Tuesday, March 28, 2017

my steps


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Stopped in my tracks, I marveled at my steps,
and wondered whether they were ever mine.
Looking down to the ground, my shadowed prints noted light and time.

We say we own;
we claim our paths and swaths and strides,
careers and conquests and empires.
But do we own our steps? Can paces be possessions?
I’ll say, “my footsteps;”
many days, “my weary way,”
and some days, “my strong stand.”
Steps are claimed, after they’ve been made.
But not before; not before some ground has been covered.
My steps are mine, because I tracked them;
they’ve made themselves known, after the fact, after impressions,
after I’ve looked back.

We say we take up space:
occupying, holding, amassing, grasping
that which is merely in motion, yet pulling rank.
Some of us are at will, in livelihood and home.
The provisional lingers, by our thoughts and steps remarked.
It is for journeying souls to note the jots and accents
of distances and times.
My steps are innumerable, in forms of trudges and slides,
tiptoes and leaps, tentative and bold,
minuscule and majuscule;
ever chasing traction, pushoff,
and sentences that run on and on and on.

Back and forth, uphill,
and so many stairs in office buildings,
treading the mills;
shall I consume the time to decide
whether or not my steps are squandered?
Well, I scribbled some words, walked and pondered,
finding that writing is the only retracing of steps
that cease to exist.
Backtracking is retracking, adding layers to buried steps.
What I own are my observations, not the places of their creation.
As with language, my place is to participate and alight,
but my ownership, my imprint
is to arrange and describe.

The ground of this momentary standing is borrowed.
Though my ground is not my own, I do know to remember.
A soul’s eternity endures beyond buildings, streets, and worlds.
I know not to claim the transitory for posterity,
yet I know to hold a thought and walk with it.

Memory enshrines the sweetness of the momentary,
the fondest steps among many,
from the missteps best released,
steps that are mine, so long as they are remembered.

A pilgrim’s steps so wisely know
direction and time:
it is forward, and at this moment.
Our feet as arrows edged to future paths,
are poorly designed for reversals and standing
as unused stanchions.

My road has no divided lanes
between sacred and profane,
as the sanctifying journey
distills all into the holy indirect,
meandering way.
My recollected words and pictures
are those of a voyager,
stopping in my tracks and marveling at my steps:
Looking down
to consecrated ground,
redeeming light and time.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

confidence


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“Lady Luck smiles on the few in this world,
I hope and I pray that she smiles on you.
I ain't gonna preach, no I ain't gonna teach;
I 'm just gonna sing about the things that I need:

A little bit of love, a little bit of hope;
A little bit of strength, some fuel for the fire.”


~ The Alarm, Deeside.


confidence and urgency

When progress is undiscernible, confidence is indispensable. Yet although progress and confidence need one another, these attributes are elusive, and there are no guarantees as to success. At least, confidence does not hinge upon outside approval. Individuals can derive their own courage, though it’s much easier said than done. Experience teaches me that confidence is abundant when it is not overtly needed, and that confidence is most needed when it is difficult to find. Feast or famine, and these are indeed deserted times for this burgeoning professional. By confidence, I refer to an unflappable, self-possessed inner assurance woven through one’s efforts and being. Last year, I wrote about what it means to sense the strength of one’s own forces, and that is surely tied to sustaining confidence. It is urgently needed now, as repeated defeats and rejected applications leave an erosive wake. Surely, I can find enough confidence now to continue trying- and even write about it- but I sense a depleting supply.

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How is confidence restored, especially without success? How is determination maintained, the course kept, and hopes upheld- when no earthly rewards are assured? How to confidently navigate unwelcoming territory, and be simultaneously prosperous? By nature, crossroads and precipices prompt me to consider what has historically helped me to survive and find better circumstances. Not having material or influential privileges, I’ve relied on spiritual consolation, scholarship, writing, and creative imagination to endure hardships. There is no land in sight, and resources are thinning. When possible, over many years, I’ve made time for rejuvenating retreats. It’s important to know oneself, know what is constructive, and also know what to avoid. In addition, there is great advantage with changes of scenery and having friends outside of the daily confines. We are all able to encourage one another; we must all know that we are not alone. Among survival abilities is to find ways to look to an improved future- and to be willing to do so. Confidence is necessary fuel for the fire of meaningful life. St. Theophan wrote the following about the health of a soul’s ignited spirit:

“Cast aside everything that might extinguish this small flame which is beginning to burn within you, and surround yourself with everything which can feed and fan it into a strong fire.”


