Back from Brooding

Back from Brooding

It’s difficult to start writing again. It’s funny to say that; since I write every day. I write in my journals. There are the endless emails of various significance. There is the writing that I do for work. And then there are my fiction writing projects — I always have at least one novel going. For me, the hard sorts of writing are personal correspondences and blog posts. These are the more immediate, more raw, forms of writing. They reflect the writer’s immediate emotional state (at least they do for me). And, in particular, they reveal the provisionality of thoughts and feelings. That is not always comfortable. So, sometimes I draw in on myself and step back from the more immediate forms of communication.

I’ve always been a bit of a brooder. I tend to think things over and over in my mind. Sometimes this is accompanied by melancholy . . . but not always. Thoughts and feelings linger with me even when I am happy and joyful. So, when I say I ‘brood’ I do not mean this entirely in the negative sense of the word (Webster’s dictionary on my phone frames the word in ways with which I do not completely agree).

A friend of mine from many years back used to tell me I was the perfect example of a ‘cancerian personality’ (she was very fond of astrology). ‘You sit there on the bottom of the ocean and brood.’ I smile when I think of her saying that to me.

I often stop writing for a while during times of joy, times of sorrow, and/or times of change. Even my journals are oddly thin during some of the most interesting periods and seasons of my life. So it has been for the past several months . . . more than a year, actually. It has been hard to climb up out of the depths and put my fingers to the task of recording words. This has been a long period filled with joy, sorrow — and a lot of change. So, I have been brooding; keeping to my thoughts and digesting reality as it forms around me.

I’ve gone a lot of places during those many months. I went to Seattle and loved it. I took their mass transit and walked up steep grades to my hotel. While I was there, I caught glimpses of the mountains and thought how easy it would be for me to live in a place near such beauty.

Puerto Rico 02

I went to Old San Juan, Puerto Rico and fell in love with the place. I love cold parts of the world — so I was amazed to find myself thinking, ‘I could enjoy living here,’ as I walked the cobblestone streets. The use of space is very different there. Most windows are shuttered — not covered with glass. Decorative iron bars guard windows and private corridors are watched over by iron gates. You walk by and hear intimate conversations, smell meals being served, etc. It is a different sense of public and private. Always the watcher of people, I treasured the things I observed as I walked down the narrow streets of the old city.

I also delighted in the massive stoneworks of the two castles. That they were fortifications designed as outposts of empire did not please me. A walk into the confines of a dungeon underscored that not everyone who walked along those walls was happy about being there. Nevertheless, the views of the Caribbean Sea were beyond words. The colours of the ocean, the waves, the sea air — I found myself content to be in that place, just breathing, looking, and listening. More than once I thought to myself that I could have stayed there all my life and been happy.

I have gone many places that I have considered beautiful. There are many places where I could happily live. Still, my four days in Old San Juan stand out in my mind as a time of extraordinary peace and contentment. All of a sudden, I recalled some of Ernest Hemingway’s writings . . . and his relationship with the Caribbean . . . and I felt a new connection with the mood he caste on the page.

During my months of brooding, I also moved to a different part of Brooklyn. I now live in the Bushwick neighbourhood (previously I was in Williamsburg). I went to Williamsburg because it was a community filled with artists. In just two and a half years, I watched it gentrify. Artists attract the ‘chic-minded’ who, well-equipped with money, surround creativity with their fashion-à-la-mode (like moss growing on the trunk of a tree). To the horror of some of my friends, I am not all that interested in fashion. I prefer seeing artists whose hands are covered with paint (artists who may have had to make the painful choice to buy a tube of artist’s colour rather than a meal). Bushwick is where the new artists are moving, now. Williamsburg is too expensive. Bushwick will be, also, very soon. But, for a short while, it will be the home to painters — some of whom have something to paint.

A few doors down from my new apartment I regularly see a man emerging from his place covered in paint. Sometimes I see him carrying stretchers, canvas, and other supplies into his space. He is not fashionably dressed. But he looks passionate about his purpose. I like that.

I share my new home with a friend who paints and does photography. Our living room is a painting studio. Actually, as things have evolved, almost the whole apartment has become a painting studio. He paints large — I still mostly paint small. I’ve begun work on some decent-sized canvases. Truth be told, however, I have always had a fondness for small paintings. In particular, I like painting small portraits that still manage to look very big. Since moving to Bushwick in April, I have continued work on my Blue Portrait Series.

Our’s is a two bedroom apartment. One bedroom is on the front and the other bedroom is on the back of the building. They are the only rooms with windows. Mine is the bedroom that looks out over the ‘gardens’ (in other places these would be called ‘back yards’) behind the buildings on the block. During these green months, it is a jungle of trees and vines. Beautiful. After two and a half years of living in a basement room with no windows, I find myself just staring outside for long passages of time. I watch the birds flit from clothesline to clothesline. Sometimes they land on the fire escape and I greet them with a smile and a gentle word or two.

It surprises me that I can be happy in so many different kinds of places. I love wild mountains, farmlands, seashores, . . . and even great cities. I am happy in New York (I never would have guessed that I would be). I am happy there because of the people and the bits of nature that claim their rightful place in spite of concrete, bricks, steel, and smog.

