Friday, December 28, 2007

incarnatus


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"You are like the ticket-half
I find inside the pocket of
my old leaf-raking coat.
There all the time, all the while,
forgotten.
I so often seem to leave You
in churches
and other islands."

~ The Innocence Mission, Every Hour Here



What we now perceive may essentially be a discovery of what we have been gradually deriving from our travels. Our gleanings. Like the shells and pine cones on my dashboard. The jottings in my journal. This season draws another year to a close, or rather to the next chapter’s threshold. Daylight’s brevity is no longer a surprise; we are all used to it, now. Dark mornings are times to gather thoughts. While the holidays punctuate work schedules, magnetizing many to malls, I have been cherishing all the quiet I can find. A cursory glance at last year’s journals verify the enormous transitions of the eventful months since last Christmas. Perhaps appropriately, my thoughts turn to the idea of gifts. And surely, I had no such thoughts at this time last year. When I am unable to see what changes may have manifested, amidst the day’s immediacy, it is thankfully evident in the archival record of written musings. My gratitude for all my adventures of the concluding year is a wonder that is regenerating into a strength of hope.


There is a gift to be found in simply recognizing the value in each preceding step. Material gifts in themselves mean a great deal less to me than ever, not just because of a recent burdensome relocation, but also in my yearning for substantive simplicity. The less, the better; the humblest, the most meaningful. I find that I am re-defining the gifts I have known, be it through the eyes of a recipient or those of the giver. Increasingly, I’m giving gifts that I’ve made myself, as well as treasuring the written words, calls, and embraces (and home-made gifts) I receive. An emphasis upon honest purpose flies in the face of the fog bank of mass-media-driven consumerism, which attempts to convince us all that our lives are incomplete. Don’t buy it, friends. The sublime indescribable beckons so much more forcefully, though indeed subtly, than breakable plastic. The other evening, around the table, I asked each of my gathered friends for a word that came to mind, and collecting them, as one might with exotic postage stamps, I wrote them in my book. The savour of an occasion. Such gifts take on an enhanced significance: the sight of familiar faces, with the ecstatic greetings of friends. We give and gather acknowledgment of one another’s presence.


A lunch hour turned into a barrage of errands and forgettable things nearly forgotten. With a few moments to recharge, I stopped for coffee. The above picture attests to a serendipitous moment of reflection and a few vital tastes to balance a day which otherwise would not have afforded the chance to pause. Balancing time and spirit requires a deftness similar to that of composing a photographic image. All the forms cannot be weighted to one side, or to the center, at the expense of the sum total of the picture. Angle of view is as critical as the image’s contents. I like to think of Robert Capa’s adage that said, "if you’re not happy with your pictures, you need to get closer to your subjects." Defying my old tendency to skip meals in order to get things done, I stopped in the middle of a long road trip; the idea was to avoid arriving at my destination on an empty stomach- as usual. The looks of the little roadside diner in northern Vermont instantly produced a surprising appetite. And when the hospitable waitress set down the aromatic home-made meatloaf at my place, I set down my writing and suddenly saw a grand image for all the senses to absorb- from the bustle inside the tiny diner, to the snowstorm outside, to my table. Discreetly taking a quick photo (below), the waitress later asked if everything was all right. I assured her the meal was truly a thing of beauty. And it really was. From my place setting, fleeting beacons of sunlight interrupted the pensive gloom of winter. These graces may be quite commonplace- and though they know no calendar days, they are no less rarified to behold.


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It is possible to see a renewed way of perception has taken root, when there is an emphasis on the interconnection and interrelation in a life as diversified and eclectic as mine. And it is for me to notice those connections, allowing them to influence one another and add the color of cultivated vision. On a given day, for example, I’ve witnessed a common thread tie together something I read, with something my landlady said on my way out the door, with something an old friend told me on the street later that day, with yet more random thoughts the janitor at work told me that evening. The raw ingredients are for us to discern; we become the editors of connected events from fascinatingly unrelated sources. If we are awake enough to distinguish one day from another, we may surely embody our own evolvement, and recognize the passage of time as a renewing gift. Somehow, through barricades "inclosing all paths with hewn stone," the anguished and tortured Jeremiah found enough shreds of light to remember that so long as he was alive and breathing there was mercy. The verbal ocean of severity he composed, in the Lamentations, is ironically the source of the phrase, "great is Your faithfulness."


At times during which stagnation seemed certain, I had been unaware of what had been forming beneath the visible surface. Revised perceptions inform us that we are awake. And how we perceive the benevolence in our lives, humble as it may be, does attest to how our tastes- and even our spirituality has begun to evolve. A paradox comes to mind, which finds the seemingly lowly as greatly exalted in one’s heart. Our heart’s desires also develop, as do our wishes for one another. And for me, it is to be something of a tabula rasa- as much as possible. All transitions challenge us, even the ones that present new gifts to our lives. Even the positive changes ask our time for adjustment. Keeping perspective in the mixture of frustration, trepidation, homesickness- and- yes, excitement. And somehow, in the midst of this mélange, is a detachment that inspires an odd, gripless strength. It seems that with less to hold on to, there are fewer tangible reasons to tempt me to look back. With less grasp, there is an expanse of an embrace for others, and for what is both now and shall become.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

graphite bright


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A very colorful Christmas season to all,

and a sharpened New Year !



Friday, December 21, 2007

belonging


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"Love is our true destiny.
We do not find the meaning of life
by ourselves alone-
we find it with one another."

~ Thomas Merton, Love and Living


In this recollection, in this foraging for signals of grace through the season’s incessant and thick snowstorms, it becomes vital to revisit my purposes. Nature’s encroachment has a confronting beauty. Even if to remember that clouds of unknowing are part-and-parcel of the life of faith, and the key is to simply continue with a consistently hopeful and grateful spirit. Sowing and seeking compassion must be undaunted. Perhaps it is natural that when our steps fail us, we begin to look back. I am trying to transform that reflex into some kind of balance between a forward perspective and the search within, though it can occasionally send us back in time. If I am to plumb the depths of the soul I have journeyed these years with, I must dare to consider the volatile theme of belonging- one thread which has laced my days from earliest memory. It is a life theme. When absent, an anguish; when present, a sublime joy.


To be integral to something greater than our lone selves is a universal longing. In varying degrees, founded upon our earliest experiences, we desire the assurance of belonging. There is a strengthening comfort in knowing we are anticipated and accepted for nothing other than who we are. For some, "fitting in," implies more impact than for others, coexisting with a hungering for our own distinguished identities. At some point, just about all of us dressed and talked like our friends; we liked what each other liked, though we’d all claim our own unique style to our selves. My personal adventures, having been in such far-flung places and demographically diverse situations, all have contributed to a scrapbook life of savoury kindred and community experiences. Indeed, many of us can pause to notice layers of concentric circles of friends and colleagues. Many an academic workday has comprised nights of ESL volunteer teaching, with the next day involving a photo shoot, and the next day playing music in a church, with the next day taking to the road- or the air- to see more people in still more situations that I know. This has gone on for years. A perceptive friend once pointed out how amusing it can be to simply glance at one’s entire e-mailing address list, noticing all the names and the meandering ways we become a common reference point to a hodge-podge of individuals we can only imagine ever seeing all of them in the same banquet hall at the same time. An amusing thought. But, oh, how the soul longs for unity- and for recognition! We are created for community and we thrive when we are assured of our belonging, or our being as part of a boundless entirety.


In a life of opposites and paradoxes, belonging and exclusion are far more than vague concepts. These are powerful emotions connected to experiences, many of which are indelible still. It does surprise me, to think about how many childhood instances remain with me. These things, in the duration of their happening, had short-lived significance- and if any more than that, circumstances I simply wished to surmount. Getting through school, wishing to be anyplace else than where I was, escaping the grasps of gangs and thugs, or dreaming about leaving. Quite often it seemed the idea was to move on to the "bigger and better" things. I used to wish away my time, having been one of those kids who was mercilessly bullied without defense, and that had profoundly affected my view of life- always between acceptance and rejection, and always looking to some imagined destination. It took years to sort out these ingrained self-assessments, and the challenge occasionally amplified when I could recognize condoned workplace versions of schoolyard bullying. The relentlessly abusive production manager at a studio I worked for, echoed the aggression of muggers in the elevator of the high-rise project I lived in, during my grade-school years. During a misunderstanding in which I stood alone in my cause, it was as though I had been back in one of those summer camps, teased and maligned, suddenly tossed from the garden as it were. Being shunned by colleagues blurred into the shunning of my co-religionists and family when I embraced a new faith, and the gauntlet seemed to go on and back to the snarls aimed at the youngest, smallest, weakest kid in the class. Once, as a ten-year-old, I took an unwarranted thrashing from a bigger kid- and got sent to the school nurse, who turned out to be the kid’s mother. She did not know who had bloodied me, and when she told me who she was, I simply said that her son was a nice guy. Why I remember such things is beyond me.



