. Declaring expectations for improvements is also a demand upon oneself. Prayer “with a vengeance” sounds like a conflict in terms, but it is not- so long as the insistent fierceness does not break communion. Not a place to take up residence, but a passing waystation. Traction’s purpose is to launch out of ruts and safely across ice-covered roads- both on land and within the soul.


This wilderness has yet to present a clearing. Vigilance cannot be interrupted. Whether or when the road turns favorably remains unknown. Some days begin with it will never, and some begin with hasn’t yet. My beloved home town has become even more of a deserted place than it was during the recession which gutted many places in the late 1980s. The fortunate are the water-treaders. A good friend and fellow curator, among a long list of neighbors who moved away, told me on the phone that “Maine is unforgiving.” I told him that I know this; I know this. Yes I know this. What happens next? Like the old guys spending their money on scratch tickets in convenience stores, I keep trying and applying. “You never know,” I say, sounding like the lottery ticket spenders. “All it takes is an open door. An even more perfect pitch and some recognition in high places. Just a bit more traction. Some of that deferred grace would be handy now. It could be right around the corner. And I go on, surely along with many other kindred spirits, renting some more time and procuring the consolations as well as possible.




Friday, February 26, 2021

inward

“Your garret is exactly like a cell in the desert.”
~ Saint John of Valamo

__________________________________________________

“Your whole purpose at this moment is to change yourself inwardly.”
~ Theophan the Recluse

These times are putting just about everyone to severe testing of mind and soul. Speaking for myself, because I must continue productively working and negotiating with this world, there’s no avoiding the challenge to hold a constructive course during this destructive pandemic. I’ve gratefully kept to my early-waking routines, as they continue being as sensible as they are achievable. The one difference is that I begin my days- whether weekdays or weekend days- about two hours earlier than I did before the pandemic. This is how I can run my errands without running into crowds. I also use the lengthened mornings to gather my thoughts and strengthen for the day. Smaller measures require greater efforts.

Winter reveille begins in complete darkness. My floorcreaking footsteps, filling bathtub, and coffee maker are the sole sounds in the apartment building. The street outside is completely silent. It was very rarely this quiet before a year ago. Emerging from vivifying hot water to the rest of my barely-heated apartment, dressed and caffeinating, I give myself some time for some reading and writing. Then, still at my desk, I give myself a digestible morsel of radio news. The everything-online world will have to wait until later. Despite quarantining, there must be sanctified time for musing. And often amidst the musing, radio notwithstanding, it strikes me that even the sunniest personalities have got to be feeling the misery of these times. Much like the ways we’ve each had to find for contending with the logistics of closures and contagions, individuals must find their own ways to live above the fray. It has become more vital than ever to be able to lift one’s own spirit above the snares of apathy and fear. And ennui. My expression for the big efforts needed to do small things is the overcoming of pandemic inertia. Correspondents tell me they get too tired to reply to messages. “Zoom fatigue” is an energy syphon most of us have experienced, as well as mind-numbing “social media burnout” as our exposure thresholds are traversed. Without easy solutions, especially as it concerns the ways many of us must stay employed, ironic as it may appear, my compensatory measure is inward solitude. Imagine needing a healthful refuge away from the friction of hyper-vigilance. Isolation and contemplative solitude are two very different things.


__________________________________________________


“The way to God is an inner journey accomplished in the mind and heart.”
~ Saint John of Valamo

Seeking refuge from social distancing will likely sound even stranger in several years than it does now. But there are as many good reasons to find sanctuary these days as there were before a year ago. For more than twenty years, my offsetting remedy against workplace burnout has been to take time off every six months as a healthful retreat. I was able to do this for an eight-day stretch in 2020, just weeks before everything had to shut down. Not being able to make pilgrimages and retreats since then- let alone any sort of traveling- has added a palpable strain to the existing tension of this era. To be sure, this does not compare with major hardships I’ve witnessed near, as well as far. Isolation need not obstruct viewing life in context. Perception greatly benefits by regularly retreating to environments conducive to uncensored thought, assuring stimuli, and promising scenery. Essentially, the soul can renew by retreating within, whether or not in a destination such as a mountaintop or a contemplative community. Within the constraints of existing public health regulations, joining the list of redefined words is that of respite. At the same time, the ancient directive echoed in The Cloud of Unknowing to be “nothing and nowhere” must be put to the test when one’s confines cannot change. The inward habitation of the attentive soul continues to be immediately at hand for an individual, no matter the physical venue. That “nothing and nowhere” is actually “anyone and anywhere.” Saint Teresa of Avila wrote about our metaphorical recesses as she described the Interior Castle, consisting of “dwelling places” of contemplation as the soul progresses from materialistic wishes to union with God. The Benedictine brothers at Weston Priory, whom I have been missing very much, refer to “entering the deeper rooms of our lives.” Travels to places of pilgrimage and community are surely beautiful and the comforts are sweet, but doing this became profoundly important to me because it has been greatly needed. Now, as since last February, sanctuary must be of my creating, applying what I have learned through my experiences.


__________________________________________________


“Cast aside everything that might extinguish this small flame which is beginning to burn within you,
and surround yourself with everything which can feed it and fan it into a strong fire.
Your solitude must become more collected, your prayer deeper, and your meditation more forceful.”