Right now, I am home in Michigan. I had a couple weeks of vacation. I’ll be here a while longer (working remotely). I can do my job pretty much anywhere. That’s a luxury and a joy. In fact, I often am more productive when I am away from the City. Still, I find myself thinking of Brooklyn and Manhattan when I am not there. I think of my neighbours playing in the spray of fire hydrants. I think if the constant noise and music — the ceaseless grilling of food and sharing of company together. I think of the neighbourhoods in Manhattan where I walk . . . of art galleries and the community that migrates from one gallery opening to another. I think of my mostly-Korean church home and my delightful ‘misfit’ status as a part of that community I have come to love.

I’ve said it before — I have many homes. I think I collect them. And, wherever I am, they all come together in my heart and mind. They are my treasure — the people and the places. I am ever so thankful.

So, this jumble of words, piled together in no planned order, brings me back to you. Each of you has been a part of the constant gathering of dear ones and wonderful places that live in my thoughts. Each of you have stayed with me in my deep-water brooding. Still, it is time, once again, to write.

'Self-Portrait' 2013 Acrylic on paper. 3" x 5"

‘Self-Portrait’ 2013 Acrylic on paper. 3″ x 5″

Influenza

Influenza

I was a sickly child. It was the 1970s and physicians were reveling in tossing antibiotics at everything — anything . . . just in case it might get something. Pills, pills, pills. After several bouts with tonsillitis, and the multiple rounds of antibiotics that went with each, the practitioners of medicine had managed to render my own immune system only partially functional. And so, the spring of my freshman year of high school I almost died of some weird virus no one could even properly identify. Since then, I have had very little use for physicians and their pills. I do acknowledge their tremendous gifts at dealing with emergencies and certain acute illnesses. But, . . . I generally steer clear of them. I’ve placed my efforts at good health in thoughtful approaches to nutrition, exercise, and stress management.

It’s that last one that always gets me. I am a very emotional person. My first reaction to almost anything is an emotional one. I’ve learned to mask this a bit; but it is always true (even when I seem outwardly unmoved). So, when struggling with stresses in my life — conflicts and disappointments — the main point of entry for ill-health is almost always those weak points caused by stress.

Things have been especially hard for me, in terms of stress, for well over a year. Maybe even two. And I knew as far back as April that I was wearing down. Prayer and meditation helped. Exercise helped. But I could feel weak points developing in my health. A month or so ago, I started feeling noticeably sick. I’d ‘felt the storm brewing’ for a while. But it was starting to come in and make its presence known.

Then, two weeks ago, influenza added itself on top of that. It was the worst flu I’d had in years. Maybe it was because I was already in less than prime shape. Or maybe it was a particularly powerful strain — but it flattened me for a week and a half. I was bed-ridden.

And so, one of the ‘trips’ I’ve taken of late has been to my sick-bed.

As I said, my reactions to things usually begin with emotion. In this case, I was angry and depressed. The sudden weakness, the sudden incapacity to work — or even think — were deeply embedded in my memory. I was transported across time to my teenage years, lying in bed, not even able to manage reading . . . or listening to something.

For days, I ate almost nothing. A couple of small cookies because I knew they contained salt and sugar (as gastrointestinal distress was dehydrating me, in spite of my drinking a minimum of three litres of water each day. I laughed at myself as I found the five or so pounds I’d gained in recent months on account of stress melting away. Very rarely does illness make me lose weight. Well, at least there was something I could appreciate.  And then there was the three steps forward, four steps back, five steps forward and three steps back progress of my recovery. It was maddening. Now, I am probably 90-95 percent recovered. I still have some minor symptoms — that leap to attention again as soon as I fail to get enough rest.

That’s the main thing, now. My energy levels are not what they were before my illness. I can be feeling fine and then — like a trap door falling out from under me — I am rendered almost incapable of doing anything. I take naps at weird times. I am not usually a nap-taker.

I also have about 60-70 percent of the appetite I had before I got sick. I’ve always enjoyed food. Now, for the most part, it disgusts me. I can feel symptoms of low blood sugar and know I need to eat . . . then, walking through my local organic foods market I find NOTHING that appeals to me. I purchase things on basis of nutrition and what I think I can actually get down my throat. Some of my favourite foods have become things I cannot even think about trying to eat. I have never had my appetite affected so deeply by an illness. I’ve even stopped drinking coffee (I love coffee).

Whenever I get sick, I am reminded of all the people I’ve known over the years who have been profoundly ill. My heart aches for them anew. Good health is a treasure beyond price; and the lack of good health is a sorrow beyond words.

For now, I am getting a little less big. That’s the bright side. I do like feeling my clothes get loose. That part I’ll keep. But I’d like to be fully well again, soon.

My prayer for each of you is that you will be blessed with good health and happiness. Be well.

Life at Water’s Edge – Second Anniversary Blog Post

Life at Water’s Edge – Second Anniversary Blog Post

It’s now been two years since I moved to Brooklyn, New York from Boston. A few days ago was also the second anniversary of this blog. Thanks to each and all of you who find these posts and read them.

Yesterday, I had a delightful visit with friends who came down to New York from New Hampshire. We went to Flushing — a part of Queens I’ve never been to before . . . and which is also quite a hike from where I live here in Williamsburg. They treated me to some very good Korean food. Then we took an excursion to Jones Beach. It was my first time out onto Long Island (although here in Brooklyn I live on the heel of that body).