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Perhaps there is a cutting edge, when enough ostracism, disowning, rejection, and undercutting becomes a costly self-underestimation. Surely it has not all been negative, and the pendulum would often get pulled in the very opposite direction when I would find welcome company. And it has been, and remains, in many unrelated places, tastes of spiritual and intellectual kindredship. Part of its beauty is in its very unpredictability. If you treat everyone well, there is always an open door for something new to materialize. Then you can be the one who includes others. And when things descended to their very worst, and I had been certain that I walked this earth alone and unwanted, my steps brought me to the little sign along the path to the Weston Priory that reads, Know That You Are Welcome. There, on the first of countless pilgrimages, I began to pull the experiences of acceptance together with the nurture of an encouraging community, and build enough strength to begin applying all the good which had been shared with me. If it has been an odyssey to find where I most clearly sense that coveted attribute of belonging, I have been learning to gratefully recognize the fleeting situations and the companies of those among whom I find the deepest joy. When the inward cry of "where is home," is contrasted by the presence of compassionate friends, it is impossible not to connect the two scenarios. When we have had to navigate the darkness east of Eden, with some patience we can surely learn to savour the sunlight.


In his book, Love and Living, Thomas Merton adds, "We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded." Adding this to our equation, we may reconsider the impact of belonging, for us and those in our midst. If we embrace the call to belong*, then we see our role in the lives of those we meet who wish not to be islands unto themselves. (In this respectful context, nothing is to be enforced upon anyone.) So who makes the rules, anyway, about who "deserves" sympathy and respect, and who doesn’t? Who’s in the "club," and who’s out? Upon reflection, for those whose impressionable exclusions have forced themselves into self-imposed lives as outcasts, perhaps it is that we have the power to include ourselves into our own environments, and conversely to embrace those around us- those kindred souls each of us will invariably find- into our unique spheres. For me, it’s been helpful to think about the gold I have emerged with, through times of trial. And when I see those contrasts of rejection and belonging juxtaposed, my resolve is to continue being mindful of others’ circumstances, and to be sure to contribute positively to wherever I am. Time may not reliably heal, but it does shape our perspectives. And there is always that open-end, that beautiful way forward that is extended to us each day. This morning my thoughts were captivated by simply acknowledging the amazing mystery of not being able to fully know what I may be equipping myself for.


* Romans 1:5,6


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Thursday, December 13, 2007

horizons


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"You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore."

~ André Gide


To realize whether one has a place of departure still prominently in their sights implies there has been some straining in a direction opposite that which they are heading. Some distracting looking-back has been diverting the focus. And that seems a natural, though a pivotal, juncture to follow any major transition. Here is where it becomes essential for me to keep the courage and lose the departed shore. Just as surmounting the inertia with energy to "push off" into a new direction is itself a marvel of self-propulsion of the soul, so is the resolve to continue on, reaching forth to that which is forward. Such moments may manifest between horizons, when the one ahead is too far to unambiguously delineate, and the docks left in the wake are still near enough to revisit. But the courage to lose sight of the shore calls forth an abiding trust, and that is both conscious and surely not passive at all. Indeed, far from a gesture that simply allows things to leave what may be perceived to be "in my control," but consciously desiring and aiming for a life that is not mine alone. The courage to fly to the unknown implies a boldness to keep going, even if through miles of disorientation. The substance of things hoped for is sufficient bread for the journey. Choosing to move in a specific direction does imply motion away from another destination: my intended course becomes worth losing any other that might diminish the great hope that has been given to me. And when my long-held hopes reveal times of fulfilment, I realize how I have often created a sense of permanence out of very tentative and temporal circumstances. Cultivating aspirations became more an end than the means it was intended to be. Do we hope without the wholehearted expectation of reaching the other shore? The temporal has a dynamic that can propel us forward without even wanting to look back, and thus a life of ever moving forward maintains a fresh view of each moment.


Desiring to pursue dreams, choosing to continually reach for holiness instead of refueling the past, causes me to ask whether I have been asking too little of myself. When a wondrous way is prepared and presented to me, how astonishing that I should even hesitate to give my all, in a grateful spirit of trust. It seems easy to cling to what we know, even if it may pale in comparison to the brilliance arrayed before us from the horizon. What is familiar is meant to be exceeded, and indeed if we fear surrendering the known in exchange for frightening things, conversely we can trade up to far better things- even if we may not immediately know any more than the assuring certitude that it is the next right thing, and our souls are peacefully elated with the new reality. If, in this context there is a trial set before us, it is to move right through the jarring displacements and unrelentingly find enough balance to start ever anew, make ourselves at home, and continue to aspire. The change of perspective then becomes a change in that which we find our identities.


John Stuart Mill exemplified the transition from viewing life as despairing trials, to what he called "the maintenance of a due balance among the faculties." The simple recognition of the supreme value of seeking within and cultivating his soul was enough to draw him forward. For Mill, writing in the early 1900s (A Crisis in My Mental History), it was the music of Weber and especially Wordsworth’s poetry that sensitized his heart enough to transcend his defeats and find what he described as a "Source of inward joy." "Through my dejection," Mill wrote, "honestly looked at, could not be called other than egotistical." He connected his disappointments to his ego, and determined that "unless I could see my way to some better hope than this... my dejection must continue," concluding that a perceptive hopefulness is connected to the peace within that allowed him to see the world in his midst with hope. In Mill’s emergence, he let go of his despair, while keeping the poetic sources of his inspiration close at hand.


Maintaining a solidly hopeful perspective and becoming more fully conscious of life’s changes demands a new frame of reference- one that ceases to look at this moment as a succession of times past. I can begin to take stock of my life with the undisputed given fact that I have a life. And perhaps, like Mill, I may call upon my own heart’s muses. Meister Eckhart, of the 13th century, considered humanity’s goal as being a complete union with God, and in order for a person to become divine it was necessary that they "detach themselves from all that is creaturely." For his monastic mind, he referred to detachment as the condition of our transformation into the things of God. Such profound and thorough development seems to me as incremental advances- and the thought of manageable steps is in itself heartening to me. An organic process can occur at any pace- the one we can each comprehend. Perhaps we know we’ve "advanced" to a new chapter of our lives, when we notice, ironically, that some things are taken for granted (and are no longer worries). When we move away from a shore we can still see and reach, we may endanger a longing for what we’ve concertedly pushed away from. But still further, the departed land may have simply lost its savour and thus our interest. Do we, in our heart of hearts, long for what was- more than what is set before us? The mirages are subdued by reality, when we see how our days have taken us to the threshold of this instant. Open doors may imply an undertone of another closing, but for a moment; all succeeding considerations point to new and beckoning horizons.


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Thursday, December 6, 2007

chronos


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“Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky;
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Escape.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.”


~ Rumi, Quietness


There seems no end to the mystery and perplexity of the passage of time; at times grievous, at other times in reminiscence, still again in a wonder which evades words. We seem to think we can do things to manage time, to stop or accelerate, or slow down the advances of moments, hours, and years. Of course, we are well familiar with the increments against which our days are structured. At my place of work, there is a large grandfather clock, with the name “Regulator” engraved across its face, lending itself to plenty of irony. Lesser portions of days are irritable games of “beat the clock,” but with renewed perceptions the day balanced with obligations and unstructured moments develops into a sentient puzzle. As a child, I would muse about the meaning of the recollections of those around me, those elder voices explaining times past. Had “a long time ago” disappeared into a darkened lane, to be retrieved? Or as it turns out, is the retrieval only at our summons? And the witnesses of time’s advance do not always remain with us, and accompanying our cognizance of this reality we find ourselves witnesses of our own times.

Moments may become landmarks as tangible for us as any boldly-planted granite memorial. And perhaps, with that consideration, we may be the iconoclasts operating the demolition equipment. But we may also be the preservation historians. One which stays with me proved to be a turning point. When I was seventeen, it seemed opportune for one of my most loving elder family members to explain the harsh truths to me about what had happened during the Holocaust, and actually took me on walks to see the actual places in Paris that- for us- are landmarks. It was all so profoundly astonishing to me that, for days, it was very difficult to sleep. Among many thoughts I had been trying to fully comprehend, was that of time. Staring out from the balcony at midnight, above the darkened street in Montmartre, my evolving thoughts dwelt upon the idea that it was time that divided the perished lives of my own family- from mine at that present moment which suddenly occurred to me as a life spared. In my stupor, my thoughts turned to imagining the divide of some forty years between a hopeless, unimaginable, brutal end- and- the found realization of looking forward very freely. What can one do with these truths? As well, during those wakeful nights alone on the balcony, I would look up at the charcoal skies and, in my thoughts, ask “what is out there?” “Who is out there, and why am I spared?” And it was up and out to the same skies, but months later above the coast of Maine, that I began to entreat with the simplest prayers in my own unpresuming vernacular words.