~ Saint John of Valamo

Perhaps the inward motion for refuge is a form of escapism; maybe even more so than a physical pilgrimage travel. Is a willing isolation within a mandatory isolation excessive? I would say not, especially in the context of the inward turning of the heart to God in response to the pull of the Spirit. It is no more an escape than it is to submerge into extended silence in the midst of a community. It is at once worship, it is recognition, and it is the submission of one’s conscience. As to the latter aspect, the ancient Psalmist observed that it is through the innermost that wisdom can be made known*. Rather than an escapism, such contemplation is integral to the soul’s progress.

Along with the phenomenon of retreating into solitude within quarantine is the aspect of expansiveness through the interior life of the spirit, yet without a physical place to go. Indeed, to each their own adversities. Every one of us has stories. The closed-in life with its pressures, frustrations, and uncertainties easily lends to the stifling sense of having nowhere to turn. My journal entries are more frequent, but shorter than they were a year ago. Not only are present days more fractured, without having cafés as writing venues, my customary long entries are gone. Writing continues to be a place to which I can turn away from dead ends and bad news. Of course I write about such things that are on my mind, getting them out of the ways of my thoughts. In the desolation of these times. To avert the kind of closing-in that can easily happen in solitude, there must be plenty of thought-expanding reading. The quotes in this essay are from the Philokalia, whose volumes of austere monastic wisdom have accompanied me for many years. Never far from me, they are once again receiving my attention. Sturdy and time-honored written words, especially sacred writing, provide refuge for the outcast. Those who are barred from advancing their careers from territories east of Eden can yet belong to the Divine in devotional reading. Study and reflection are ways to sow in this wilderness, redeeming the time. Continuity in reading and careful note-taking amidst this crucible are just as much a consoling balm as before, but the act of faith is enhanced, looking forward to more writing and more in-person teaching. My notebooks have come to remind me of earth-cellars that preserve the roots of the philosophical works of my studies. While in the metaphorical underground, I’ve been digitizing the notebooks after I fill them. Similar to precarious employment and housing, all aspects of living run parallel lines of what I call the bubble provisional. This indefinite season lives in a passing world, forcing me to set my heart on the world that will never end.





* Psalm 51:6

Sunday, January 24, 2021

have words

“A human is not any inborn image of itself,
but many images coming in from the outside.”


~ Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, 15th c. (quoted in Ymage of Love, 1532)

The wilderness of this pandemic is now entering its eleventh month. While the end is not in sight, the beginning is long out of view, and the passage of time generates its own mirages about progress. It’s too easy to be fooled by distances covered and changes in seasons, thinking all will be resolved soon. Joining the popular parlance has been the expression “covid fatigue,” and it speaks for the weariness of many. This kind of exhaustion can deceive anyone into thinking the nightmare will end as a film does when the credits roll and the house lights come up again. But a global pandemic is not quickly resolved- even if it materialized as a rip tide. Yet in the midst of chaos and misery, the imperative to keep working and responsibly run a tight ship remains. Admittedly, there are many instances at which I stop in my tracks, in the middle of a work day, and feel the subtly deep-seated grief of these times. It’s difficult to have something with which to compare this. I often go to my street-facing windows, looking for signs of life such as pedestrian humanity and a tempo that exceeds that of my apartment. Very many recollections have heartbreaking undertones, as I remember casually traveling to visit interesting places of beauty and intricacy, seeing friends, and enjoying savoury meals. I remember the suddenness of closures last March, known in my thoughts as “when the curtain came down.” Right away, I struggled with boredom and tedium. Far too many struggle with much worse. Indeed, the entire world is in crisis. These are grievously sad times. Perhaps these things get to you, too. When humanity finally traverses this wilderness, there will be many notes to compare in person.


noting the words


Ever the observer- even through quarantine life- and always writing and photographing, I continue to notice the words of this era. Documenting these times, I’ve made note of the strangeness of such terms as social distancing, self-isolating, masking-up, contact tracing, curve-flattening, covidiots, doomscrolling, and the quickly overused unprecedented. Then there are cultural expressions of dismay. Of course many are shocked at what has been transpiring before our eyes; so am I. We can express it, or we can say, “I have no words.” Of course you have words. There are always words, especially in a language as pinpont specific as ours. Just reach for the words. We can be as elaborate or as concise as we choose- but it takes a bit of thought to dodge the clichés and assert observing and inventive words of our own. Another verbal response of incredulity is now to say, “this is not what we are.” There are variations, such as “this is not who we are,” and “this is not what we’re about.” The spirit of this expression is understandable enough, but why not be more direct and responsible and say something like, “we know better than to do this,” or “that was not right and we were wrong.” As actions so often speak louder than words, saying “this is not what we are,” is actually saying “look at what we are.” Yes, these are words, but they are also determinants of our convictions.


having words and having minds


Navigating and surviving the pandemic brings most of us into a lot more solitude than we’ve previously known. Liking one’s own company can help a great deal. Amidst the suddenness of all the closures and curfews, even in the shock-response, I noticed myself immediately tapping into practices I learned in monastic life. Although pandemic quarantining has tensions and anxious undertones that do not resemble contemplative solitude, I’ve been trying to redeem this exile-like continuum in employment and “downtime.” The ora et labora adopted from my Benedictine friends manifests daily with the divine hours and journaling threaded through my self-propelled work days. Whether in professional communications, online teaching, or personal writing, words and inflection have greater implications than they had before the covid era. Our powers of expression and presentation have become more tightly funneled through verbal applications. Expression means saying what one is moved to say. Presentation demands the discipline of selective restraint, appropriate to the situation. It takes patience, as well, and necessary isolation seems to be forcing that all-too-forgotten virtue upon us.