I am a water creature. My soul always feels at peace when I am next to a river, lake, ocean . . . or even a man-made table fountain. I’d not known were were going to make this little trek; so it was a special treat for me. As soon as we parked the car, I walked out to meet the water, making no stops along the way. I nodded my head at large sea gulls that swooped down low to check me out. I could have reached up and touched a couple of them. Since it was after Labor Day, we had very few other humans on the beach with us. I imagine this would not have been so one or two weeks before. At water’s edge, I was met by fresh sea foam and a clear, sandy beach. There were no rocks and few shells of which to be careful. I took off my sandals and stepped into the receding edge of a wave.

We were in between storms. A short while earlier, a line of thunderheads marched across land and out to sea. According to the live weather radar map on my iPhone, there was another line of storm clouds headed our way. In the midst of this intermittent fury the sea was churning with energy. I love a stormy sea (at least when I have the relative safety of the land from which to observe it!).

Time at water’s edge becomes a meditation. My mind clears of random thoughts. I can think more sharply; choosing what thoughts to take up; all others lying about quietly unless beckoned to my consciousness. I find I smile without knowing why.

If I’d been by myself, I’d have sat down and written in my journal for a while. The constant sand-laden wind would have made it difficult to write with my fountain pen. A ballpoint or a pencil are better writing instruments for that environment (not being so prone to catch on the grit). But, I was not by myself. So, I took my turns alternating between wading in the water and watching my friends’ cell phones and cameras resting on the sands just beyond the reach of the waves.

All my life, I’ve been a sojourner. I was two weeks old when I began the migrations between one place called home and another. Because there is no single place that is home in my heart — no one place that calls to me — but many, I am always restless. Standing on the beach on Long Island, I was thankful that this is my home; and I thought of Cape Cod, Boston Harbor, Lake Michigan, the Ohio and Guyandotte Rivers — of the many places where water infuses life into me. I was simultaneously grounded in that place and drawn to all those others.

Like that beach, my life is in the midst of storms. But, many years ago, my mother taught me to love storms for their special beauty. Life churns with energy because of them. We hope and pray we will not be banished from this life by them. And, when we are not, we can delight in their cleansing and reinvigorating power.

That time on the beach with my friends was one more miracle in a life of miracles — an unexpected blessing; a generous bounty. My soul is recharged.

As the present storms of life roll by, I recall standing our back porch in Huntington, West Virginia. I was perhaps three or four years old. Great bolts of lightning connected dark clouds  in the sky with the churning waters of the Ohio River a few blocks away. I told my mom I was scared. She said that if God wants us to live we will live. If God wants us to die we will die. What sense is there in worrying about it? — we can’t change that one way or the other. But look at how beautiful the storm is! You can only see that beauty if you decide not to fear it.

Inside, my Dad was protesting our foolishness. My mom encouraged me to laugh. And then a thunder-crash shook us. There was more lightning, powerful torrents of rain — and I saw it all in its furious beauty.

In moments like these, I am still, in my heart, laughing and delighting in the great storms with my mother. No one ever gave me a more precious gift than this — for life must be lived by a choice to face it with delight or fear. This is something I always remember at water’s edge.

Atlantic Ocean Between Storms – Jones Beach, Long Island, New York

Brooklyn During a Hot Summer

Brooklyn During a Hot Summer

This place seemed so alien to me when I arrived here almost two years ago. New York and Boston are on the same Atlantic coast; but they are in different worlds. This is true most clearly in terms of culture. Bostonians are beautiful, kind people with a cranky and introverted crust on the outside. New Yorkers are beautiful, kind people with a I’m-not-taking-any-crap-from-you extraverted inside and outside. These are generalizations, of course. But, on the whole, I think they are fairly accurate.

It’s easy to make a surrogate family here. There are so many people from so many places. As a city of immigrants (both from different countries and different regions within this country) it is a place where many arrive in need of connections with others. That extraversion of the polis means that reaching out to make relationships with others is a normal thing (not suspect like it is in Boston). Two years ago, I mentioned my astonishment at being called a ‘New Yorker’ by a native New Yorker — after just two weeks of living here. And well I have come to understand that — no matter how much it surprises me — I have become a New Yorker (and probably always will be . . . no matter where I live).

I have my world as a regular at a café, a coffee-seller (no café; but a great garden in back), a natural foods market, and another coffee counter (see a theme here?), and a pizza place. At the latter, they have memorized my order. ‘How you doin’ today, boss?,’ one of the men says to me in a Brooklyn accent I thought only existed in movie dialogues. He gets me a drink refill for free if I want it (it costs a little if you’re not a ‘regular.’). When babies are born, pictures are brought in to share with us regulars at these establishments. When joys and tragedies befall us — we share. This isn’t the cold metropolis I imagined from my far-off vantage-point growing up in the Great Lakes Midwest. When, back in my early 20s, I watched a couple of my friends run off to New York (and never return), I wondered why. I imagined a dirty, hot city that was full of strangers. Why would anyone want to be in a place like that?

New York is a dirty, hot city. In spite of the fact that my neighborhood’s business association pays a man to spend the whole day going up and down the street with a rolling trash barrel, a broom, and one of those mechanical claws, . . . it is a never-ending battle against ubiquitous filth that is never won. I’m not really sure why. I don’t see people tossing trash on the street. But it is always there! Nevertheless, the battle goes on.