We find ourselves inhabiting the context of our times, inherited- and occasionally also freely chosen by us. And when we can embrace our own direction, from our hearts and with the ingredients which have brought us to this very day, we know our spirits are unconstrained by the limitations of measure. Yes, with an apprehension of our own time’s landmarks we can see our paths as part of an immeasurable continuum. We know about the superimposed units of measure, but we cannot presume to determine the pace. When he began to create a summation of his experiential discoveries, the ancient apostle Peter went so far as to stipulate that if there was even one thing of which even the most bewildered- or the most knowledgeable- must not lose sight is that in the context of creation “a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day.” With the illustration of extremes, the man who witnessed the Transfiguration assures the reader how the Divine is transcendent of time, “the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness, but is patient with you.” In that unpleasant habit of wishing away time, frustrated by what may appear to be a lack of progress, it’s easy to miss that many steps are unhastened for our own undetectable sakes. And thus it becomes possible to be reminded that places and situations may test the limits of our strivings, but is less essential than the very action of setting forth.


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Friday, November 30, 2007

graphite delight


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"In this quiet moment
of a changing season,
We are called to remember:
Never stand still,
but move with one heart."

~ The Monks of Weston Priory, Move With One Heart


A universal transformation, even within the simplest of lives, is at once formidable and humbling. In my experience this has been so, through efforts to recover from loss, and, yes, in the reception of unexpected blessing. Hoping, as a human can, in fits and starts- but rarely with a sense of expectation. And perhaps the latter aspect is the defining corollary of trust. When we say we are in awe, we call forth a word that represents the paradox of both reverent inspiration and fright. When we are in awe, Webster’s Collegiate refers to our being in "an overwhelming admiration, fear, or wonder produced by that which is grand, sublime, and extremely powerful." Such descriptive imagery does not easily come to mind during times of tragedy, but it certainly does when we are overtaken by blessing we may not have dared to expect. When he retrospectively looked at his career, the apostle Paul advised his students to know how to "be both abased and abound;" through the spectrum of circumstances he viewed his life as a conduit, and not as the ultimate source of strength and inspiration. I think he found this powerfully liberating and humbling at the same time. And the wonder of this moment surely has no time to think about dread. To realize hopes I hadn’t dared to fully presume is cause to be abound. Yes, it is humbling and there is the awe of the road ahead (and remembrance of the ground already traveled), but the unfettered gift of joy is to be savoured.


A dear and wise friend recently wrote some poignant words to me about the joining together of souls, expressing, "the holding of hands can heal all the wounds of the past and the heart." The modest eloquence of the gesture manifests the unity that dwells within. I remember the occasions when I would be in attendance when a monk would make his profession, and at the Weston Priory they dance in a circle, hands clasped together, celebrating the circuitry of their kindredship. The living parables of drawing together and moving forward never cease to amaze me, considering how no two lives, no two histories, are exactly alike. But it is the mysterious combination of trust, unanimity, and pluralism that makes things continue to thrive. Considering again the words of my quoted friend, those observances of kindredship do neutralize past anguishes, and the pains which had only persisted to exist in their phantom forms, are finally washed away. And though we may set aside some long-established facets of our lives, we do so with a jubilant enthusiasm for the embarkation upon new beginnings.


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The new chapter of the evolving journey moves between recovery and discovery. My origins and experiences serve me well in their context as reference points, not as focal points. When the ancient Psalmist settled his heart after having traversed intense duress, across the expanse of thousands of years it is still possible to hear his sigh of gratitude at finally being at peaceful respite. The depths of his gracious utterance amounted to very simple words that sufficed: "my heart is not haughty, neither are my eyes set on things beyond me; in the quiet I have stilled my soul." As the humbled David, in this instance, it is a wonder to be awed by goodness. And I’m willing to wager that even he never received a love letter, written all in pencil! Oh, but I know where I came from (and know not to ever belittle the disenfranchised), the journeys and places well known to me, giving enormous savour to something not quite comprehensible, yet renewing, and delightful.



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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

anam ćara


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"Nothing has been
what I guessed so far.
Unforeseen,
This most sweet
Beautiful change."

~ The Innocence Mission, Beautiful Change


For those of us who have grown so accustomed to contending with life’s challenges, often steering our vessels through and around treacherous seas, and then find ourselves unlearning such ideas that have solidified our notions of life as some barrage of conflicts, the prospect of profound joy is both disarming and exhilarating. Aren’t the humbled visited by the sublime? Can we dare to really believe in the actuality of things we have hoped for? Of course, it’s all very well to speculate about hope, but what of the faith to consciously live one’s days with the certitude that we will see joyous times? Indeed, there’s enough in this society to persuade anyone to develop a habit of expecting the worst. Yet the force of such conditioning is thwarted and subverted when our souls behold something good. Though we may not know the forms in which goodness comes to us, it is at once sufficient and daring to desire the will of God, come what may. "Joy is never in our power," C.S. Lewis once wrote, and part of the surprise of glad tidings is the realization that change can surely be for the better. And all I can do is embrace the one who has come into my life, and be heartily grateful. Much like the very timely description of the Advent, the deepest fulfillment is a consistent and often quiet celebration.


The course of my pilgrimage steps evolves still more, with the new dimension of sharing my life with another’s. It is a living miracle that has taken time for me to believe, firstly because enough past failures obscured my vision of human relationships, and due to my plain astonishment with this advent of two soul mates finding one another. I have loved much and lost much, and yet am now mysteriously certain of being loved. Did I honestly believe years of those kinds of prayers would be answered? It is both expectation and surprise; recent years of adventures left me strengthened and prepared, though also quite delightfully unready for this new course of life. Beginning leads to beginning. Transition is a certain aspect on the voyage, and for myself this has been an evolving series of seasons of change. Through it all, I am still me; somehow that is sufficient. Surely my perspective and context are changing, but these are things that must develop with the days. And this raises the question, not of identity, but of how one identifies oneself. Soon, I shall cease to think of myself as solitary; and indeed it has been my wish that solitude be temporary. It has had great value- right up to the crossroads of this new threshold.


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By embracing any new way of living, it has been necessary for me to surrender old notions: to understand the differences between how things may seem, and how they really are. And the best uses of the past, as any other historian would advocate, are in the lessons learned. For many years I have known how the soul longs to be recognized and understood, for its own intrinsic value, but what happens when that recognition is realized? When I did not strive to be accepted, I found myself embraced and esteemed. Seeking and finding by being. Still further, if seeking does preclude finding, have I really understood the meaning and the potential of seeking? Producing an answer will probably take even longer than it took to procure the question! Indeed, my healed heart has been awakened to something new. Life is changing and astonishingly so, in the ways I have wished for it to change. And through these transitions, I have glimpsed at how little I really need, and how complete my life has become- solitary or not. And now, it is both desire and time that hurtle the days forward.


In Wind, Sand, and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, "Love does not consist in just gazing at each other but in looking onward together in the same direction." Now I understand how soul-companions, those who consider the other as, in the Gaelic expression, their anam ćara, can be for one another reminders of belonging and home; their very presence a place of mutual refuge and nurturing. Now I know. As spiritual life draws us to embrace those around us, indeed our love and respect for each other is also a gratitude to our Creator. And renewed hopes can also mean finding new things to hope for, advancing from our hopes realized.


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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

un chant nouveau

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"Here at the portal thou dost stand,
and with thy little hand
Thou openest the mysterious gate
Into the future’s
undiscovered land."

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, To A Child



If the measuring of our days and years is a marking of events and milestones, this recent season of many changes is perhaps a small portion of one greater threshold I have yet to fully perceive. Each of us can be our own documentary historian or statistician, as our imaginations will incline, choosing to appraise the moments that re-route our lives’ directions. And points in time may not necessarily have standardized durations. We cannot always know what is happening beneath the surface. Can the momentous manifest over a lengthened stretch of time, as well as in the twinkling of an eye? In the same sense, there cannot be one rigid surface-measurement for a threshold of the spirit. I may consider a year of thresholds, or a threshold of years. Some of us may retrospectively notice finite spans of time, such as our schooling years, considering numerous transitions as part of one impressionable passage. During my first September after graduating from college, I finally noticed having advanced away from the long shadow cast by consecutive school years beginning at the age of four. Alongside our perceptions is the mystery of realizing avenues presented to us by our circumstances (seemingly enforced), balanced with those we can determine for ourselves. Occasionally, we actually have a say in the matter. For a number of years, it had been necessary for me to work three- and sometimes four- simultaneous jobs, in order to survive. When there were projects of fixed-length, I had to continue to find new ones, in a constant pursuit. But the rewards came in the form of being able to make many rejuvenating retreats, finding ways to coordinate the time with my employers. In varying proportion there are time spans imposed upon us, beyond which we can find the journeys we choose to embark upon- and even change.

