Our minds are proposed in the womb, then disposed during subsequent engagements after birth for the period of one lifetime.

It is in the care of families that our minds develop perceptually from arousal, expectancy, and attention on to the formation of sensory impressions, their recognition, naming, categorization, and understanding.

Then in that same care that we apply those minds situationally in supporting our personal judgment, resulting in our setting goals and planning actions through projects and relationships as aided by tools and skills to actual enactment of specific courses of behavior.

Families are the medium in which we thrive (or not) as we learn through trial and error to piece these dimensions of mind together in coherent order to serve in our varied engagements with a world we can only construct and interpret for ourselves because, snug in our black boxes, we can never know it directly as it might be in itself.

Our parents, brothers, sisters, and extended families offer examples to illustrate the mix of skills, priorities, and attitudes by which we learn to live. Keeping clean is one ingredient in that mix, along with such qualities as being careful, paying attention, learning to talk and listen, recognizing when we’ve had enough, cleaning up after ourselves, playing fair, having fun, sharing, controlling our tempers, and caring for one another.

Through family living, we forge the commitments and responsibilities that bind us together as a unit, along with the many social skills that invite or promote successful engagements with others. Within the shelter of our families, we develop along the dimensions of mind that we exercise the most in our engagements one with another. We apply many of those same dimensions to engagements with events outside the family, or supplement that set of dimensions with others we find lacking at home and strive to develop on our own.

Our intimate families are the nests or niches that provide the protective spaces in which we grow into ourselves through the interplay of our mutual engagements. Family engagements are seldom one-way-streets, but depend equally on the mental qualities and actions of all members taken together.

Families may create the conditions of our personal growth, but that same growth challenges our families to develop along with us. Each family can be seen as a school of fish all swimming—or flock of birds flying—together. Or as a cohort of confederates joined in common cause. And yes, a can of worms wriggling en masse, each affecting all the rest.

Families are group projects dedicated to personal fulfillment and development of all members simultaneously. Individual commitment and responsibility are spurred by such dedication on a variety of levels as each member respectively attains them.

At the same time, families contain many specific personal experiences not shared with other members. In fact, I often found myself yearning to get away from other members so I could be myself and not somebody’s child, rival, or underling. I will expand on that aspect of family life in my next post.

 

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444. Double-take on Community

February 27, 2015

Look. And look again. You might not see the same thing two times in a row. When I look at Bar Harbor in winter, I see a small New England town covered in snow (as it is today while I focus on this post). It has that Currier-and-Ives feel about it. In summer I see a bustling tourist town filled to the brim with strangers just milling around wondering what to do next, clogging the sidewalks and streets. There are days (when several cruise ships are in, for example) I wish I could hibernate like Taunton Bay horseshoe crabs for six months of the year—just dig a hole in the mud and retire from the scene for six months. Pretend the tourist season never happened.

The irony being that shop and motel owners are blissfully happy on the very same days that I am down in the dumps. They are deeply invested in the economy of Bar Harbor, and that economy barely limps along in the winter, but runs full-steam-ahead from July through October while I think of hibernating.

 

Bar Harbor in Summer

With a cruise ship in, the streets of Bar Harbor teem with summer visitors.

That double-take is the result of the delta signal in my brain between good times and bad. At either extreme of happiness or deep disturbance, that is the signal that alerts consciousness to pay close attention to what’s going on because we’re sure to be affected one way or the other. If we had fair weather and smooth sailing every day of the year, we’d have no need for consciousness because we could just set the tiller and let the boat steer itself while we didn’t have a thought in our heads.

But that isn’t how our little worlds work. We all have ups and downs, often several times a day. Depending on how we adapt to the situations we are in as they change for better or worse. Those situations aren’t the issue, it’s how we take them from our current perspective. Sometimes the very same situation sets us off in ways that are diametrically opposed. It depends on our mood at the time, what we had for lunch, how well we slept the previous night.

As always, we’re in for the long haul, so slide from good times to bad, or the reverse a few minutes later. Just wait a bit and we’ll get over it. Or so it is to be hoped. Being mortal means we have earned the right to change our minds. To peer out through a new pair of eyes.

I have winter and summer eyes to cast on Bar Harbor, which as a New England coastal community, is always doing its thing. I live here, so am along for the ride, whatever it brings. One thing for sure: tomorrow will be as different from today as Miami Beach is from Helsinki.