But this is not a city of strangers. It is a city of some of the most welcoming people I have ever met in my life. As a native of the American South, where we pride ourselves on the values of hospitality and neighborliness, I am at pains to admit that New Yorkers give stiff competition to the best one can hope for south of the Mason-Dixon.

What is true is that you have to make the choice not to be anonymous. New York will let you be invisible if that is what you want to be. With millions of people in this small sea of humanity, there are plenty of people who will be your friend without having to put effort into dragging the shy out of their shells. This extraverted city takes some extraversion to get the relationship going. You need to smile. You need to talk. You need to be willing to speak with people when spoken to. If you don’t, they’ll leave you alone. And in a town of millions, alone is very alone.

I go to my café for a meal. During the summer, owing to its lack of air conditioning, I call it ‘Café Inferno’ (and when my patience with the climatic discomfort flares, ‘The Hellish Hearth’). My friend, Jared, greets me with a hug (as he almost always does). He takes my order and brings me my customary carafe filled with ice water . . . with an additional cup filled to the top with ice. I like the food; and I especially like the staff. I’m there for a while, writing in my notebook after my meal, sticking to the pages as I sweat profusely. The owner comes in and greets me with a smile and a volley of jokes. I see him most days when I am there. About a year ago, he said, ‘Glen isn’t a customer — he’s part of the family.’ It feels like that a lot of the time. But it is still summer and miserably hot in the café. This is the second year I have endured sweating there — the second year I have been promised, ‘Next year, I am putting in air conditioning. You will like it. You will see.’ I have developed a family insider’s doubt about the veracity of the promise. So, when the owner comes to me that day, as I pull my arm from the page to which it is stuck, he asks me, ‘Where have all my customers gone?’ I respond — ‘Somewhere where there is air conditioning.’ He gives me a sour expression and continues in his Turkish accent — ‘No, I am serious. They are all moving away. Where are they going?’ Again, ‘They’re all moving somewhere where there’s air conditioning. It’s too hot in here.’ The servers behind the counter suppress the urge to laugh.

I have become a man who will not take crap from anyone. I have always tended towards plain-speaking. I am a West Virginian by birth, after all. But now there is an immediacy to my bluntness that I would have found shocking years ago. Recently, a friend of mine said, ‘You don’t waste any time getting to a point anymore, do you? You’ve become a true New Yorker.’ I told him, ‘Life is short — even if you live to be 107 — that’s not much time. May as well say what needs to be said.’

This summer, when I’ve not been travelling, I’ve been here . . . spending as much time in my Brooklyn neighborhood as I can. I read and write on a circuit between cafés, a shared work space, and my apartment. I get more work done when I can work in two or three places each day. Offices are useful things to have; and seldom where reading and writing gets done — and this summer I have been getting a lot of work done. I am thankful for that.

New York is a good place for creativity and creative productivity. Seems like most of the people around me are writing books, making films, painting pictures, etc. It is a place full of busy people. It’s good for inspiring productivity in me.

The summer is coming to an end. I will not miss the hot weather. This year (unlike last), I hope cold weather actually comes here for the season. The heat has worn on me. I will be glad to see it go.

I am thankful for my time in this great, dirty, hot city. I am thankful for my Brooklyn neighbors. I am happy for this season in the metropolis I now call home.

Almost a Week at Yale

Almost a Week at Yale

I’d planned to go on a short trip to do research in the Yale Libraries. Two nights. Somehow, the travel authorization request went in for four. I looked at the arrangements and considered shortening the time to what I’d planned. But then I suddenly felt differently about it.

I am a miser. I mean that in the best of senses. I don’t like spending other people’s money. That’s probably why I almost always squirm in my seat at functions paid for with grant money. The way we fund higher education, there is little to no reward for thrift. If you don’t spend your budget it gets cut. If you can’t demonstrate that you need a lot of money to spend, no one will give you any money to spend. It’s a crazy system. Many other institutions function in much the same way. Yet, I somehow came to value frugality — especially with institutional funds. Because of this, I avoid making trips, make them short if I can, and generally keep my expenses down.

But research needs to be done. And, as I looked at the serendipitously ‘amended’ travel plan, I realized my first request had been too short. What was I thinking? There is no such thing as effective ‘drive-by’ research.

Normally, I would have felt a pang of guilt. But, the hotel room was cheap (when compared to Boston or New York); and I knew I could make much of the near-week I’d have there. So, I felt unusually at peace. Not only about the money . . . but on account of the fact that I would not have to be in such a mad rush that I’d be worried about the quality of my work.

Last fall semester, I commuted up to New Haven to do some adjunct teaching on Tuesdays. I loved the chance to teach . . . and to get away from the City and enjoy New England trees. It was a long day: Grand Central to New Haven; a walk up to the Divinity School from Union Station; teach; a walk down from the Divinity School with a stop at a cafe; a walk from main campus to Union Station; back to Grand Central. In all, I spent only a handful of hours in town and four on a train. None of my trips to New Haven (then or before) were slow enough to give me time to experience the town. This time it was different.

The hotel staff set the tone of the wonderful time I was to have at Yale. They were friendly, helpful, and checked on me (then got out of the way). It is a rare gift to know how much to tend to a guest and how much to let them be. This hotel got the balance just right.