Transplanting the personal effects of two decades of daily life into a new home has provided yet another tangible threshold traversal. Though not to draw an over-importance to the occasion, the lasting impression is that of an initial enthusiasm for a new context for a new life, mixed with nostalgia for what had been simpler and staid. After that, a focused desire to move forward, and leave behind portions of the past that can cloud the brightness of this season and those to follow. And the plain, exhausting physical work ensued- a combination of heavy labor and delicate transport; enough immediacy to divert from much self-reflection. Where will the writing-table go? From there, seeing the mixture of everything from childhood artifacts to the day’s mail, heaped into an undecorated, darkened, and unheated space, generated a restless regret for the comfort I left behind. Now, the irreversible barrier of time’s increase causes me to reckon, take stock, and know not to even entertain looking back. And the life-giving forward-looking neutralizes the lure of the past.

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A year of travels and transition winds again into the country of cold weather. Pilgrimage may be comprehended as a year of many days’ transition, or more broadly as an unfolding voyage, prefaced and accompanied by years of transformation. But surely not simply change for the sake of change; by choosing to move forward, albeit while seeing through the proverbial glass darkly, we can indeed journey from one fulfillment to another. The future is not meant to be a replication of the past. At times the new scenery is tangibly before us, in forms of foreign lands and living spaces, or simply in the ways our vision of the ordinary is transformed. Though my hands are cold as I type these words, bundled in outer clothing in this chilled apartment, my books are on their shelves and I’ve put some pictures on some of the walls. The place is clean and presentable, save for the still-packed material that will either be kept or discarded. This process has permitted me to detach from such heavy anchors as material possessions can become. A sense of home will follow, just as it had in my previous place. Just the other day, during a respite at the Boston Athenaeum, something of a home from home, amidst many familiar reminders, it suddenly became possible for me to "re-approach" the new living space back in Portland. Sensing the connotation of importance in everyday occurrences, in the miraculous eloquence of the simplest nuances in this season’s light and air, in the cadence of familiar conversant voices, are subtle reminders of mutual encouragement between my friends and me. I know I am not alone. Such is the good sort of anchor, in a safe harbor; a homecoming following a tumultuous passage. Not only is it good to take stock in what I find hopeful, but it is a gift in itself to be able to take stock. The winter is indeed a fresh start, and it reveals within a springtime of the heart.


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Thursday, November 8, 2007

where the heart is


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"Journeys ended
Journeys begun:
To go where we have never been;
To be beyond our past."

~ Monks of Weston Priory, Spirit Alive


Embarking still on another transition, along this unfolding journey, I have just moved from my home of many years. There surely was no great distance involved, but anyone who has packed decades of their belongings and vacated their living space, can understand that geography carries a separate impact from that of leaving behind the stable place called home. And this implication takes so many forms in these times. When I completed graduate school, I left the place of employment at which I hard-worked a living for nearly 13 grueling years. In such long stretches of time, places can become deeply personalized- and even internalized. Places that are thoroughly intertwined with our days become the arenas in which major parts of our lives are staged. At that job, I saw a life’s spectrum of individuals, situations, and emotions, all in the intensity of human lives engaged in stressed employment. The day I carried out the last of my personal effects from "my" studio space, I filled my car with supplies, tools, and manuals- along with cases of music discs, wall decorations, and coffee cups. When I did that last once-over, before turning off the lights, the bare shell of a space had the ghostly look of a lifeless cavern. I subtly realized how humanity combined with ingenuity can animate an ordinary space, making it into a place which emanates creativity and color, as a soul inhabits a body.


The home I’ve inhabited and cherished for nearly twenty-two years is now in the past. Only months out of college, I carried those first crated bundles of books up the steep narrow stairs and through the door. The place was barely affordable, but minutes by bicycle from work. Over the years, those three modest rooms in the Victorian mansard became something equivalent to a favorite pair of shoes: not the flashiest, but comfy and versatile enough to be favored despite its flaws. Convenient and hospitable. And in various combinations of my circumstances changing, and my challenges to transform my own life, I would reshape my home in numerous ways. That little configuration of rooms and nooks was a quiet study and a sanctuary, as well as a place of celebration and dinner parties. And indeed, aloneness and grieving. My long sojourns with the Benedictine monks in Vermont taught me to transfigure a place of desolation into a venue of friendship and warmth. On one of my countless retreats at Weston, Brother Philip told me that "it isn’t enough to say welcome; you must be welcome." Such thoughts bring us to realize the distinction between place and presence.


Throughout these years, there have been numerous times for me to reflect upon the definition of home. What is home, and where is home? Is this something that can be provided, or withheld, or even created anywhere? An ancient monastic saying exhorts the seeker to "carry your cell with you, wherever you go." This surely addresses our contemporary nomadic lives, and how families tend to scatter between chasms of large distances. Clearly the most joyful recollections about my home are connected to how it became a place of gathering and kindredship, and doubtlessly that will continue in the new place. When contemplatives were enjoined to set forth with their "cells," my understanding is that it was to express that they should wear their spirit of welcome and compassion in all places and at all times. Yes, Spirit transcends space.


And now life evolves still further. Recent years have seen increments of transition, much of it intellectual and spiritual. Transmuting perspectives. Now there is a physical transference. In those instances when I’ve noticed myself dragging my own absurd self, kicking and screaming, into all that is good about new life, I’ve had to recall the intertwined nature of stress and turning-points. Now it is useful to be reminded that just as we find our footing, after welcoming gifts into our lives, we must then move those feet some more, even in a seemingly unknowing faith. Admittedly, moving on- whether metaphorically or physically- surfaces the immediate temptation of regretting the benefits we once had, but that is invariably surpassed by the brilliant expanse opening before us. The present and future needn’t be replications of past things which surely pale in comparison to what is yet to be created.


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At home I experienced the full range of emotions-
lost love very painfully,
but found love, and was reassured of the miraculous
(see detail from top of wall, above, in picture below),
with a surpassing strength of hope and gratitude.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

ar lan y môr


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"God is the country of the spirit,
and each of us is given a little holding
of ground in that country;

it is our duty
to explore that holding to gain certain impressions
by such exploring,
to stabilise as laws
the most valuable of these
impressions, and,
as far as we can,
to abide by them.

It is our duty to criticise,
for criticism is
the personal explanation
of appreciation."



~ Dylan Thomas, from a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson





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“every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters”

~ Isaiah 55:1



Having journeyed long enough from shores no longer distinguishable, save for their impressions, now it is possible to notice nuanced changes in light and air current. The new season calls for yet another divergence along the broadening course I navigate. Emerson wrote, "the voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks," reminding me that even after steering through turbulence, the prospect of numerous turns under clear skies really is an appreciation of the finest course. A tidal reconciliation is surely more habitable than tireless resistance. And so the journey unfolds still further. And in this stretch, there seems less need to focus upon my own development. Momentum from pronounced personal sea-changes bring us to points beyond discoveries of essentials, and on to an expansive freedom to give myself more thoroughly to my relationships. The subtle change is one of emphasis, and just as the ancient Psalmist prayed to be upheld evermore with a willing spirit, such yearnings come from the place between restoration from anguish and having already reached a strengthened stride.


Our society's obsessive penchant for preparedness, the worst of which is really connected to fear of the unknown and securing what is already overfortified, makes readiness into an end rather than a means. And at the same time, we ironically revere such expressions as "life is not a rehearsal." But in the balance of things, so as not to let planning obstruct living, we can surely apply what we learn in the miraculous process of comprehension. I like to recall listening to a monk tell me, "what little you can understand of the gospel- live it." This perspective launches theory into practice, and so often learning and application occur simultaneously- even with the "order" reversed. Newly-learned discoveries follow actions, as well as vice-versa. Understanding the vitality of compassion, toward oneself and outwardly, the vast Atlantic reminds me of the vocation of embracing the lives of those around us, and finding our place in lives that parallel ours.


The nature of transformation itself is fluid and dynamic, yet it is forgivably natural to want to preserve that spirit. How is this possible, each day being distinct from the one preceding it? In photography, rather than to preserve a process we refine how it works. What is developed and affixed are images that are tangible. Thus far, I have seen that in the maintenance of a willing spirit, my own transformation continues. It doesn’t happen every day, at least not overtly, but a humble spirit that longs to be led by streams of living water is never far from reach. It is always both figurative and metaphorical, for me to go to the ocean; constantly in motion yet always present and steadfast. In a fascinating triumvirate: the biblical Jeremiah, enduring the tragedy of war, looked to God as the fount of living water; many centuries later John pointed to God as the giver of living water to souls that thirst; and finally John encourages holding on to faith, as that will inspire humans to become conduits of the life-giving Source. The water’s edge continues to remind me of light, the scent of sea air, and the infinite textures of this environment. Even how things taste. And what I thought to be daunting matters regain their realistic scale.