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observed examples

Along with continually learning from my own lived precedents, there is also the active observer’s role. I try to retain the better things I’ve heard, seen, and read. These are parts of my inner arsenal called upon in times like these, and meant to be applied. In eleven concise sentences, the Forty-Sixth Psalm is an ancient, remarkable expression of calm resilience during unbridled turbulence. Amidst avalanches, ruptures, erosion, and desolation, there is a river whose tranquil streams will bless others and be blessed. Of this river, reads verse five, “she shall not be moved: God shall help her; and that right early.” The waters symbolize renewing life and grace. The waters run in a conduit, as with the human heart in an individual who calls to the Creator of all that lives, “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The petitioner must hold course, be still, and know, confident in the refuge of faith. Rootedness in the unseen demands all of a finite individual’s drive, but the cowering and hydroponic alternative is unappealing. The currents of the Holy Spirit carry the attentive soul to places of bold confidence.

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Recently, I enjoyed a week’s residency at Beacon Hill Friends House, and studying at the Boston Athenaeum. Carving out time for reflection, reading, and writing has been my most effective way to renew. Staving off burnout, while struggling to build a life and career, is itself an occupational effort. And that uphill effort includes artistic expression, kindred souls, and written words. Among the Quaker community, I saw that familiar combination of conscientiousness and activism. Venturing in any distance, out of toxic trenches, helps to remind me that I’m not alone.

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At the Athenaeum, my week allowed for an immersion into some adventurous memoirs from the 17th and 18th centuries, filled with accounts of endurance and inspiring words. These studies remain prominently in my musings through the days of respite. Among my shorter readings was a tract from 1829 by Robert Aspland, on the theme Courage and Confidence. He emphasized that confidence is safeguarded by those who love truth and keep faith with “an undaunted spirit, rising above oppression.” Aspland considered it an encouraging sight to behold others who were “cheered amidst reproach and persecution, by their own consciousness of rectitude and benevolence.” By virtue of our very pursuit of holiness, we can find confidence. Aspland wanted his listeners to take heart:

“Faith built upon knowledge is firm and durable, and not to be shaken by accidents and privations and pains of the present imperfect state of being- that the consciousness of laboring in a good cause imparts satisfaction and comfort to the mind.”


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My studies in sources of old, pulled from the deepest archival recesses of the Athenaeum, provide new ideas, helping to retrain my thoughts to light the way ahead. And indeed they do remain with me, not just in my writing, but also while interpreting my days. Around the city, the concept of confidence continued appearing in front of me. Various friends showed me how they participate in meal preparations, to feed thousands of people in need, from their bases of operation in large church kitchens.

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In surely much lighter and more ephemeral ways, I noticed something about self-confidence appearing in the local sports pages during my morning coffee. As it happens in competitive sports, success breeds success. Hockey is especially a game of momentum. Apparently the struggling Boston Bruins, “were in the midst of a crisis of confidence,” so wrote Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald. The next day’s Herald included this remark by Stephen Harris about rebuilding the team: “That’s a multi-year endeavor that requires faith and patience and can be ruined by short-term, emotional desperation.” The team was losing a lot of close games, and their numerous shots-on-goal were undisciplined. The players talked about “going out there and finding ways to win.”

Suddenly they started winning their games. The morning after an unusual come-from-behind win, Chris Mason of the Herald observed how the Bruins were “emotionally connected to this game.” That hard-won confidence had to be built upon. More victories followed, yet the players seemed too humbled to swagger; but they owned their confidence. David Backes, a forward, observed, “A level of consistency has gone up, a level of execution, a level of belief.” Another forward, Frank Vatrano added, “We’re just playing. We’re not worried about making mistakes.” Their coach, Bruce Cassidy, stressed they must “ err on the side of aggression,” and, “keep up the emotion and confidence level.” These athletes are using language not unfamiliar in philosophy and theology.

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stabilization

It takes profound discipline to cast aside flame-quenchers like a philosopher, and to keep up the confidence level like a hockey player. Conscientious individuals must decide how, when, or whether to compromise. Our workplaces are too often wildernesses of distrust and uneven ethics. Confidence is difficult to build amidst environments that undermine and undercut. Some have enough wealth and good fortune to walk away from hostile situations; the rest of us are forced to stand straight through indignity- and the rarer souls find ways to achieve along dead-end streets. The insistence upon accomplishment amidst belligerence implies the collateral damage of absorption and erosion. It is a solitary crucible, rarely comprehended- even by the survivor.