Along with the challenge to flex those articulation muscles, cultivating the healthful during daunting stretches of silence is equally a test of mindfulness. Both spheres make demands of an individual’s intentions, but both must also give way to unstructured musing. If I am the sole proponent of puttering, the lone such voice that crieth in the wilderness, then so be it. Perhaps by reading this, you may be inspired to your own recollective puttering around your living space. Paradoxically, by scattering the contents of my desk, I inevitably gather my thoughts. And though I haven’t got a mind anything like Albert Einstein’s, I undoubtedly comprehend his sentiment about loosening the valves of thought. Einstein wrote about how he would “think [about something] ninety-nine times and find nothing. Then I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me.”

Wales



Philosopher Martin Heidegger famously said that language is the house of being. This is to say it is where the soul lives. Indeed worth considering while attempting to rise to the level of one’s own uniqueness, each one of us. Another overused word in the past year is resilience. It’s actually quite a good and useful word, made of the Latin assemblage of re-seliens, or “the act of rebounding” (the action of continually leaping ahead). Good words can be worn down into background noise, but its spirit can still inform and take shape. I can be resilient without using the word, finding other ways to describe being persuaded to persevere. The need to be inventively originative is especially enhanced in these times. The pandemic has scattered physical communities and muffled the arts, but that needn’t cause our creative minds to become dormant. We’re capable of finding ways to encourage one another, and we still have the potential to better our minds. We have words and we have minds.


At the author's request, I provided this cover photo.



Earlier this month, my principal mentor and advisor from my undergrad years in college passed away. He was a well-published poet, as well as an inspiring and challenging educator. Brilliant in words and deeds. I studied writing, literature, poetry, and drama (including analysis of cinema) in Professor Aldrich’s memorable classes. Among the written arts, poetry in particular allows for the assemblage of words without the added constraints of sentence structure. Of course it is a craft of its own, just as essay-writing is also a distinct art form. A poet’s choices of words and their arrangements are the cutting edges for the expression of the artistic message. For me, there is no master as compelling as Dylan Thomas, whom I’ve loved since childhood, and whose configurations of words defy the rigidities of any predictable meter. Thomas was known to say that the sound of a word is as vital as its meaning; and it shows in his work. His written lines are filled with imagery. During my decade as a professor of photography, I regularly read Dylan Thomas to my classes- right before we would critique visual works. I would say, “Dylan’s words are giving us images, now we’re going to look at the images you see on the walls and provide some words.” Doing this always, always, always broke the ice that would be oh-so-typical in college art critiquing. When he wrote:

See, on gravel paths under the harpstrung trees
He steps so near the water that a swan’s wing
Might play upon his lank locks with its wind...*


Dylan gave us a self-portrait, just as we photographers do when we set off the timers on our tripodded cameras for just long enough so that we can enter the picture. An opportunity of a lifetime became possible when I was invited to live in the Thomas’ home, in Wales, immerse in Dylan’s native colors, and write. Swansea and its region really did resemble the imagery I found in his words. The whole experience was profoundly meaningful in every way for me, encouraging my continuation of bonding images and words. No doubt, upon returning home to Maine, I visited with Aldrich and described some of these adventures while we were catching up. It was also a chance to express my gratitude for his encouragement. May I recommend that you cultivate your words; don’t say you have no words, because you do. It’s like when someone calls me and says, “Can I ask you a question?” In so doing, you’ve done so. Ask that question. Have those words.

So shall he step till summer loosens its hold
On the canvas sky, and all hot colours melt
Into the browns of autumn and the sharp whites of winter,
And so complain,
In a vain voice,
to the stars.*


I had the supreme honor of calling this place home.







__ * Poet: 1935, by Dylan Thomas

Friday, December 25, 2020

why write


“Bet you’ve all got a story
You're just aching to tell.
Haven't we thrown our coinage
Down the wishing well?”


~ Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love, Doublecure


ask foundational questions

The year which is about to close out generates as much comment as emotion. During a recent radio interview for which the topic was journaling and letter writing, I talked about eagerly looking forward to the privilege of reflecting back about this current crisis in retrospect. This is to say when this plague is past. For the time being, and much of the last 10 months, I’ve continued writing, teaching remotely, and encouraging others to write their stories. Every person has volumes. Throughout the year, I’ve thankfully continued working at my employment- humble as it is- and in as much isolation as possible. Interspersed with my duties, whether on-site or in my apartment, my daily journaling also continues. I’ve noticed my written entries are much more detailed about the mundane than before. It’s surely related to the confinements of pandemic life. Although I’m staying afloat, it’s a desolate voyage. Perching to write last night, it amazed me that even amidst this time of exile there is still plenty to write about.