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Monday, October 22, 2007

resurgam ; dirigo


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"I must down to the sea again,
to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song
and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face
and a gray dawn breaking."

~ John Masefield, Sea Fever, (1902), st. 1.


"Right at the depth of the human condition,
lies the longing for a presence,
the silent desire for a communion.
Let us never forget that this simple desire for God
is already the beginning of faith."

~ Brother Roger of Taizé, To the Sources of Trust.



Within so many of all ages is a persistent longing for one’s origins. We want to know what has brought us to this day, and about the mystery of the sources of our lives’ very depths. And still further, we desire to plumb the strata of what distinguishes the individual soul. There are the obvious landmarks: physical places we can locate and make travels to comprehend such as memorials and structures, and even places whose significance is marked only within a person’s heart. Memory can have immense power, enough to either prompt our lives to add more experience- and also to prevent a soul from looking away from what is past. Indeed, remembrance carries with it a double-edge. Still there often remains an ache to experientially know the very sources of encouragement and acceptance that can restore and enliven us. Since my early childhood I’ve known a profound wish to belong, or as a wise friend once described, "to be recognized." And in this sense, recognition is to express a rarified yet somehow effortless and unspoken familiarity for the one who belongs. A treasure for the recipient and a shared joy for those who extend the recognition of their hearts. Such inner communion is beautifully stated by my friends at Weston Priory; the monks write:

"The human heart is nourished with yearning for tomorrow, with poetry and
devotion, with contemplation and the incessant thought of home."


Another fascination from childhood has been connected to seeing and knowing about what was and is no longer: abandoned buildings and houses, changed neighborhoods, monuments signifying an event or person having stood at a given site, and indeed hearing a story about an occurrence when passing by a rather unassuming place. The succinct little anecdotes added to visual impressions would strongly take root as memories- even for an adolescent. And such imagery would spark numerous musings about how the city "used to be," and "what would it have been like if I had been there." Like detailed and pictorial postage stamps in an album, I seemed to collect little veritable, yet metaphorical, compass points in different communities, sites annotated by stories. Most of the places were shared with family, friends, and classmates- places in cities divided by the ocean. But being the living common denominator, my return to some of these places retold their significance. The captivating difference was that of time: then and now- and the witness of locale and living beings who can attest to transition.


In more recent years, my sense of the physical landmark has been superceded by the sites and markers carried deep within. It became a spiritual lifeline, to know my sources of strength and compassion, and to pursue a presence of mind to continually return to these wellsprings. As it is also for many, it was in crises that a spiritual sense of place and context began to tangibly emerge; and in these experiences it became impossible to hold on to places and situations. That which was then, but ceased to be now. Even the historic connotation of the word crisis implies a compression, a turning point, a distinction, bringing one to a drawing-together, to a re-gathering. And when a sense of rootedness- and even home- becomes elusive, the assurance of belonging becomes all the more vital. Overarching the despair of where home has been, to my surprise I find it in many places and circumstances. And I find, by abiding near in spirit to my heart’s wellspring. I can provide that for others. If present conditions recall desolation, then conversely I hope to let the scars remind me of grace.


As with home, source is a solid word which can hardly describe the depths of its reference, and to remain substantial it demands some specificity. Going to the source connotes where and how we find our basis, our ground. For me, it has meant faraway pilgrimages, or simple walks along the ocean, and it continues with humble silences spicing my weekdays when all I can do is draw a breath of reminder that I am part of the world around me. Consistent returns to the source have become forward steps, trust which manifests in action, and thus transcending fleeting emotions. Such knowledge, however, can only be intuitively sensed, and not rationalized. As Thomas à Kempis wrote, "I desire to feel compunction rather than to know the details of its definition." It is a knowing from within. The soul’s longing is founded in hope, even if it is an unarticulated aspiration. Still it is a hope that comes from a realization that the way ahead is open and replete with potential and pertinence.


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Sunday, October 14, 2007

senses sharpened


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"When we speak, in gestures or signs,
we fashion a real object in the world;
the gesture is seen, the words and the song are heard.

The arts are simply a kind of writing,
which, in one way or another, fixes words or gestures,
and gives body to the invisible."


~ Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier), French philosopher, 20th C.



Some of my close friends have graciously and sympathetically heard my grousing about the major household purging process I have been satirically dubbing The Big Dig, after the infamously protracted reconfiguration and modernization of downtown Boston’s traffic conduits. If my faltered attempts of fits-and-starts at downsizing years of accumulation have frustratingly persisted, I honestly cannot remember the city of Boston without trenches in the pavement and unpredictable detours. One week I couldn’t find an entrance to a Red Line T station, because it had been moved to another street corner! And when I descended the freshly-minted cement steps, I felt that odd edge of recreating a sense of direction- much as tourists experience when feigning a familiarity with an entirely strange place. It had been unnecessary to read signs before the upheaval. And much like the South End, my own Big Dig had been many times stalled by such factors as limited living space, the need for daily traffic flow, and an unusual abundance of archaeological discoveries beneath the detritus of excavated substrata. Watching (and hobbling over) the city’s peeling layers returns to mind as my wry determination to complete my own material simplification finally reaches its grossly overdue concluding phases. Inevitably, the process began to manifest as far more than sorting, giving-away, and tossing-out (a neatly-kept household conceals accumulation only too well); it has been a spiritual exercise no longer to be procrastinated. To finally carry out this project is to tangibly welcome the new, and solidly separate myself from outdated tastes and general things past.


Evaluating physical space, like the pursuit of spiritual clarity, is a reckoning with the passage of time and its accompanying transitions. We would surely prefer to house and haul around things (and perceptions) that are pleasant and useful today and tomorrow, than things we used to like and use. Further, it’s an assurance to consider that how I was "then" matters much less than how I am now. Admittedly, there is a strong temptation to resist change and grasp what is considered safe and predictable. The desire for stability is both persistent and frequently misunderstood. We long to move from strength to strength. Transition is in the nature of living this life, and like the passage of time neither can be held back. This is a season of sharpened senses. New prospects alert us to the differences between maintained status quo and openness to possibilities. And in this part of the world, at this time of the year, autumn avails us to a physical harbinger of change: the air, land, and sight-lines. We’ll be walking on noisy leaves and snow, before green grass reappears. Soon enough the season will give way to the marking of chronological transition. Perhaps the penchant for holding on to things formerly useful, but not anymore, is better understood in our roles as self-styled historic curators. This season’s message is for me to simply admire the tides when I walk the waterfront. To clear out what is no longer relevant, making physical and spiritual room for treasures yet to be perceived, makes way for what we find dynamic in our presence.


"On this stone a new name will be written, unknown to everyone except for the person who receives it." This fascinating phrase, from Revelation, inspired Jan van Ruysbroeck (in the 14th century) to elaborate upon what he called The Sparkling Stone, given to every contemplative soul. He wrote,

"On it is written a new name, unknown to everyone except the one who receives it. You should know that all spirits receive a name when they go to God- each an extraordinary name in accordance with the nobility of its service and the depth of its love."


Ruysbroeck wrote much in this treatise about how the offering of our selves and the work we do, can be an eternal gift of gratitude. Later, in his mystical and poetic fashion, he continues that we proceed by transcending even these gifts as we become immersed in the Spirit. That sparkling stone of transformed identity may yet hold still more metaphors for us, as in solidly realizing who we are, offering our works as our gifts, the invitation follows to simply let go of the grasp of such things- unbound by obstacles of our selves and our trappings. When a new horizon calls us to broaden our understanding, perceptions are shaken, and such challenges draw us to finer- even thin- places of vulnerability. Such exposure sensitizes us to the subtlest of sea-changes. While becoming susceptible to the grandeur and grace in our very midst, the double-edged paradox rounds out in the form of enhanced empathy toward lives parallel to ours. In the presence of greatness, sustainability is found in the humblest reception and reciprocity. In this perplexing exercise of shedding baggage, I do not wish to replace the material with a rotation of more, but would rather abide with less and transcend past with the bareness of being unburdened. With the unseen is found the sublime.


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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

heart in motion


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"If at times it seems insane-
all the tears in searching;
Turning all your joy to pain-
In pursuit of learning."