I was next to campus. In the morning, I stopped at a fine, socially and environmentally well-intentioned café for yogurt, a bagel, banana, and a large iced latte. It was one of the strongest espresso drinks I’ve found; having much the same effect as a Saturn 5 launch rocket. Thankfully, it did not overshoot the intended hours of lucidity. If I avoided having another during the day (one time I didn’t — that was my fault), it was perfect. Then, I walked up Prospect to the top of the hill on which is perched the Divinity School.

The Yale Divinity School library — Day Mission Room — is a classic university library reading room with cared-for old tables and chairs and well-appointed stacks that somehow manage to stay dust-free. It is a place shaped by an aesthetic. Just sitting down and opening a notebook, poising pen atop paper, one feels almost certain to think of something important. Great libraries were made to serve as birthing centers for great ideas.

The collection of books in the subject matters I was researching was far beyond what I’d hoped. There were so many relevant books that I quickly realized my time there was going to be spent simply surveying what books I’d need to be looking at in future. This is a good thing. By flipping through tables of contents, indices, and paging past photographs and chapter headings, it is possible to get a very good sense of whether or not a book is worth your time.

One thing that struck me was what a high percentage of books I needed were in German. Lucky me! I read German. I still can’t speak a word; but I read with ease. Indeed, as I compared English language titles with those in German I also realized that the language divide has a clear (and negative) effect upon the substance of the scholarship in both language worlds. The authors of texts in German were somewhat aware of the texts in English. And, on the whole, the authors of texts in English seemed mostly unaware of the conversations taking place in German. It is a dangerous thing to be a part of one of the world’s dominant language communities. Cultural and intellectual exchanges too often prove one-way. The more a language dominates — the more ignorant it’s speakers become of everyone else — until . . .

Well, . . . until circumstances see to it that they are not the dominant language group anymore.

I was perched at a table by the second floor stacks. There was a thin metal rail between me and broken bones on the main floor. The space was cozy. If, by some unfortunate turn, I went tumbling to the floor below, it would mean several hours waiting in an emergency room instead of a body bag (unless my landing was especially unfortunate). I mention this because I thought about it a number of times. The space, as I say, was cozy. There was no getting away from the railing. And, . . . I do not like heights.

I cherished the hours I spent at that library. I was there only a couple hours by the time the thought came to me that I really needed months to work there. Months — not days or weeks. Of course. This made sense. But, for some reason it had taken me facing the shelves of books to admit it to myself. What a blessing it had been to have my meager visit doubled!

Libraries close early each day during the summer. So, the climb through the sources had to end long before my senses grew dull. This meant that I was still thinking as I made my way back down the hill. This is an important lesson for anyone doing research — giving yourself time to think is essential.

I walked down the hill at a pace that would have made a turtle seem like an Olympian hopeful. My slowness was inspired (in part) by the heat. But it was also encouraged by the scenery. There are beautiful buildings along the way; and I have already mentioned the trees. It was a kind of mental ‘digestion’ of what I’d read. I lined up thoughts and insights to write down when I got back to my hotel.

Each day, I bought my lunch from a lovely older couple selling Thai food from a cart parked out in the ice rink parking lot. I’m not sure it really was Thai food. It reminded me more of generic Chinese food — but fresher. Nevertheless, it was good — and cheap. I’d gotten lunch from this man and woman last fall, also. They always greet me warmly. It is a blessing to see them.

When the library work was done for the day, I went to my hotel room to cool off (from the walk down the hill) and to cycle through my thoughts again (this time with my notebook to record what was useful). Then, I fell asleep for a nap that lasted a few minutes to more than an hour. I woke up wonderfully refreshed. Then, I went back to my responsible café and had a less-powerful cup of coffee (that I only sipped a few times) as I continued to write in my notebook and get sufficiently hungry for supper.

I felt at home on the Yale campus. The week proved a wonderfully fertile time.

It amazes me how much spending a week — almost, anyway — in a place can give you a different sense of the people and setting than you get commuting in and out of town. I liked the people I met there. I loved the aesthetic of the university. It is a place artfully made. I was so happy to be there.

Now I am back in Brooklyn. The notebook I took with me is sitting next to me as I write this post. It has a little bit of the place captured within its pages. I hope those pages can kindle my thoughts and imagination wherever else I may go as I work and write.

Back to the Archives – Boston (July 2012)

Back to the Archives – Boston (July 2012)

Friends needing a house-sitter coincided with my need for a place to stay during a week-long research trip to Boston. They were off to Iceland (seems I am one of the few people I know not going there this summer!). I was off to dig again in the boxes containing folders of circa 1830s ecclesiastical trial records and carefully enclosed pamphlets containing the back and forth of arguments over how best to understand important ideas of the day. It was a perfect meeting of needs. And the best part of it all (from my perspective) was the chance to spend a week with two cats and two birds that are full of personality. I am a great lover of animals. It was delightful to have the opportunity to take care of the furred and feathered members of the family who were not accompanying their humans to Reykjavik.

In Brooklyn, I live in an 80 square foot room. Truth is, I don’t need much space (so it suits me well enough). Having use of my friends’ condominium with large, well-decorated rooms and comfortable places to work and rest — and even a patio area outside — was like being handed the keys to a palace. Some might think me odd (I am, I suppose) . . . but I actually went from one room to the next, at intervals, just because I could. I read two pages in the living room. I read two more while standing in the kitchen. Then, for fun, I read the rest of the piece while sitting at the dining table (as one of the cats jumped up and stuck his head all the way down my very large plastic cup full of ice water).