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Reading back through recent years’ journals, a phrase caught my attention. Giving myself some advice, I wrote, “Create pockets of stability amidst inhospitable places.” These may take the forms of creative ventures, but they can also be work projects and transactions. Encouraging sparks come by way of the enthusiastic responses from those I serve. Confidence must be cobbled together with ingredients such as gracious words, beautiful scenery, savory tastes, and gratifying tasks. Another learned survival measure is to conjure up confidence by taking long views ahead.

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By looking ahead, even if not at anything specific, I make efforts to see beyond these present trials. The looking becomes quite tangible, as I naturally reach for my lifelong language of photography, going to ocean ledges and city streets. Using different cameras allows me to change the ways I see. I’d like to know that I can transcend the limitations of what has been, and stretch them into what can be. My years since graduate school have been fraught with looking for improved and sustaining employment. Productive endurance while ceaselessly prospecting is as demanding as it is daunting. Perceiving beyond limitations and rejections is nothing less than vital- and I must persevere. While out photographing, I’m reminded of having practiced the craft since childhood. I’m self-taught, and made a living by it for fourteen years, rising to the top of my profession. Economics and a dying field forced a career change, and short of a miracle this may be happening again. The tension of a low-pulse job market, excruciating employment situations, and the passage of time recalls the torrents threaded by the calm river of the 46th Psalm. The wincing, writhing brand of tolerance is not effectively tranquil; that will not do, and it is strangely the opposite of confidence. For me, the object of this trial is to reach that better situation without bitterness or discouragement, emerging the better for having endured.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

outside


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“The intellect is the instrument of wisdom,
the intelligence that of spiritual knowledge.
The natural sense of assurance common to both intellect and intelligence
is the instrument of the faith established in each of them,
while natural compassion is the instrument of the gift of healing.”


~ Saint Maximos the Confessor, from The Philokalia.

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

inclinate aurem vestram


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“Preserve the watch, make way for the glorious operations of the Spirit.”

~ Richard Phillips (Quaker, 18th c.), On Watchfulness and Silence.

On a recent raw-cold morning, while paying for the day’s newspaper, the cashier said to me, “stay in a while and warm up; it’s a frozen wasteland out there.” Pocketing my change and bunching up my gloves with the folded paper, I repeated, “frozen wasteland? It’s not that bad.” From there, I heard more about how forbidding the way to work had been, and how this is just the beginning of a helplessly interminable winter. In short, I was reminded to brace myself. It’s easy to understand this view of the world, and even easier to be governed by it. Building upon a chassis of apprehension is as tempting as it is stifling. Bad news is abundant and free for the taking; a dish of victuals that never empties. Problems are more visible than solutions. Focus naturally fixes itself on the foreground. Somehow, I’m slow to be swayed by these offerings; still instinctively straining forward. Insistently, somehow, always with ear and eye inclined to listen and read for wisdom.

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The pursuing love of wisdom is known as philosophia. Bernard of Chartres (12th c.) described wisdom as “the comprehension of the truth of things as they are.” If any things are to be gained in this pursuit, they may be clarity of thought and perception, along with some degree of peace of mind. This quest is a form of watchfulness. It takes cultivated readiness to be able to discern the true and the good amidst slag heaps. To be watchful is to be studiously prepared while navigating somber obscurity, ever alert for signs of graces.

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Several days after traversing the frozen wasteland, as described by the store clerk, I was sauntering along Charles Street in Boston, admiring the shopwindow Christmas decorations. The colorful street was funneling a cold wind. In the middle of tinsel, glitter, red ribbons, and gift displays, I saw a crate of flower bulbs for sale in front of a small hardware store. The sight of these brown, dry, onionlike bulbs caused me to stop and look closer. A couple of pedestrians also stopped, perhaps to look at what drew my attention. “You know what these are,” I said to my fellow browsers; “these are signs of hope. There will be spring again.”

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Those dormant, dessicated bulbs were my favorite decorations, perhaps because of the way I encountered them. Wind tunnels and frozen wastelands are valid descriptions for realities of northern winters that might be expressed with different imagery. But harsh conditions are real, and we live amidst increasingly hostile times. How things are perceived doesn’t alter them, and we cannot always, or easily, change situations. If transformation is from within, then an individual can adjust to circumstances, repositioning sight and listening ear, en route to action. As the Lenten season is dedicated to reckoning, so the Advent season is one of expectation and inquiry. Both traditions are expressions of pilgrimage and the succession of a soul’s development. Rather than dwell upon one day, we proceed along strings of unfolding weeks as portions of the year. The Advent is a hungered waiting, the kind that aches to the brink of giving up- like an indefinite winter’s darkness. At its depth is a fine line between the certitude that something good will come to pass, and desolation that the good is but forgotten futility. The comfort ye my people of Isaiah is a declaration of assurance in the desert that verdant heights await.