An old and affectionate ballad asks the pleasantly rhetorical question, “tell me why the stars do shine; tell me why the ivy twines?” The listener surely knows the answer, as these lines state what is mutually obvious, as sure as the ocean is blue. “Tell me,” I asked myself, “why do I write?” Well, the ocean is blue, the ivy twines; and as surely as I live and breathe, I write. Being in a much more pared-down life than before last March, the creature comforts are few and modest. But I make sure to write: this is a continuum that is always enjoyable, consoling, and vital. Neither a smoker nor a drinker, I do keep myself in good writing materials and strong coffee. These rank high among provisions. Especially now. Living and writing inextricably go together.

As I scribe my thoughts these days, usually between tasks, it is evident to me how trivial things are magnified while the wider world seems diminished. With all the necessary hygienic precautions and rules, there are no longer any spontaneous errands as before. Walks to the post office and grocery store trips have become equipped expeditions. What can’t be done or visited outnumbers what can be done or visited. At the same time, current events are brought very close- with scant positive news. Perceptions about proximity, distance, and time have been altered. All the more, writing is crucial as a balancing and restorative ingredient to my days. There is the action itself of physically setting down words on paper by hand, untethered from electronic media- and then there are the reasons for doing so. As with any creative art there are the physical actions of making, along with created content, and the work’s significance. It’s easy to take these things for granted, having committed to writing long ago (and photography much longer ago). Part of my stock-taking at the end of this difficult year is writing about why I write.


the invisible hand of providence


An easy and not altogether inaccurate answer for why I write is to say, “because I have plenty to say but I don’t wish to be tedious to those who know me.” Fine enough, though it isn’t really why I write. A person makes a mark on a page (or sculpts, composes, et cetera) in response to inner impulses strong enough to take some coordinated action. Indeed, the context for creative output is highly individualized. Throughout the decade during which I taught photography, I would say to the class that a photo image is the result of many intuitive decisions by the photographer. Such factors include vantage points, camera settings, composing what one has decided to include in the viewfinder, lighting, to name a few- and it all happens in fractions of seconds. The intentions behind the imagery are equally unique to the creative person. When I teach philosophy, I’m sure to point out the concepts of being and meaning as central to very many foundational questions.

In the spirit of the Advent season, I’m remembering how I’ve referred students to Blaise Pascal as having been solidly aware of the invisible hand of Divine providence. Agreeing with Pascal about this point, as well as that of openness to the serendipitous, I’ve learned not lean too much on contrivance. The nature of discovery is surprise. Years ago while in art college, I strongly felt the need to read the Bible- in the vernacular. As a child in my religious instruction, I had to translate Hebrew into English; I wasn’t very good at it, and the reading was not smooth. With the High Holidays in season and feeling rather desolate, I went to the public library and borrowed a King James translation. Reading at night, after my schoolwork, I found all the familiar places and people from my childhood studies- but in refreshingly fluid English (even if it was rather Elizabethan).

Everything was linking together between ancient history, the traditions I had learned and practiced, and all the fascinating personalities. Then I arrived at a threshold in the form of a blank page and turned it, finding something I had never seen before, the New Testament. Suddenly the names were not familiar, but I continued reading. The words and events were compelling, haunting, and sweet to me. I felt the Spirit very naturally taking root, and what followed after some time was the strength of the message forcing the expansion of my ancestral religious perimeters. Embracing the gospel eventually ostracized me from my community and led to some extremely difficult years of rejection and alienation. Looking back, it is astonishing how I did not break under the strain. An old soul with a new faith. Studies, work ethics, new friends, a few great mentors, and opened spiritual horizons were just enough to start gathering some momentum for the long haul. Surely many ruts in the road; it’s never been easy, but such is the pilgrimage of trust. But the Rabbi of Nazareth taught that hard times are inevitable, yet at the same time wise words will providentially take shape from within: “By your perseverance you will gain your soul.”* I write because an unusual, irrepressible, and enduring message has been given to me.


living for the emergence


Advent represents as much about manifestation as about anticipation. The waiting is not passive. As with my native traditions, the observance lends itself to merging the historic and the symbolic. At the same time the defining spirit is a looking-forward, emphasized at the darkest stretch of the year. The turning of the season offers a chance to be inspired by the sheer passage of time, by the potential for transformation. Although journal writing is often the place for looking back to make sense of what was, and reflecting upon what is, the musing becomes an arena for ambition. In this sense, writing is aspiring. Just as I keep telling myself to keep on going while gaining context, I’m also writing ahead. The lines of my connected script date back to my first cursive loops at Public School Number 13, in New York City. (I’ve actually had the honor of visiting with the current and retired school principals at P.S. 13- even reading to them from my journal. It was a chance to express my gratitude, speaking this time as an adult with fellow adults- educators all.) Centuries before personal journal writing was popular, Quakers of all ages- women and men- were writing their reflections and impressions in diaries. Many of these journals survive to this day and are fascinating to read. The travels, perils, interactions, meditations, reminiscences, testimonies, and personal convictions represent the context of these driven individuals. Early on, Quakers believed their journals were continuations of the biblical book of the Acts of the Apostles. Good reading lightens the darkness, and so does upholding the writing torch. My inked and graphite loops and jots twine like the ivy, page after volume. And my written steps will find their way through this crucible of isolated exile when the storm passes by.