~ Paul Weller (The Jam), Into Tomorrow


We are ever challenged to know where we are going, and exactly where we stand. In this culture of time-management and stereotyping, those who dare will fashion their apportioned hours to include quiet contemplation, and will consider the individuals around them beyond the limits of job descriptions or outward identities. And when our steps do not trail a clearly-delineated track, or even one that repeats an avenue familiar to our own personal experience, the prospect of one of those large tourists’ illustrated You Are Here diagrams might be consoling. Indeed, though a leap into the unknown, it is still more inviting to realize the metaphorical map as it unfolds. Perceptive fans of The Jam recall such rapid-fire syncopated statements as those quoted above, with respect to many of the tones of the New Wave’s advent- as something between cynicism and adventurousness (both were strong motifs in their era). An argument could be made for our persistent state of discontent. It makes sense. And it is easy to see what is lacking, more than what is really present and at our doorsteps. The pursuit of learning may taint the safer forms of happiness and status quo, however the pursuit itself can be a joy. Might the more daring perspective be to comprehend this day as a developing fulfillment of our longings already navigated? What of the palpable spaces that are between definable places?


Autumnal light and air exemplify transition. With each passing day of the early notices of the season, there is something of a surprise in the long shadows, chills, and earlier-than-expected receding light. When we long for change, its arrival could not be fast enough, and when change surprises us, we think ourselves unprepared. It is as though our days travel at varying speeds, deviating from our prescribed watches and calendars. And I’ve learned not to wish away time, particularly while noticing this rare opportunity to dwell within the process, to inhabit the voyage. At this moment, the challenge is in finding the sufficiency to distinguish between memory of what has been real, and unreasonable longings for fantasized notions. It’s good for me to call to mind that my humblest day-to-day life is something many people in significantly lesser straits wish they had. The pressing call is to revel in this often painful journey of joining place with place- and that demands quiet pauses. This morning, I remembered how one of my photographer friends, whose speciality was working with film, would lodge himself inside the processing machinery. He would routinely enter the network of cogs, pipes, hangers, racks, and tanks- in complete darkness- analyzing and making the process happen. It always impressed me, and this memory reminds me of how development occurs in sequential steps, and the value of being entirely present to the critical parts of the process, not just the "before and after."


This time, recollection is unlike previous meditations in which I needed to know my basic purpose. At this moment, it is to recall the valuable desert voyaging of the past in order to appreciate what is present; remember the distance covered while inhabiting the sense of arrival. Recalling the descent, when embodying the ascent. All of which is to say liminal spaces are to be appreciated, even the ones that make us squirm with anticipation. So I am attuning myself to thresholds as I recognize them. Being the spiritual life, a provisional, interim stage may be a physical place, a situation- or a way of experiencing life. Gas stations, laundromats, and store checkouts draw new connotations, as well as my response to the tint of today’s thickly overcast sky. I once had a figure-drawing professor who used to pace the room while all of us were furiously scribbling with our charcoal, saying, "enjoy your mistakes, and keep going." I thought he was crazy, because in my naïveté mistakes were something to avoid at all costs and they revealed nothing more than weakness. But wait. Training oneself to enjoy the liminal spaces is to not be so quick to assess the worth of life’s moments. The retraining is to unlearn the need to instantly judge all I see or experience, even if that’s the most reflexive response. Reveling in the journey means savouring the steps. And if I can clearly re-visit liminal spaces of a year ago (or two, or five, or ten), it becomes possible to courageously appreciate transition, and that vital sense of surrender is in welcoming change without judgment. Even if what I’m doing now is not what I could’ve imagined myself doing years ago. Isn’t that the essence of change?


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Revisiting familiar threshold places helps to put the present into perspective. Not that it’s necessary- or even possible for everyone. There’s always been an element of both mystery and history when I walk by a former workplace, or apartment, or some location with personal significance. The element of meaning is entirely personal, and it is for us to choose to have our own "register of historic landmarks." Admittedly, the downside is a vulnerability in wishing to turn back the clock and live the past with these precious here-and-now moments. The upside comes in simply recalling places and life’s chapters, recognizing the value of "this or that happened, and I once worked there." In fact, the moment of this writing takes place on the front stoop of my home of twenty-two years. This massive 140-year-old Victorian granite stoop casts a dark silvery grey against the evening brick sidewalk red and the heavily-clothed maples along the paths. I am enjoying this space on its own terms, with nothing resisted or wished away. And what comes to mind in this twilight, after a most saturating work day, is an accumulating gratitude for a lifetime of safe passages, and the inevitable benefits of ground already covered. Amidst throes of overworked stress or depths of grief, it had not been possible to take such stock, but right now I can- right here on my well-trodden front stoop. Liminal spaces may be as tangible as 19th century masonry, or as fine as holding thoughts that came to you at the moment someone unwittingly said precisely the words you needed to hear. Indeed, transitional is definable place, rather than an empty void of "neither-nor" between events or circumstances we might sooner consider meaningful. Renewed perspective demands reflective time, so that outdated ideas might be redefined, and what had been can evolve into what can become. And returning to our own sources, the ones that speak most pronouncedly to us, provides reinforcement and renewing definitions of what adventure is, while we advance.


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Sunday, September 16, 2007

reflets changeants


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"When the soul wishes to experience something,
it throws an image of the experience out ahead
and enters into its own image."


~ Meister Eckhart



The return of bracing cool air heralding the arriving autumn carries an energy of recollection to our doorsteps, be it a life of new school years or closes of summer. Newly noticed invigorating winds are the counterparts of first ice creams in striking May hot sun. Making conscious note of cold air, just as we might suddenly be consoled by familiar and pleasing aromas, tells us we are awake to the elements around us. On this brisk evening, a brilliant and stifling midsummer day a few years back returns to mind. I was in the fields of the Shaker community’s lands, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, photographing the textures of their farms, wooden buildings, and skies- through the monochromatic medium of my five-by-seven field camera. Stacks of large film holders, bulky tripod, and thick black viewing cloth made this quite a labor, but those of us who favor these formats will carry on with unquestioning alacrity. While focusing a shot, from under the black cloth, I heard clinking and rustling sounds interrupting the otherwise silent landscape. To my amazement and gratitude, it was a Shaker, who had traversed the entire field, carrying a pitcher of jingling iced water and one glass for me. This gesture has enduringly stayed with me, not only as a visual memory of hot dry fields, perspired brow, and refreshing water, but as a complete spectrum of immense yet simple grace. It was a gift I would not have considered asking for, yet grander than I would have imagined.


Perhaps it is no longer satisfactory to vaguely look on, when we might choose to really see and observe. Persevering to listen to what speaks to our lives causes us to experience more than perfunctory hearing and hasty interrupting would have obstructed. Indeed, it becomes an easy temptation to sleepwalk through our days, after the most cursory glance at this culture and all that stands to simultaneously bombard and lull the sublime human soul. Rather than to define what it means to be awake, and thus edge into the realm of cliché, my thoughts turn to exploring what such consciousness does. Often I find my steps slowing to a halt, for various reasons, challenging me to break through outdated perceived limitations to my thinking- which is to say a transcendence of obstacles and a calling forth of possibilities. A very plain example is found in the major housecleaning and downsizing of material accumulations I am pursuing: If I’m really awake, I’ll notice the difference between what I still need and what is no longer needed. What is essential and what is expendable. Indeed, beyond sifting through personal possessions, the grander picture is a recognition of what and who is around me. An awakened vision that nurtures a sensitivity to life and rises above cynicism.


Being awake to the sounds, tastes, air, and Spirit that is around me, is a conscious choice. But then, is the state of being attentive a thing that can be switched off and back on again? I don’t believe we can assess things of the spirit quite so mechanically. Perception is cultivated with time and experience, and we can surely motion in the direction of strengthened hearts and minds. And there are surely times when I am more and less aware of the substance of what is happening. My inner life has had some necessary jolts when I’ve been brought to see my life as evolving- rather than in the safety of stagnancy. Eventually, the wavering settles into a more consistent conscientiousness. We begin to innately know the value of varying our routines, seeing things in ways that unfold and reflect, and comprehending how the fine antithesis of retaining is the act of releasing.




"I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.
Nor in great emotion.
It was more like when a man, after a long sleep,
becomes aware that he is awake."

~ C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

Saturday, September 8, 2007

fortitudo et spes


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"And the angel of the Lord
called unto him out of heaven,
and said,
‘Abraham, Abraham!’
And he replied,
‘Here am I.’ "

~ Genesis 22:11


"And I will give thee the treasures of darkness,
and the things hid in secret places,
that thou mayest know
that I am the Lord
which call thee by thy name..."

~ Isaiah 45:3


Articulating the intangible is among the worthy conundrums when recording the soul’s reflections. Perhaps that is one of the most persistent encouragements to continue the pursuit of both spiritual and writing vocations. Rather than to say ‘despite the indescribable,’ it is really because of what is nearly ineffable, that observations can continue to evolve alongside the effortless passage of time. If our thoughts indeed formulate our selves, emanating from our roots, then words are found among the leaves and branches in our trees.