I also had fun cooking for myself again. OK — microwaving things I got from Trader Joe’s and devouring much fresh fruit (that is a great deal cheaper than I can get in New York). I loved being able to drink water by the litre (and not have to worry about whether or not there is a public restroom nearby). When I moved to Boston from Michigan, I was horrified by how few and far between restrooms are in the historic home of liberty. I came to appreciate its sparse (but still obtainable facilities) when I moved to New York — a city that seems to think that any accommodation to basic human needs is a nuisance outside of any rightful claim upon pity. I won’t tell you that I also made a pilgrimage from one public restroom to another in thankful appreciation. I won’t tell you because I didn’t — but it would have been fully appropriate to have devoted some time to such ritual thanksgiving.

Archival research is not for the timid or weak. The reading room furniture is almost always a collection of antique treasures one suspects to have long ago inhabited the dungeons of the Marquis de Sade. The light is usually of the yellowy fluorescent variety purposefully designed to induce migraines. And the atmosphere of such places is laced with a quiet and tedium contrived to lull the most determined researcher into unconsciousness. Setting myself down in that space brought back memories of most of a decade haunting the Archives of my old university. The memories were mostly of struggling to keep my eyelids open . . . or of trying to concentrate while I had the coffee jitters. Imagine researching in the archives as being akin to going fishing. Most of the time you cast your line and sit there for hours — only to catch nothing. In this case, you flip through page after page of near-unintelligible handwriting or smudged printed works (most printed materials from my historical period are hand-printed). You flip through more. You flip through more. WHAT is that collection of loops and jabs — what is the word the author was trying to write? You try to figure it out by context. Nope. You haven’t a clue. On you go . . . hoping what you couldn’t figure out was not the key to what you were researching. You go on and on. Your mind — torturously frustrated by impenetrable script — goes off somewhere without you. You realize you are trying to read . . . but thoughts of lunch are getting in the way. You press with more determination. You take notes (if only to move your hand and inspire some small portion of skeletal blood flow). You press on. You press on some more. Your stomach is growling an hour before schedule. You are tempted. Tempted! Every distraction is a temptation. And then! — Alleluia! Someone recognizes you through the door and comes in to talk with you. You have been RESCUED!!

I make the experience sound like torture. It actually is (of a minor sort). And the ability to endure countless hours of this is the kind of hazing that gives a man or woman the right to call themselves a historian (well, that’s one of the things, anyway). Among my historian friends there is a difference of opinion about how important archival research is to the profession. A historian is an interpreter of the record of the past (the stuff we didn’t throw out . . . or that was somehow pulled back from the trash pits of forgetfulness); the recorded events, persons, and ideas of that part of our reality. So, some of my friends argue, what is needed is some familiarity of what existed. In their view, printed collections of records and writings — supplemented with the learned reflections of experts in the field — are good enough. I know some historians who avoid archives as much as they possibly can. Then there are historians like me. I don’t trust anybody to interpret anything for me. I don’t even really trust relying on my OWN interpretations of days-gone-by. I know that every experience of life changes our perspective on everything. Thus, I am one of those who thinks good historians should swim in their source materials almost to the point of drowning. My return to the archives is not a return to easy work. But it is a return that restores my sense of connection to what I study. It restores a measure of confidence in myself as a person properly equipped to say something worth saying about the questions being asked. I am, in short, an archive snob — someone who discounts the brilliance of anyone whose nostrils are not filled with old dust and whose eyes are not still hurting from the strain of trying to decode the illegible.

I also believe in the importance of the senses in encountering the residual legacy of the past. The historical disciplines privilege words over other kinds of materials (e.g., images). But even words have a physical setting. I can look at scans of late 18th century letters and read what they say. But this does not give me a sense of what they smell like. I can read transcriptions — but what of the stains, smudges, and marks that connect the original papers and ink to the people who wrote or printed the ideas? I once got a clue that a man had travelled across the sea because I caught a whiff of ocean air from a few sheets of folded paper. I dug deeper and found more documents that testified to an 1840s trip to Europe (a rare thing for a man of his background at the time). I also found that a certain kind of paper used in New England in the 1830s was scented with flowers. Something about this transported my mind further than the visual appearance. These are the clues that cannot be gleaned from digital sources.

Researching in Boston was, made relatively easy for me by the fine professional work of my archivist friend there. I’ve never met a better archivist. Have I met any as good? I’m not sure. She has a gift for anticipating my research needs; and she finds things that would have eluded me had I been searching on my own. With a month’s advanced notice to her, she pulled together materials for me to sift and sort. She saved me hours of labour. I was reminded of how much I always enjoyed working with her when I was in Boston. I was reminded again of how sorely it hurts to miss my friend.

I was going at much of the same material I’d looked at several times before. Back then, I was pursuing different questions. I’d not taken notes that would be useful to the queries I was following now. In my memory, I had vague recollections that these materials would be helpful in my present researches. As I waded into the folders and printed materials, I discovered that the vague recollections were right. This was a gold mine for my current work.

The archive closed each day and the evenings were mine. Part of me wanted to go and explore my city again — to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, walk along the waterfront in the North End, or even take a whale watch tour. I made tentative plans to do these things. But, when work ended each afternoon, I most wanted to go home and be in a quiet space with the cats and birds. It was a good place to think — and to rest. I slept a lot while I was there. I spent a lot of time sitting and letting my thoughts weave together possible interpretations of what I was looking at in the archives.