________________________

* Luke 21:19

Sunday, November 29, 2020

thought


“Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée. C’est de là qu’il nous faut relever et non de l’espace et de la durée, que nous ne saurions remplir. Travaillons donc à bien penser: voilà le principe de la morale.”

(“All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavour, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”)

~ Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 347



provisioned and purposed

During these times of bunkering and hunkering, it seems many have been brought to consider the practical meaning of self-sufficiency. We need the comradeship of one another more than we may have previously realized. Many that have had to navigate this world in these recent months have seen how individuals’ safety precautions are mutually much broader safety precautions. My safety is equally your safety, too. Yet it may be instinctual for us to form ourselves and our lives toward goals of having everything we need. Is preparedness about survival, or is it more about fear of not having enough? And does the latter cause us to hoard more than is needed? Do we need to prove our self-sufficiency against a fragile security with abundance? All questions for an observer of a world of billions of little islands that long for connecting bridges. It has been crucial to find one’s own definition for preparedness. An expression like take care has derived a wishful connotation that has come to parallel the post-sneeze God bless you which originated during medieval plagues. Being prepared and provisioned is a motion toward continuity- toward survival and emergence.


As it has become vital to my own approach to survival, I’ll shift to a lighter musing- on this occasion, about provision. Since my childhood years, I’ve always been fascinated by intricately inclusive “kits” that provide all that is necessary to complete a task. By this, I mean a portable receptacle that can be taken to various locations so that you have what you need to accomplish a project. A first-aid kit wouldn’t quite fit my definition any more than a flatware drawer: these are gatherings of items to keep you going. I’m thinking much more along the lines of my tacklebox of archival conservation tools which I take with me to do fieldwork in libraries and museums. The box filled with tools I’ve gathered over the span of two decades contains what I need to solve just about any preservation problem. The spatulas, bone-folders, knives, tongs, cleaning instruments, gauges, among other tools are the “constants,” to which I’ll add rolls of various papers, board material, and even cameras- depending upon a specific project. It’s also at the heart of all my conservation workshop teaching. The box is always packed and at the ready, being a quintessential inclusive provisions kit.


Another everything-kit which I keep intact and at-the-ready is my larger tacklebox packed with all that is needed to do and to teach calligraphy. Many of my lettering projects are done on-location, including countless makerspaces I’ve led. It’s also easy for me to simply set the box near my desk, as everything’s gathered together and portable. The calligraphy box has many multiples of pen-holders, nibs, inkwells, and numerous related tools, so that I have what is needed just for myself- along with plenty of extras for others when I am teaching groups up to twenty people at a time. As with the book & paper conservation box, the calligraphy box has traveled many miles with me. On several occasions, I’ve journeyed with both kits to large teaching events at which I’ve taught both subjects. Indeed, there are more “free-standing” kits to mention, involving photography, writing, and sewing- as examples.



a thought kit


In ways that are similar to how we can outfit ourselves for purposes that are best accomplished with a supply kit, what about our thoughts? As we navigate life- especially amidst our respective isolated experiences- can a ready thought kit be appropriately stocked? We do, after all, carry our thoughts with us; consider how we naturally “collect our thoughts,” while trying to make sense of a situation. Recollection is one of my favorite words, particularly in the contemplative context of attention to the presence of the Divine within the soul. In addition to carrying our thoughts with us, we can also choose to “tap into” our thoughts, “calling to mind” impressions, memories, and ways of thinking. Very much as it is physically when assembling the essentials for a comprehensive tool kit, there are surely spiritual disciplines when deciding which thoughts are the best ones to keep in one’s conscientious stock. It also means making room by discarding and replacing various supplies that become outmoded and dulled.


There are certainly more “terrestrial” ways to curate knowledge to benefit our thinking processes and memories. Along with daily journaling, I’ve maintained a parallel run of chapbooks in which I jot down thoughts and found quotations. I’ve even digitally indexed a number of these chapbooks, to make things easier to find later. I transcribe my research gleanings from my travels, and back up the documents in ethereally-titled “cloud storage.” As well, two favorite pieces of digital technology are my portable netbook and a good spacious flash-drive. While I view these as tools themselves, and also as supply-kits, I’m well aware of the care needed to keep things intact and accessible. These are not necessarily thoughts, but surely aides-mémoires.



Among his many written thoughts, left to posterity on hundreds of small leaves of paper, the philosopher Blaise Pascal made thought a topic in itself. He affirmed how humans are capable of thinking at levels beyond all living beings. “Pensée fait la grandeur de l’homme,” which is to say “thought constitutes the greatness of humanity.” To think- to carefully and thoughtfully consider- is essential and is the means through which our greatness proceeds. Pascal elaborated that we humans are more than mere sentient creatures:

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this.