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Something someone says to you. Something you saw incidentally on your way someplace else... And then reminders connect this moment to our own lived experiences. We are, each one of us, in our own way, the ones who can potentially connect the sounds and images. Then again, in our silent moments- of any duration- are realizations that can only be uttered subtly. From antiquity Didochos of Photiki, writing in the Philokalia, offered that where there is the profoundest richness of the Spirit no speech is possible. His poetic language refers to theophany, and surely we can creatively paraphrase with our being and our days- and perhaps even words. Theophanies are those sublime yet simple revelations, disclosures of the divine, always beautifully within our unique comprehension so that we can internalize what we see and hear. How heartening it is to be clearly reminded of an inconspicuous grace- so pronouncedly as though being directly addressed and assured.


Recalling instances of theophany from my adventures brings me to realize what a good thing it’s been that I’ve written about them all along. As I cover more ground, such a subtle yet impressionable experience tends to dissolve into the day-to-day, and a lingering sense seems to transcend event. What may appear as random conversations, on the street, at work, in cafés, or otherwise in transit, will occasionally bring forth precisely what I needed to hear (and the sooner I realize it, the better). Being a career pedestrian, I get to listen to an array of acquaintances- those I know, those I barely know, and people I may have only seen once. In that ever ethereal sphere of late-night shortwave radio, during a sleepless night, I happened upon a programme during which Sister Margaret Mary Funk elaborated on her Thoughts Matter book on the spiritual life. On an errand to collect donated books to truck back to the library where I worked, while loading heavy boxes of academic tomes, one of the donors came out holding a paperback. When I said that we were not accepting paperback books, she said, "oh this one is for you." Before I could even wonder why a complete stranger was handing a cheerful chap like me Necessary Losses, she continued "loss and grief isn’t confined to deaths, but can also happen when you change jobs, too." The comment was so poignant that I remembered to write it down a week later, considering that I was actually quietly dealing with both issues. The book’s major thesis is about how our losses are inextricably linked to our substantial gains.


During my first trip to Taizé, just after signing up for a two-week’s stay, I walked the grounds of the monastery to familiarize myself with the area. Along one of the roads, suddenly hearing American-accented English, I introduced myself to two backpacking pilgrims who were loaded down with gear that reached far above their heads. They were Oregonians (from the "other Portland") just leaving to embark upon an enormous walk to Spain, and as I explained that I was going to go north to Paris in two weeks’ time, they pleaded with me to visit a church in Paris I had not heard of before. Their imploring included that I promise them that I go to this Chapel of the Miraculous Medal which had so moved them. Weeks later, immediately after arriving in Paris, I sought out the shrine; even knowing the city very well, it was still difficult to find. But indeed, as with any pearl of great price, the entire circumstance was further exceeded by the place itself, its palpable atmosphere, and the welcome I gratefully received. I’ve returned many times since, to this gift of a destination.

Experiencing theophany within, we may see the wonders of creation in our very midst, even as the ancient Psalmist marvels at the pronouncement of the firmament, of the skies that fascinated him. The realization is obviously more significant than place, but sanctified spaces that we either discover or create ourselves can surely lend themselves to that sense of silence that allows us to notice our own breathing, free of distraction and liberated to journey within.


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Friday, August 24, 2007

graph the good phite


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"Scribe ergo quae vidisti..."


"Write therefore
the things which thou hast seen,
and the things which are,
and the things
which shall be
fulfilled hereafter."


~ Revelation 1:19



These moments of the changing season offer an occasion to consider the recorded word itself. As we address our days, we are exercising our words and investing our thoughts into the preservation of our unfolding times. And when the waters calm, there can be just enough respite to realize what the soul has explored. An enjoyable opportunity to appreciate the trail takes shape in one of my sister’s projects. The other day, she told me about some good advice she’d gotten that involved a workbook on the theme of personal development. Being interested, I asked about the process, and in response she sent me the book which is essentially a structured set of open-ended questionnaires. Deciding to follow along, so we can compare insights, I found many correspondences to this very forum of reflective writing. There are considerations of past, present, and future hopes. For the context of the sphere of writing, here is a question from Finding Your Own North Star: "Are there any activities in which you participate that cause you to lose track of time?" And there are. So I wrote them down. One of them was writing.


One of my friends likes to refer to my having a hypergraphic streak, and perhaps there’s something to such jovial jabs to tell me I have stumbled into a writer’s life. But assuredly not a real writer. The sort of writing I do at my profession must be factual and unambiguous. Journal writing is different, having no rules, no assigned audience, and without a set pace or context. It’s really quite liberating, and reflective writing can take on any theme- including the topic of reflective writing. Be that as it may, one may be as the biblical clanging cymbal of insubstantial verbiage, or the pilgrimage and its narrative may be such that we "lose track of time." Years back, during a spirit-breaking crisis, I took a few days' leave of my job and life to journey to a monastery for a retreat. One of my colleagues sent me off with a small blank book, which I gratefully received while confessing that I had nothing to write and did not imagine myself to be a diary-keeping type. "You’ll have plenty to write, when you get there," my friend said. But, truly, don’t we do what we do because we know we must? Much like the life of faith, there are explorations, then reinforcing nurture; there are observances and reflections- or, if we will, there is reading and there is writing. As thoughts and words manifested together, it became necessary to write; It became vital, especially in the immediately ensuing years, that I cultivate the silent witness to my life’s voyages by articulating my adventures and thoughts in writing.


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Might it be disruptive to the rhythm and flow of living one’s days, to be "taking notes?" Rather like some photographers who "get the shots," unaware of the magnificence and eloquence of their subject matter. No, not if the writing (or the photographing) is actually within the movement. We do, after all, need to breathe. If there’s no time to record thoughts now, there will be later. Indeed, holding a thought in a few short words, while waiting at a red light or on line at the bank, should convince the uncertain of their hypergraphia. If, during the more generous pauses, I am reflecting back on the week, it’s a review, and then when the written words parallel simultaneous thoughts it’s in real time. Sometimes the impressions’ additive sum surfaces quickly; other times, it’s what I call "doing the long division" of writing thoughts out in order to make sense of things. All of this is not to mention re-reading the musings, reliving the transatlantic flights, the coffee-break room at all the different jobs, lonesome diners, cafés in tiny villages and in majestic surroundings, the Appalachian Trail, or the laundromat. The vistas do vary, but it’s always the same pilgrim soul.


The narrative is the archival record of a soul’s traversal, across the pages of the days it has been given. Finding that so much of my recorded thoughts hovered around the "what was," and the "what I wish for," I am training my thoughts and words to engage the challenge of speaking to the "what is now." Through the maze of articulative navigation, the more authentic my reflections are, the more rejuvenated my pilgrimage. New truths are found while writing, and that is itself a motivation to continue. Surely, all pursuits have purposed goals, and perhaps here the goal is in the very pursuit itself- thus blurring the distinction. Like prayer, we may find ourselves deep in contemplation during which we say we aspire to a spiritual life. Also similarly, the continuity of written discourse has been my antidote against complacency. Still further- like prayer, writing has not so much altered my circumstances as it has indeed changed me.


So, now to continue and to persevere. In Writing Down the Bones (another book my sister gave me), Natalie Goldberg offered that if your ideas seem too scattered, you might start a page with "I remember..." Becoming an amused observer of my own mind, I’ll frequently start with "I heard myself say..." (And you are all certainly welcome to trying this). As with photography, the written archival record is a way to accentuate the latent value in what is so easily disregarded. Noticing the overlooked is appealingly unspectacular, and attending heartily to humble matters is actually a subtle attuning to grandeur. Indeed, the wind blows wherever it pleases. We hear its sound, but we cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. As well, from holy writ, we find the concept of fighting the good fight of conscientious faith, and with this gratitude for the benefits of the ground already covered, I submit the hundredth entry of this journal.




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Thursday, August 16, 2007

ad destinatum persequor


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"It’s a long day,
a long way into your arms,
a long, long looking forward,
through a straining eye.

And all the clouds are weary whales
swimming by to find you.
And I’m sorry, sorry how,
slow my steps are
slow as hours.

To be there,
To be there where you are."


~ The Innocence Mission, There


When contemplating an aspiring quest, about a forward excursion, we might imagine the passage of time as well as physical geographic motion. To express, "moving in a direction," we are as close to the imagery of our hopes as we are to tangible, demonstrative movement. It is easily the both, and to be truly conscious of how my transitions are directed, it is necessary to sense my life’s movement as it manifests. Places between places. At times, we dwell among the passageways, when destinations seem so far away and impossible, when roads are barely visible, when provisional motion is all that can be known.