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Not having grown up with Christmas customs, they were quite new to me as a young adult. My way into the narrative, and still most fascinating to me, are the mysterious Magi. They are known as the scholars- or the Wise Men- in the biblical text. Some commentators have called them astronomers, as they made note of the night skies. They also demonstrated knowledge of the Torah. Their place of origin was no more specific than east of the land of Israel- which could have been as far away as India. Evidently, they were extraordinary enough as visiting strangers to be summoned by Herod. Little else was recorded, aside from having reached the stable in Bethlehem, and that came to be commemorated later as the Epiphany. These unusual pilgrim scholars were also clever and perceptive enough not to report back to Herod, and to slip away instead. They had been convinced to do so through warnings they had dreamt about. Where did they go afterward, and did they recount their voyage to anyone? The scholars were integral to the Adventus, which is also to say, proceeding to the arrival.

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For those of us postdating the Magi, postdating Easter, Pentecost, and many other events, the Advent season continues to be one of awaiting. The earthly journey is perilous and unstable; it is a tremendous test of faith, and its duration is unknown. The search for guidance and assurance is continuous, often a weary awaiting while persisting ahead. Perhaps those scholars and Israelite peasants were also haggard with hard times, emperors, and the longing to see better days and tangible justice. Looking up at the night skies, whether from the window near my writing table, or from across the lot in front of a neighborhood convenience store, the vigil is upheld with an ache for improvement and peaceful respite. There remain too many unfulfilled aspirations; too many squandered efforts. Yet, even now, keeping faith means collecting my wits over and again, at times with fumes for fuel, and tell myself to hold course and look forward. It also means a determination of heading in the right direction. On overcast starless winter nights, it’s blind faith. But senses are ever inclined with expectation.

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Monday, December 5, 2016

simmering


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“I slept, and dreamed that Life was Beauty;
I woke, and found that life was Duty.
Was my dream, then, a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,-
And thou shalt find thy dream shall be
A noon-day light and truth to thee.”


~ James Freeman Clarke, Self Culture.

1

A few weeks ago, I wrote about regathering, and the term implies that of spirit, strength, and wit. And there is more to this necessity than constructively responding to societal currents. The need to personally recalibrate reaches to and through the core of being. Deep in the protracted trenches of seeking and weighing opportunities, I’ve arrived at yet another costly pause. The proximate past has been spent on mere sustenance far more than on creative productivity. Solvency tamps down sentimentality, and suddenly taste buds become dulled. When old, long-bolstered sentiments and ambitions lose their fortifications, they enter the crosshairs of questioning. I’d worked through graduate school to begin a second career, while watching my first one dissolve. I can identify the symptoms, and have been seeing them again. The labyrinth has so many barricades and blind alleys. Are there too many to be realistically hopeful? The days descend into winter darkness, and it’s time to find new dreams. New dreams and aspirations, to replace what now look like outdated notions, are not materializing fast enough.

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2

Alas, as with all too many matters of personal urgency, needs are delayed, time is passing, and grace looks deferred once again. There are too many rehearsals and not enough performances. It is as though invisible root networks below ground exponentially outpace humble shoots that may see light of day. “What’s the new dream?”- has become something of an obsession. The sentence appears daily in my journal entries. The idea visits conversations I have with close friends- especially those I trust for advice. This gives me a chance to listen to how others navigate their own scrapyards. Nobody really has an answer for me, but I don’t expect more than good exchanges of ideas and stories. Indeed, I’d love a crisp and unambiguous directive. It would surely save time.

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And taking time into account intensifies the unrest. The passage of time tells us there really is no sitting still: treading water is like falling backwards, and both are inferior to progressing ahead. During a recent lunch hour, an elder friend of many years told me, “I know it’s painful to stay put, but you’re wise in doing so.” Of course, the next step must be an upward step, but will that happen, and how much longer the wait? Patience is an honorable trait, yet by definition it means unhurried. The line dividing patience and impatience is wavering and not always defined. Imaginably, one could impatiently want to know the limits of patience. The popular idea of “buying time” smacks of something more like a costly rental. My thoughts turn to recalling times when patience has benefitted, and times when rashness piled on to existing setbacks. Lengthened journeys provide troves of anecdotes.