Evidently there are reeds, thinking reeds, and minds like Pascal’s. Here he speaks about the paradox of our fragility and the enduring transcendence of our thoughts. In this transcendence, we do file our unique thoughts and accomplishments in the archives of our souls. Our most refined and substantial thoughts can be easily dissolved, but the spirit of our cultivation lives beyond finite days. We ponder fleetingly about eternity. The extent or the duration of thoughts cannot be known by an individual, yet so many of us, like Pascal, unhesitatingly make intellectual investments. It is undoubtedly worthwhile.


thoughtfully equipped

Being equipped with a multi-tiered kit of curated thoughts, the supplies are meant to be used. Theory meets practice when learning meets the road. Attentiveness to observation can be refined into applicable treasure. But it’s easier said than done, to be sure. During this protracted pandemic, that carefully constructed trove of thoughts is put intensely to the test. What are the recollections that right the ship? Deep into the wilderness of bad news, misery, and barricades- we must dwell upon things that console and help light the way. Although most of this past year has offered no opportunities to venture out as I’ve always liked to do, the venturing has had to be inward. New learning and new thoughts can certainly be pursued and noted; I’ve been doing that as much as possible with my existing resources. There remain thoughts to be held every day. I continue looking forward to the prospect of writing about these times in retrospect. Between my apartment, my workplace “bubble” (at which I spend 2 of my 5 workweek days), and my few and critical errands, I also make time to maintain letter correspondence with friends. We write to one another, each from our own circumstances of exile. Much like listening to a calming radio broadcast, the letters I receive are living messages from another world.



spare parts


Provisions of the spirit are not always necessarily major concepts or “large events” committed to memory. My own stock of inspiring impressions consists of what I call spare parts. Subtle enough to fit between events and complexities, spare-part thoughts can be equated with cooking spices at the ready as a pinch or a dash may be needed. They are in the forms of things said to me, words I’ve read and remembered (and very likely written down), as well as images engraved in my memory. One evening last week, I called in to my friend Jordan Rich’s radio programme, broadcast from Boston, when he brought up the topic of writing and correspondence; this was a way to chime in and cheer him on at the same time. A parallel thread about gratitude gave me a chance to speak to a cherished spare part. He asked about causes for thankfulness, “and not the big-ticket items, but things you might be taking for granted.” I spoke about literacy, being grateful to know how to read and write. That’s a source beneath the source-material. Subtle as it’s been through the years, literacy is a profound blessing during these times of isolation.



Various friends tell me about seeking calm by focusing their thoughts on the “happy places” of their memories. There’s a lot of good sense in this, and I do some of that in my journaling as I seek healthy distractions these days and nights. These are certainly occasions for reaching for both the big-ticket reminders, as well as the more covert spare parts. I appreciate reaching for the wise words of compassionate people I’ve known. Years ago, I worked at a college which had been founded by a women’s Catholic religious order. The campus ministry was led by the sage and elderly Sister Sylvia, a mentor who taught me something about mentoring: she would say, “I won’t tell you what to do, but I’ll walk alongside you.” Metaphorical as that was to say, she is one who likes to walk. I have a vivid memory of how she would walk across the green quads of the campus with her rosary. She called this prayer-walking. Contemplative and practical. And praying the rosary itself is a plunging into the depths of spiritual memory, using the increments to find context in the timeless. Like Sister Sylvia who encourages generations of listeners to “shine that light,” holy writ comes to thought from everlasting with “walk while you have the light.*” Between there and here are the words of Sant Joan de Déu (San Juan de Dios), of the 16th century, urging us to keep going and “do all the good works you can while you still have the time.” Even from places of isolation, and even when the machinery indefinitely needs all the spare parts in the kit.




_________________________
* John 12:35

Monday, November 2, 2020

sound

“A person’s music is seen as a means of restoring the soul,
as well as confused and discordant bodily afflictions,
to the harmonic proportions that it shares
with the world soul of the cosmos.”


~ Plato, The Timaeus

While pandemic life has grounded elaborate plans and ambitions, simple attainments are also made difficult. Now thinking back through eight months of triage, distancing, and working amidst bunkering, I make note of the narrowed horizons. My optimistic travel plans drawn up last winter were humbled into crosstown errands. Indeed, I’m merely one of countless many that are scaled down to the brass tacks of personal safety and the earning of sustenance- all within the context of isolation. Hopefully it will not become necessary to have to choose between the two vital aspects of health and employment. It takes as much vigilance and resourcefulness to stay productive as it does to keep well. But as time irretrievably passes, though it may appear as such, quite clearly nothing stands still. Time continues cascading over all the stopped progress. There is so much to accomplish, but very few things can actually be done. The focus is survival.



Even at the outset of these times of lockdowns and related hardships, I noticed the prevalence of contrasts. As social malevolence manifested and broadcast itself, those who chose generosity emerged as bright exceptions. Humanity scrambles between the extremes of exploitation and mercy, while the natural world keeps vigil. And in this portion of my own vigil, as I keep watch in this night, my thoughts turn to the place held by sound in these times. Just as I recall the completely silent skies immediately after the 11th of September 2001, the first and most eerie aspect I noticed as the world began locking down in March was the desolate quiet of the streets.