Though it may appear that we are standing still, we are in motion, indeed. Might it be detectable by contrast to our general context of change- even in varied paces- or can we notice our movement simply as we can be carried by the tides of time? Of late, I am experiencing the varied and unpredictable steps of progress. It is enough to embrace an ethos of forward motion and constructive change, but indeed I can only do so much to dictate the pace. Trying to learn, trying to build, trying to forge ties; such human processes are passageways to new abilities to share forth, new places of communion, new relationships. But the passages, the avenues, the means, are dynamic spaces themselves with lives of their own. And with that in mind, my understanding of acceptance is to embrace those around me, and to comprehend the pace of each situation- especially when I can only adjust the tempo to a seemingly limited extent. Perhaps, then, sensing the movement of my life is to simply surrender the grasp on its control. Being watchful is really not about being in charge. Today I sat outside my workplace, during a coffee break- the gift of a rejuvenating moment- and drawing in some of the sea-spiced air my attention turned to how the latter-summer light trimmed all that could be seen. Starting to write something down, a passerby asked me if I was journaling, and then proceeded to marvel at this weather. The conversation replaced the writing. Sensing our places is a simple observance.


Absorbing the journey to the full has come to comprise a savouring of the times of transition. Through the consoling presence of friends, I have learned how trials and what appear to be dead-ends can become open paths. It seems as if I have had to experience such ends enough times to learn not to wish away time. Recognizing the dynamism in what is temporal, it becomes possible to enjoy what we know as fleeting and to welcome the changes for which I have hoped to see. My turn in this road offers the chance to be consciously aware of what I can do that I have wished to do. Conversely, there is also that which I do not wish to do (again). Still another worthy purpose in learning to be watchful is to value what is, balancing out my old habit of squinting at horizons. Being fully awake to who and what is present before me, is the paradoxical pursuit of destiny.




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Saturday, August 11, 2007

transitory moments


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"Ce sont des mots prononcés par hasard qui, peu à peu, m’ont tout révélé."


("It was the things said quite at random that, bit by bit, explained everything.")

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince


I am one of those photographers who loves what we call "decisive moments;" thin slices of time that exemplify the sense of an environment. Surely the encapsulation (now tapping into my archivist’s language) of a situation or place carries perfectly into the realm of writing. During my years of teaching photo, I’d read Dylan Thomas’ poetry to class groups, to demonstrate how a few words could so clearly expose and develop an image in our imaginations. Then it would be for all of us to attach our own words to the images we observe. With a visual orientation, we can easily interchange imagery and words; both can be woven into the fine archive in our hearts, but perhaps none so much as a vivid image of a brilliant moment.


A fleeting moment is what ironically (as is my tendency) brought the very vitality of transitory moments to mind. Lately finding that I struggled for some recollective time in the midst of constantly darting between responsibilities, valuable as they are, I unwittingly sought to make the most out of little intermissions amidst tasks and en route. Sitting outdoors on coffee breaks with notebook and pencil, indeed far enough away from the sidewalk smokers. Then the other day I found myself leaving unusually early for an personal errand to allow for some reflective time to write (or as I always say, perch); that would be my reward for such diligent industriousness. The photo, below, taken at Big Sky Bakery accompanied a gratefully received moment. The spectrum comprised the aroma of the roasted beverage and cinnamon, the sounds of conversing workers and patrons, the sharp early light of August coming through the exterior trafficked street, and me within this scene: stillness amidst perpetual motion, and solace that I could luxuriate without worrying about exactly what time it was. It was even possible to draw in some gratifying breaths.


And there’s a thought- to consider how many artistic and spiritual practices are commenced with the intentional and mindful act of breathing. As if this was something for which we need to buy a ticket to do! When a camera shutter snaps, there is a pause before the next frame. When I have to sharpen a pencil, or re-ink a pen, that is part of the syntax of reflective writing. Those pauses are integral. Imagine a commercial break without commercials. In typography we referred to the spaces between type and graphic elements as counterforms, all of which define what is in their context. With a moment, there is a chance to ponder what has brought us to this very stroke of time and to consider why it means enough to cause us to stop action.


The other day, I recounted what became an indelible moment, because of what I saw and what I perceived yet did not see. On a day during an unusually snowy winter, wanting to be a considerate gentleman, I offered to shovel out a formidable sidewalk and driveway for two women who lived nearby. There was a lot of snow, piled very high, and I got through it all and cleared the way for pedestrians and vehicles. It took time, and was rather exhausting. Trudging up all the stairs to announce the job all done, left for me on their sunlit dining table I saw the very picture of profound gratitude. Brilliant light accentuated by abundant snow outside, the wide bright table supported a small teacup filled with coffee, accompanied by a measuring spoon filled with milk. Such extravagance in such humble form came from people who owned neither coffee nor milk in their household, and while I was furiously outside shoveling and hefting snow they were hunting down these ingredients from their neighbors in order to present something they thought I would enjoy. It was the perfect gesture, as if the glitter of the glowing table and the steaming beverage had been gold and incense from the Magi.


Slivers of time and experience, true to their description, are just that: humble enough to be overlooked, but worthy to be savoured and drawn from. We could say that both melancholia and consolation are encountered in barely discernable moments. At once transient and abiding. Yet I am finding that transformation occurs in the twinkling of an eye, and in these liminal breathing-spaces between the forms of the day, I am hoping to perceive what is unseen, and choose a perspective that finds light in the darkness.


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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

via sacra


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"Dyma ni yn awr
ar daith ein gobaith."

("Here we are now
on the journey of our hope.")


~ Morgan John Rhys (Welsh pastor), 1795.


If we recognize in our lives the imagery of pilgrimage, of an evolving progress at unpredictable paces, how can we know an advancement that eludes being quantified? Further, should I try to apply the limits of assessment, that would divert and complicate the very facility that allows me to comprehend. Making steps into new realms, hopefulness takes on a commonplace tangibility with the many symbols of journeying, of crossing, of passing-over. As today becomes where my steps have brought me to stand, looking back can be a reckoning- instead of a luring sea of regret- and it is possible to reach forth with hope. And this perception causes me to find the subtle, even quiet signs that can remind us of our forward paces. It seems the less spectacular the reminder is, the more deeply-rooted the renewal and reinforcement. Transition becomes apparent when imposed perfectionism and self-condemnation are transfigured by an abiding wonderment of the moment’s potential.


Can one be assured their life is the pilgrimage of trust they aspire to pursue? My convincement of the permanence of this ongoing course has not manifested in events so much as the spaces between vistas and trials alike. It suffices for me to know I have covered rugged distances and continue on, all for good purpose, because I am on a voyage I want to take. The embarkation itself is an excited anticipation: not a forbidding precipice, but a gratefully traversed threshold. My wonderment at the presence of grace at so many unexpected turns, is accompanied by a fervor for fulfillment. But indeed such aspiration is tried in the grit of real life which is replete with real tragedy. Yes, the journey has signs and landmarks, and the essence of setting forth comes with such acceptance of things like contradictory rungs and how all things spiritual are unconstrained by time. Along with my evolving journey of hope is a perception of my own history. How do we attest to our past in daily life? In this life of paradoxes and dualities, I find that I can know deep joy through having known profound sorrow. The more intensely I have known desolation, the more invigorating has been my consolation.


It is one thing to reflect about the journey and appreciate its offerings, but the cutting edge is to take right to that road. Thomas Merton pointed out the necessity of "getting to work, through the new things you’ve gotten hold of," and "don’t revert to daydreaming," as a substitute for deepening our experience of truth, with an openness to unexpected possibilities. We cannot armchair-travel a spiritual life; that would imply an evasion from really challenging what can cause us to stagnate, especially outdated ways to thinking. For me, it’s been abandoning outgrown inner attitudes. Clinging to problems that are long since lived through has been a roadblock thrown over the broadening paths of newness. After so many formative years of not only having to prove my worth with achievements, but also to catalogue them into some sort of monolithic stack of quantifying self-importance. That very aspect of my life’s development has become the starting point for a hopeful beginning of emptying illusions out of my self. In so doing, my wish is to give more space to receive others, and to grow in boldness and compassion, contentment and wisdom, and ultimately in authentic love. A well-invested endeavour, but surely as with any distance traveling- I’m not as exhaustively prepared as I’d like. But that’s the idea. That needn’t stop any of us from heading out the door and down the street. There is no doubt that I am on my way to continued new things, consciously not repeating avoidable detours. Finally, good prospects are balancing out the challenges, and all the gear-grinding of recent years has given way to smoother movement. The new stretch of road is meant to be taken, and I must be careful not to objectify the path; it is best not to mistake the means for the end. New ways are revealed for the purpose of navigation- and by intentionally taking to this path I know I will see the full spectrum ahead.


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