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As with writing and reading, mulling and musing can only happen between obligations. Daily slices of time- early mornings, late nights, and lunch breaks- provide chances to reflect and make notes for me to subsequently stitch together. Quite like cooking a rich soup, thoughts are as spices and morsels added and changed over a span of time- not all at once. Soups and stews are best when they simmer, rather than rapidly boil. With time, the tastes of the different ingredients affect each other, and the whole mixture develops a texture. The depths of contemplation simmer, rather than flash in pans. While intensely impatient to see improvement and achievement, it is taking additional effort to stir and simmer all the ingredients. They have been seasoning for a very long time. Perhaps it is that new dreams cannot instantly manifest by just adding hot water. Watching for pots to boil is the opposite of simmering.

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3

With any dilemma, great or small, the light of experience is among the first navigational tools to reach for. At my intersection with How Shall I Do This, there’s a tattered road atlas called What Worked Before. A creased, stained artifact, but still somewhat useful. My sense of direction becomes more vital, and I can effectively improvise. But I know not to stand still and wait for boiling water; it serves me better to keep going. Observations are simmering and there are opportunities for helpful distractions. Long walks and road trips allow for some reflective solitude, and certainly writing outdoors as well. As with listening to friends, I’m able to see more of the breadth of this world. Travelling provides some freedom both to confront and deflect the unknown.

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Recently, within the space of two weeks, I made two road trips- the first for a professional conference at which I lectured, and the second was a 2200-mile Thanksgiving round-trip to and from the Midwest. The shorter trip had the melancholia of closed ends, but when I drove a stretch of 1100 miles only five days later, I did so with the eagerness of seeing loved ones. Although being en route to a specific location demands exact turns at crossroads and certain lanes at interchanges, there are tastes and views that rise above the quotidian labyrinth. The open road provides thought-provoking adventures. Changes of scenery, weather, and sound to add spice to that simmering soup. This may also be true for others. While refueling my vehicle in a faraway state, a man asked me, “Are you really from Maine? I used to know someone from there.” At a diner, a waitress asked me where my accent is from. Evidently, I am part of that change of scenery and sound, too. The road is also an interior adventure, and while reconciling with detours and delays, reminders surface about past dreams that fell by the wayside. Looking across the windshield, What’s the new dream? It simmers yet, and there are immediate urgencies such as keeping an alert eye on the road.

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4

The urgency for a new dream coincides with obsolescence of the outmoded. Old, long-held hopes are not necessarily “bad.” Ambitions can be time-honored; they can be sculpted out of otherwise useless heaps. But, on the other hand, releasing expired aspirations is an unburdening action. Even after many years of hard work and investment, the way forward implies cutting losses. It makes for a raw liminality: the process of shedding invalid notions is one that runs parallel to testing spirits and discerning new dreams. Paring down, building up, and simmering something fresh amounts to a reformation. For me, it must take shape in midstream- without the luxury of stopping. Prayer on the go. Highways with a commuter mug and finger food. Beneath the rapid paces is that imposed simmer. It can’t be microwaved. How infuriating. Still more mystifying are my ungranted, relentless petitionary prayers. I’m reminded how the transit of letters to me have nothing to do with how often I look in my mailbox. Such things, alas, have their own simmered timing. I’m left simply to hold course and redeem the time.

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5

Awareness of my unsuccess is counteracted by taking stock of the good that is in my midst and that which I create. Fortune may yet tilt in my favor, and the response will be that of the immense gratitude of a lifetime’s worth of honest effort. There still seems to be time. Well, there will have to be, and while held off by simmering, my end of the bargain is constructive productivity. An admirable mind, named Charles Henry Brent, once expounded upon the words of Zechariah the Prophet who said, “Turn ye to the strongholds, ye prisoners of hope.” To this, Brent observed, “You can win your humanity only by finding your highest opportunity in your more evil days. We are prisoners of hope.” With faith comes strength, and from there follows longing. In this context, longing refers to a fuelled aspiration that drives and strives and pushes ahead for a better life. Longings have goals, as well as sources; discerning new dreams implies evaluating both. Indeed, there are expectations, and that’s a risk in itself. Perhaps this is a test of undefined extremity. But even now, rather than grouse about dashed dreams and enumerating the graphic details, my thoughts must point toward new ambitions. The simmer of the dark ages has got to boil over into renaissance. For the moment, the taste of the new has yet to manifest. It’s still simmering.

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