Often, I sat staring out the window, up into the patio, past some furniture, and across the way at a wall that was catching the sunlight. These were simple moments that were full of blessing. A cat jumped up and called upon me to render tribute with a gentle scratch around the ears. The young one of the two of them did this. He came to like me a lot. The older cat, however, came and looked at me with an expression of accusation and suspicion. The concern never left him that I had somehow been a part of the conspiracy that was responsible for his human family members’ absence.

I boarded an Amtrak train from Boston to New York on the evening that my friends were scheduled to return from the Arctic. I paused before leaving and stared out the window and out onto the patio for a few minutes more. I scribbled some lines into a blue notebook — loops and jabs that can inspire a headache for some nosey historian years in the future, perhaps.

Back Among Trees and Fields (Michigan)

Back Among Trees and Fields (Michigan)

I’m back home in Michigan again. Right now is the beginning of a week-long vacation. I am so happy to be here with family and friends.

I actually got here a week ago. I took Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited; a seventeen-hour train trip going west. It will be nearly twenty-three hours going back east (including a five hour stop in Toledo, Ohio — I am reminded of a John Denver song in which he spoke of spending a week in Toledo one day). It was my first time on the Lakeshore Limited in six or seven years. I like the route the train takes; following along the southern shores of lakes Ontario and Eerie.

There was no sleeping on the train, this time. After having spectacular views of the Hudson River Valley from New York City to Albany, we stopped and I gained a seat mate. She is a doctoral student in Bio-Anthropology at Ohio State University. She is also a delightful talker. We went on well into the night about history, bio-anthropology, standards of historical evidence, research methods, teaching, the usefulness of oral exams in comparison with written exams, the collapse of American education amidst the idiocy of No Child Left Behind, and more. It was the kind of conversation that would have provoked many good and decent people to flee our vicinity and take refuge in the lounge car. But no one did.

The man behind us had a cell phone with a ringtone of a Muslim call to prayer. It went off frequently — day and night — and I heard him chattering on with a woman (his wife? girlfriend?) who seemed equally convinced that their conversation required high decibels for effective transmission of their voices. I am sympathetic to people who do not understand how technology works. Nevertheless, I am mystified that some people think that cell phones are electronic tin cans with wireless strings — and that, as with soup cans and twine, their conversations will not carry unless they SHOUT! (This was going on long before my seat mate and I began discussing academic delights, by the way.) So it was that I felt no shame in going on about evaluating the reliability of source materials and trading stories about students who realized that there was no way to cheat on an oral exam (excepting the use of micro-electronics, of course).

At the Albany train station, I availed myself of the opportunity to get some coffee from the small food court. The coffee tasted mildly rancid; but that still had it a mile or so ahead of the coffee I could have gotten in the lounge car. What I did not count on was the caffeine content of my large cup of station-joe. Just as my seat mate was showing signs of getting sleepy (the booze from her errand to the lounge car helped), I felt the charge kick in from the coffee I’d drunk hours before. Sometimes caffeine runs through your body like an electric current — and this time I was sure what ran through me could have powered a large town. What did they do? — drop a box of No-Doz into my cup? O my Gosh! . . . I was almost ready to levitate up towards the ceiling!

I showed my seat mate a few things about her Mac that she did not know. I showed her how to make it talk . . . text to speech. I showed her how to make a text-to-speech audio file that could be given to her students as a podcast supplement to the classes she teaches. I introduced her to my favourite word processing program (Scrivener). And then she closed her eyes and went blissfully off to her dreams. Just as she drifted off with a smile, I was again called to prayer, and, with that, I realized I was definitely AWAKE!! I was going to be AWAKE!! all night long — and there was nothing I could do about it.

Of course, I was also exhausted. I’d only slept a couple of hours the night before. My body hurt. My eyes were tired. I would have loved to sleep for a while. But the Mother of All Coffees I’d gotten in Albany was intent on partying all night long.

About every half hour, or so, I got up and walked the length of the rail road car. I stretched. I went to the lavatory and splashed water on my face. I was no closer to sleep. But my body was calling for it. I knew it was going to be disappointed; and my body wanted me to know just how disappointed — so almost everything that could ache or hurt did.

My seat mate got up and got off the train at Cleveland. She waved a sleepy good bye as, once again, we were all called to prayer.

My parents and my nephew greeted me at the Ann Arbor Amtrak Station. The segment of my journey from Toledo to Ann Arbor was on a bus instead of a train (Years ago there’d been a train between Toledo and Detroit. Amtrak replaced it with a Trailways Bus . . . perhaps supposing passengers wouldn’t notice the difference.). I don’t get motion sickness on trains — but I do on busses. It’s a delight. When I got to the ground outside the coach, I stood on legs as unsteady as if I’d been on a heaving boat ride for days. I smiled at my loved ones and fled to the station bathroom to recompose myself.

I don’t remember much about the drive from Ann Arbor to our home in Salem. I don’t remember much about the next day, actually. My brother came to speak to me and I fell asleep sitting on the couch in the front room. My mother let me know a meal was ready, and then I fell asleep on the couch in my parents living room. Each time, after an hour or two, I moved to some other location in the house and tried to visit with my family . . . and then I once more fell asleep. My sister-in-law tells me that it became a bit of a game to guess where in the house I was sleeping. ‘You kept moving around. You would talk with someone for a few moments — and then you were out again!’ Finally, I made it up to my nephew’s room and onto the bed. He is wonderfully kind to let me use his room when I am visiting. It had been my room years before. He tells me to call it ‘our room.’ I slept there for about eleven hours (in addition to my itinerant naps during the day).