The absence of sound is cause for notice, and so is the welcome presence of assuring sound. But this is surely not to say that quiet cannot be comforting. Just as there are welcoming forms of silence, there are also pleasant sounds. Several nights ago, the transformation into the late-autumn became pronouncedly audible to me, as I was awakened by wind and rainstorm-rattling windows. It was a reminder of sounds I’ve always liked. Soothing sounds provide an effect resembling fresh air. It’s a calming, accompanying presence. Indeed, not all sounds have these properties- even in the same categories. Radio, a lifelong companion, can be as much of a conduit of good reminders and wonder as it can be a prism of abrasion. A few weeks ago, I listened to Schumann’s Forest Scenes for the first time, and was so taken by the music and its performance that I stopped working so that I could better savour the sounds. I have a rather irrational habit of looking at the radio, when I want listen more clearly; I looked and listened. This particular radio station does not always broadcast music I find appealing. Normally, it’s a kitchen sink of classical pop: lots of martial-sounding rat-a-tat-tat “classical” orchestral music- regardless of time of day or night. Contrasting the sounds that I find to be sweet and textural- with cellos, harmonies, and counterpoint- are the pieces I call “music that needs to be oiled.” That latter category speaks for sounds that are scratchy, whining, and cacophonous that cause me to switch stations- or just choose some silence. It doesn’t make sense to opt for more annoyances than what already exists, especially in this chaotic era.



Pythagoras famously said, “Either be silent, or say something better than silence.” And by my lights, in this context, better is to say: consoling, life-giving, or perhaps even constructive. Surely a subjective and highly individualized definition. The quiet at five in the morning, with my coffee and breviary, is an expectant silence pointed toward newness and hope. A sound as subtle as the dulcet hiss of cars passing along my street is something I find soothing. So is the wind through the trees, familiar soft voices, birds, the scribing of my writing on paper, my percolator that converts sound into aroma, my landlady’s footsteps from upstairs, and foghorns from the waterfront. Part of why I’ve always loved walking and perching at the ocean’s edge, aside from the vistas, are the sounds of the water. The tides will determine the forces of crashing waves, along open seas. Then there are the sheltered inlets, with much quieter stirrings. With eyes closed, my imaginings are of an affectionate ladling of a large seaweed soup, the rounded stones clacking under the waters’ pulling. Such sounds transcend pandemics and hardships. Beyond material provisions, resourcing myself also includes knowing where to find consoling sounds.





The light and weather of November suddenly brought to mind one particular long-distance road trip I made. Having to cover 1300 miles in 2 days, I drove more than 750 miles in a straight shot, with just 3 brief fuel stops. The highways between western New York State and northeastern Ohio were imperiled by a fierce winter storm, but I reduced speed and stayed my course. I kept the windows defrosted and the radio on, gripping the steering wheel and bonding with my rental car. Finally reaching my planned destination, parking in a snow drift next to a hotel and shutting off the engine, I instinctively closed my eyes. The driving was intense and my catharsis was equally pronounced. Walking to a nearby diner to decompress and replenish, the restless fatigue was later finally solved when I saw that my small hotel room had a real bathtub. Part of that perfectly consoling and soapy hot bath was in the sound of the water, reminding me of home, while the winter weather continued pelting at the windows. Before retaking the road the next morning, I dined with fellow guests in the breakfast room.

The hotel, on the following morning.


Sharing meals with strangers in a common room, replete with convivial sounds of voices and crockery, is now an impossible enjoyment. Surviving the pandemic has brought about alienation from our travels and from one another. The timbres and tones of humanity are severely curtailed. The last time I was compressed in a crowd was in late-February at Boston’s North Station. My thoughts were not occupied with contagion, but rather with getting a good seat on the train. Nobody would’ve expected that crowd noises would become something rarified. And so rarified that when major league sports resumed to play their abnormal and abbreviated seasons, they would be doing that in empty arenas against the backdrop of canned crowd noises (to audiences of cardboard photos of spectators). Listening to some of the baseball games on the radio had me wondering about broadcast technicians splicing together enough sounds of sports fans to create many hours of banal background noise. What an odd testament to the greater oddness and unreality of isolation. It also attests to how important pleasant and assuring sounds are to so many, reminding us of our wishes. We search for comforts while carrying a nostalgia for a better future. Within the need to be resourced for survival is our comprehension of sound: choosing away from what injures the soul- as much as possible- and choosing toward strength and inspiration.




Tuesday, September 29, 2020

simple and plain


“A vocabulary of truth and simplicity
will be of service throughout your life.”


~ Sir Winston Churchill

Voyaging through the present pandemic is now beyond the half-year mark. Places of embarkation are long out of view. Horizons are yet to reveal lands of safe arrival. We were all told this would be a long haul; now we’re really seeing it, but are yet to see the other end of this tribulation. In short, the duration of this indefinite and provisional time is unknown. Respecting the rules concerning quarantining and traveling, all my scenery is limited to being very close to home. There’s my apartment, then there are the views from my apartment, the little streets nearby, and the ocean. Living on a peninsula, looking out to the Atlantic is how I can see horizons these days. Navigating these times is that part of a sea crossing during which traces of terra firma are not visible. All that tangibly remains is the going; the baroque philosopher Suárez would’ve said the transition between substances is the modal distinction. And the transit is somehow an entity. Had he lived in a place like the Maine coast, he might’ve left us observations about boat wakes. But the present is one of being at sea.