 

Card players on the town pier, summer in Bar Harbor.

Card players don’t look up to enjoy the harbor.

How we handle these dichotomies in experience is up to us, depending on how resilient we are. We can reach out with cheery spirits in an active manner to kindle engagements that might be lagging a bit. We can wave to friends and acquaintances instead of turning our backs. We can reach out to start an engagement, shake hands, pat them on the back or shoulder, share a hug, give a kiss, initiate a conversation, share a story, invite friends over for a game or for dinner.

We each have a repertory of gestures that signal our readiness to engage. Nothing is more powerful than an open smile in inviting a trusting engagement. Eyes askance or to the ground signal otherwise.

Even at work where we are expected to do our job, we can do it with a style that includes others in the process we are engaged in. If we seem to be enjoying ourselves, others will want to join in the fun. If we keep our head down, others will skirt our workplace by a good margin.

By synchronizing our actions with those of others, we can make it easier to be ourselves in mutual companionship, even inducing them to join us. Such activities are moderated by our strengths and needs at the time, which we can subtly broadcast in our postures, gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice.

 

Bar Harbor in Winter.

Body language on skis in wintertime Bar Harbor.

In a very real sense, communities run on the collective body language of their members at different levels of intimacy. To make anything happen, we have to select the level we want to engage on, then show up and give it a try, always being mindful of the level appropriate to that occasion.

The stuff that communities are built of is not bricks and mortar but flesh and blood. And something else: human minds. Each unique, each in a mood of its own. No two communities are the same because their prime constituents are highly specific. For that reason, it is dangerous to generalize about the nature of communities. With a different mix of unique inhabitants, each community is unique unto itself.

Since communities are the warm seas that bathe our minds, we want them to harbor us as contentedly as we enjoy them. Harmony between a place and its residents is the watchword, even if seldom achieved. There it is again, that helical loop of hospitality and gratitude between a one-celled organism and its surroundings.

We humans are no different in depending absolutely on the nurturing engagements we establish with the communal niches that provide for us. Every community is just such a niche in providing water, clean air, food, shelter, work, companionship, and much else.

The polarity of the relationship we establish says it all: this is the good life, I like it, I approve, I want to stay here; in contrast with: this is the pits, I hate it, I disapprove, I can’t wait to get away.

To get clear with ourselves, we intuitively react in such passionate terms. Our minds are made to sharpen distinctions in our minds so we think and feel in bold strokes. Our minds do the heavy shading for us so we won’t miss the point in a wash of subtle tones. Fish or cut bait, stay or move on, help or get lost.

People pay good money to ride on roller-coasters to remind them they are alive in two different ways—up and down, good and bad. Being alive means having choices. Choices and decisions require backing consciousness with sound judgment. Whizzing us up and down, life is guaranteed to deliver just such a ride, testing our judgment on every hill and valley.

Please note: I usually have second thoughts about hibernating for the duration of a summer in Bar Harbor. I may let the throng get me down at times, but I always bounce back and take to the woods for a walk, or Taunton Bay for a row. This year I’ve had thoughts of hibernating under all this snow. Just dig a hole next to my poppy bed and hunker down where the snow will serve as insulation from the chill blast out of Canada. It’s not that bad things never happen. Our paramount skill is in being resilient no matter what comes our way.

That’s it for my posts on the topic of community. Now it’s on to the family level of our engagement with the world, which I will explore from my point of view in upcoming posts.

Trust, love, play, loyalty, and relationships are all subject to rules that almost everyone concerned can agree on. I think of them as rules of engagement, of linking action to perception, self to other(s), individuals to society. Community is a web of interactions, always changing, never twice the same two days in a row, but promoting engagement nonetheless.

Reduced to a concept, community sounds like a fixed thing, but it is alive because each of its members is alive, and the exact configuration of events is unpredictable. The Fourth of July Parade comes around every year, but, too, it is different each time. Different personnel, different bands, different floats, different fireworks, different weather, different watchers along the route—but the same, enduring communal institution so that we refer to it as a fixture of communal life because subject each year to much the same rules and traditions. We are a year older each time, with another year’s experience put away, but we are the same people engaging much as we always have with others, who are also different but look much the same to us.