When I finally was conscious again, I set to reading. The first and third weeks in Michigan are work weeks. This second week is vacation. So, I read and wrote and chipped away at the pile of things I’d not gotten to on account of preparations for General Conference and the travel associated with that occasion. I am always amazed at my productivity when I get out in the countryside. I love urban settings; but I get a lot more done when I am out among the trees and fields of Michigan.

When evening came, I decided to go for a walk down a nearby road. I’ve brought a good audio recorder with me; having planned to create a small archive of sounds that I can add to audio versions of these journal entries. My first such recording will be found at the top of this post. A friend of mine asked me to create a podcast version of this journal so she can here these stories in my voice. So, . . . here goes —

As I was heading out the door, I looked for my niece Katheryne to see if she’d join me on my little trek. We’d lose a pint or two of blood to the mosquitos, of course. Michigan is a giant wetlands. I was prepared with a balm for bug bites. My hope was that we’d meet no deer flies along the way — I loathe deer flies!

Katheryne was up for the challenge of a walk there and back (there was no real ‘there’ — our destination being nothing more than a walk up and down the tree-and-swamp-lined road). When she looked at the audio recorder sporting its wind screen (that has an obvious resemblance to Don King’s hairdo), she looked at me with some suspicion. ‘Going someplace with you is always different,’ she said to me. ‘Are you ashamed of being seen with your uncle?’ ‘No,’ she said — ‘I’m ashamed of being seen with THAT!’ I laughed and assured her I’d hold it up so everyone could see it whenever they came near. ‘That’s what I’m afraid of,’ she said despairingly.

I model my role as uncle on my own southern uncles of years gone by. I am chief ally with nephews and nieces. I am also a persistent joker (as in fool) who adds a predictable amount of embarrassment and off-beat humour to our time shared together. When I was growing up, I loved spending time with my uncles. They were big, giants of men whose physical size and strength terrified me. But they were also loving co-conspirators who provided comic relief to the seriousness of relations with others in the family. It was a cultural template that they lived up to very well. It is a cultural template in which I now delight.

Katheryne and I set out from home at about eight in the evening. The sun’s light was turning golden and there was a slight haze rising up off the farmers’ fields around us. I marveled at the scene; knowing that no camera could capture what I was seeing. I’ve seen some oil painters succeed with their landscape paintings. But those are dismissed by many as being ‘romantic exaggerations.’ They aren’t. The landscapes themselves are magical. It takes the magic of an artist to capture some of the essence of the scenes.

I was wearing big, over-the-ear headphones as I listened to the world around me through the audio recorder. I’d turned up the microphone level so it would reach out and grab what was not so easily heard by the unaided ear. I was stunned by how many different sounds I heard. I am used to the focused expositions of videography and photographs. To be honest, the thought had not occurred to me that sound recording equipment could also capture things I could not otherwise hear so well — even though it is logical that this would be the case. I held my electronic Don King high above my niece’s head.

My parents live in a rural area; but it is not far from Detroit’s urban sprawl and a cluster of small communities that have absorbed the spread of population that has poured out of the city like a human pancake batter. Rolling hills and fields — the topographical character of this area — do not hem in that sprawl in the same way that rivers and low mountains do with East Coast cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Shattering the cohesiveness of a city like Detroit (as was done in the late 1960s and 1970s) is akin to busting an egg yolk and watching its contents bleed out in every direction. There is no shaping mold of geographic barriers to slow the spread long enough for that yolk to solidify and take on a new shape. Instead, it spreads and thins — and takes down most of the trees, fills in many of the wetlands, and consumes farms. There is no end in sight.

So, I should not have been surprised to hear the road sounds, the airplanes, and the hum of an assortment of human activities. It was a veritable din . . . right there in the middle of my idilic paradise! My eyes widened. I could hear birds, wind, trains, and cars. I’d expected these things. But I could hear more cars than I would have thought. And the planes — magnified above the muffled murmur of my ordinary hearing — caused a ceaseless drone. Most of them were propeller planes . . . small private craft. I was astonished.

We walked together, stopping from time to time to listen to birds in nearby trees. I gave Katheryne the headphones to listen while I held the recorder. Her eyes widened as mine had a while earlier. We were hearing a world around us that was always there — but barely noticed.

As I’d expected, we were drained of much blood as we walked down the road. At one point (I had the headphones on again), an insect came up and landed on the windscreen and I heard the whining pitch of its wings. Then it decided against staying on the fake fur microphone cover and dashed off towards the nearest patch of open swamp. I was thankful that there were no deer flies. That fact made me smile even as my mosquito bites itched.

Katheryne and I walked back the same way we’d come. Some of the farm equipment had ceased its clattering and moaning. The sun was very near the horizon and our neighbours had decided to call it a day. Somehow, though, it was still noisy. Frogs were beginning to offer up their calls, filling in some of the silence that started to creep in.

I paused at a nearby intersection of the dirt and paved roads. The stop sign there was trimmed in brilliant gold. I breathed in the smell of cows and fresh earth. This was the moment at which I realized that I was truly awake again. How great it is to be home!