Enduring these months is a learning experience of what to eliminate or change. There are shortages and there are pinched resources. Less money, in the face of inflation and reduced pay, but less to buy. Three full tanks of gas in my car, in six months. Having less causes a discipline of needing less. As the workplace began requiring a weekly on-site workday, I’ve simply treated my department like a quarantine: A straight-out eight-hour day, with granola bars and thermos of coffee. There are no places to go for lunch, anyway. Then it’s become two days on-site. More granola bars for the perpetual motion. I just want to get the work accomplished, plain and simple. Perhaps it’s an imposed austerity, but the workplace is the place to get work done; there is no more socializing, and it’s hard to tell how much longer the situation will last. I’ve noticed myself working faster and more strategically, as I cram all I can into those hours. Working from home is no less industrious, but it’s much safer. Most of us are under pressure to make the best of a bad situation. I’m grateful, at least, to be working. Life is surely muted and compromised, but I’m always brought to step back and consider this context when I see the clusters of those encamped in the city park with no place to call home. The pandemic forces us to learn to not take tomorrow for granted.


Along with adapting my perspective as necessary reactions to these times, there remain ways to turn the can’ts into how-abouts. For things that can’t be done, how about this-or-that? I’ve occasionally made my desk at home look like a table in a café. The price is right, and I chose the music myself. No traveling has meant no healthful, renewing retreats; my last sojourn was in late January, and there’s no telling when I can do this again. I tried a “virtual pilgrimage,” offered by a contemplative community in France. There were reflective texts, art works, even views of mountain scenery. Well-intended, indeed, but melancholic for me to be away from fellowship, the aromas of the woods, and the promise of the upward roads. Not every can’t has a compensating how-about. This recent half-year has been a combination of restlessness, sedentariness, and exhaustion. Yet, still, I’m very conscious of my hope to be able to write about this odyssey after it becomes safe again to move about and congregate normally.


Survival thus far has meant isolating, doing without, muting energies, wearing a facial covering when outside quarantine, and noting the passage of irretrievable time. And then there’s simplicity. Ambiguous, to be sure. The first sentence in this paragraph lists some of the negative aspects in the unfortunate simplification of daily life. Up against this, positive simplicity needn’t be portrayed as the upside of down. To continue simplifying every side of life is the most responsible thing I can do, leaving some room for creature comforts. After all, this voyage is about survival and sanity. But the positive side of plain and simple is in finding the good in the unextravagant. Running my nuts-and-bolts errands, such as what I call “stealth grocery shopping,” on a weekend day at 6:30am- an ideal time to socially distance- I ponder the better sides of basic. Stopping for a treat at my favorite doughnut bakery, steeped in the perfumes of pastries and so many flavors, I chose a plain doughnut. No doubt, these are fantastic in their plainness, such that I could taste the nutmeg. A old-fashioned just-made plain from Tony’s has the slightest crunch; perfection in its very simplicity.


Shaker Community: Sabbathday Lake, Maine.



Just up the road apiece from here is the world’s last Shaker community. In the 19th century, a member of that community wrote the song “Simple Gifts,” which is known around the world. It begins with:

‘Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free;
'Tis a gift to come down where I ought to be.

For the Shakers, simplicity is regarded as a liberating gift. It’s a gain along the pilgrimage of life. This kind of perspective is also found among many spiritual communities and monastic orders. A Quaker’s reference to a person as plain is a great compliment. I remember an elder of the Portland Friends Meeting speaking reverently about a person he admired as being “substantial,” and having “deep roots.” A beautiful, eloquent plainness.



Whether it was during many years of being extremely busy in social circles, or now in spartan isolation, I’ve seen the value of keeping things simple. This is how thought processes and methodologies retain clarity and structure. That “gift to be simple,” as the Shakers taught so many to sing, is also the grace to be very clear in thought and intention. Simplicity, like honesty, is great cause for taking stock. And when we say “simple as that,” we’re describing something highly complex! A photograph such as the one I made of the coffee, journal, and doughnut (at the beginning of this essay) may be “deceptively simple.” The composition is designed so that viewers’ eyes move through and around the image, not landing statically in one place. Simple and somehow elaborate.


Contending with this global health crisis demands compromises, paring-down, simplification. When I stop to write in my journal, noticing how quiet downtown streets have been for months- in a part of the world that always has bustling summers- that’s when I realize the complexity of my tactics that have centered around regaining semblances of normal. The comforts are humble, but their meanings are profound: writing, reading, sending and receiving letters, music on the radio, familiar foods. Parallel to my hours of compressed work commitments is a conscious fermenting with hope to emerge from this as one who will be better cultivated. The basic is the basis, and the most understated forms of modal distinction are conduits to real treasure: written words and spoken words, sounds, tastes, musings, prayers. A Franciscan Brother in France once said to me, “Go to God with trust, simplicity, and affection.” I could gather that beneath his phrase were strata of education, lived experience, and deep roots. From such complexities traversing the cycles of time, the simplest solid truths emerge.