It is the differences within the envelope of sameness that we pay particular attention to, and differentially respond to. We don’t want this year’s parade to resemble last year’s too closely. We want to be pleasantly surprised, excited, involved—engaged in our minds. Otherwise we lose interest and turn away, or don’t show up at all.

We need the stimulation that differences provide us or we don’t even notice what’s happening. The same-old, same-old shuts us down, turns consciousness off, fails to catch our attention. Dullsville, Inc. Change the channel; find something better to do. Make new friends. Buy a new dress. Get a new drill bit or new App. Order something new at that restaurant that just opened.

Novelty promotes engagement because it takes us beyond where we were toward where we want to go. We are wayfarers precisely because we’re en route to somewhere we’ve never been.

We hunger for novel experience to break up the essential routines we depend on in getting through the day. Finding something to wear, packing a lunch, getting the kids off to school, going to work, eating lunch, coming home.

Yes, we need the stability provided by such familiar routines, but at the same time we want those engagements to be special in being particularly noticeable because they stand out from the background of everyday routines.

So we acquire a repertory of tricks to spice things up as if they were new. This time we make our own Valentine’s Day cards, knit a new scarf, pack a surprise in the lunch box, put in a row of scarlet runner beans, eat with chop sticks, fast for a day, read a book instead of watching TV.

We don’t want to rock the boat, just shake it enough to sharpen our attention. Do enough to spark up a long-term relationship. To keep things from running down and getting dull. We do this in so many ways—getting our hair cut, trying a new stud, tattoo, or shade of lipstick, telling a joke, this time bringing flowers and a bottle of wine—it barely needs mentioning. Except these are reflections of our minds in action. Stimulating lagging relationships. Avoiding being taken for granted. Staying perky, bright, and attractive so the right people will notice and stay as engaged with us as they were in the old days.

There is a whole layer of unwritten rules beneath the familiar rules of the game to keep consciousness alive and well by being well-fed on novelty. Things our mother never taught us because she thought they were obvious and didn’t need saying. Things we missed because we weren’t ready or weren’t paying attention.

Communities are built by sustaining a host of ongoing engagements that don’t turn sour because of casual indifference. Active communities promote engagements between their members; they don’t just sit and wait for something to happen. The movers and shakers in a community take turns making it an exciting, inviting, and enjoyable place to live. A place hospitable to consciousness.

 

442. Why Community?

February 25, 2015

Why am I carrying on about community as I have been in my last three posts? And culture before that? And nature before that? And will be carrying on about the family level of our engagements in posts yet to come?

My point is that consciousness as I see it is not neatly packaged in the brain, but is a messy, collaborative effort between our minds and the worlds around us. I divide those worlds into levels of nature, culture, community, and family. Our brains tell only half the story; the surroundings with which we engage tell the other half.

Without ambient worlds, we’d have no minds at all. Think sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, living in a cave, or on a tiny desert island with one sheltering palm as we depict in cartoons. Our minds are built to engage with outside worlds. Without such worlds we’d go stir crazy because of lack of any kind of response to our gestures.

Community is just one level of the many engagements I find in myself through introspection. I am not alone in my mind and have never been alone. I was born to the worlds of nature, culture, community, and family such as they were in Hamilton, New York, in 1932. I could have been born in Damas in Syria to an entirely different set of worlds in that same year. Or to yet other worlds in Christianshaab, Greenland; La Libertad, Guatemala; Banzyville, Belgian Congo; or Saigon in French Indo-China. But, no, I wasn’t born to any of those sets of worlds; I was born to the multi-layered worlds of Hamilton, New York.

Schine State Theater was the movie house in town when I grew up; that’s where I first saw the Wizard of Oz. The image of the man behind the curtain manipulating the wizard still lives in my brain. My family went to the movies there on December 7, 1941, when for some reason I ran home and turned on the radio, then told my father that something bad had happened in Pearl Harbor, wherever that was. Rausa’s Cigar Store next door had pinball machines and an electric cigar lighter that threw sparks between electrodes. My young mind was shaped by engagements in a Hamilton that now no longer exist in the world, yet still exist in me.

My early mind was shaped by events in Hamilton a long time ago, yet I carry my naïve version of those events to this day. That’s why I blog about community, because it is one major strand of experience that makes our minds what they are. Other formative communities I bear with me are the Seattle of 1947, Cambridge of 1951, Kaiserslautern of 1957, Ames of 1960, Burying Island of 1987, and now Bar Harbor of today. I am he who has just such a mind that dwells on the nature of consciousness.

What else would I blog about but the myriad engagements with nature, culture, community, and family that make me who I am? Introspection opens onto just such a complex world as stirs up my consciousness to this day. The same world that situates my intelligence from moment to moment within the field of memory I carry with me wherever I go, sparking my attention and concentration on themes called-up and directed from inside my head.

Neuroscientists blog about information being passed to and processed by different areas of the brain. It is my belief that they will never discover consciousness in their research; what they will find is what they bring with them and project onto the workings of the brain. Until they acknowledge that a great chunk of what they are looking for exists in such layers of experience as nature, culture, community, and family, I believe their expensive machinery will tell them more and more about less and less because it misses the point that consciousness is given us to help us collaborate with, and adapt to, the several worlds we actually live in, not the world as it exists in their highly trained and indoctrinated minds.

But what do I know? Only what my mind whispers to me in my dreams, and I struggle to organize as simply as I can in my waking hours. I can only speak for myself from my personal experience. Which, I believe, is all any of us can do, each being unique as we all are. But at least I can do that, and as I see it, owe it to the world to publish one post at a time as an honest account of one man’s situated intelligence, against which others are invited to compare their own.

 

Our community engagements are not set in stone, they are ongoing processes that flow both ways in looping fashion from perception to action, action to perception. As such, they are constantly changing, depending on current circumstances and events. After several rounds, we come to count on them as if they were stable, or at least fit within our comfort range.

Trust in other people and institutions builds a sense of loyalty to them as reliable features of our community. We go out of our way not to offend them. We give them a certain consideration by holding them in our thoughts.

If we sign a contract, we are obligated to hold to its terms as a kind of commitment to duty. But communities hold together not out of duty but from a mutual sense of caring, liking, and sharing of experience. Except in extreme cases, they do not form around a set of obligations or duties.

During my basic training at Fort Ord, several of my buddies would sleep on guard duty because, as enforcers, they could excuse themselves in their own minds and get away with it. But trust and loyalty build a sense of mutual responsibility as if we were all members of the same extended family.

Communities, that is, are stabilized by networks of shared, positive engagements. They aren’t planned so much as lived in the details of everyday life. In people meeting on the street, in the drug store, the Post Office, the bank. Schools build communities around themselves because parents entrust their children to their teachers and administrators. Children become invested in schools because that’s where their friends are, and where, if lucky, they learn helpful skills.

It takes time to build a community around ourselves, often many years of engagements of all sorts. But if most of those engagements are positive, then we make a place for ourselves at the intersection of our individual traits with our larger society.

I consider myself a member of the southern Hancock County coastal community, Maine community, New England community, Eastern community, in that order. Last of all I admit to being an American with New England roots. I don’t think of the U.S. as my homeland; I reserve my loyalty for New England generally, and coastal Maine in particular. Go Red Sox; go Celtics; go Bruins; go Patriots.

I am a Yankee, a Northerner. Beyond that, I dub myself Steve from planet Earth because that identity emphasizes Earth’s claim on me. If it were not for my home planet, I wouldn’t be writing these words. First and last, I am an Earthling.

Rules, too, are essential to my sense of community. I carry three library cards, Maine driver’s license, several ID cards, Social Security card, Veterans Administration card, Medicare card, and a credit card. I do my best to take library books back on time, to obey traffic laws, pay my bills, and uphold my end of the several memberships I hold. When flush, I sometimes splurge on a ten-show Big Ticket to Reel Pizza, the local movie house. I get to meetings on time, play my part, and leave without dawdling. Towns have ordinances, companies have rules of employment, games have rules of play. Caring for our neighbor is not written down anywhere as a rule, but our communities would collapse if we didn’t do it spontaneously on our own.

One of the basic rules of any community is to give each person an opportunity to do her thing. Taking turns is the first law of community. Giving everyone a chance to have her say. That way we come to feel we have a place in, and belong to, our community, and our common community belongs to us as an extension of our caring selves.

In this sense, we are similar to one-celled creatures in establishing a stable relationship with the environments that meet our needs, becoming inhabitants of those environs in the process.

 

Early human settlements were commonly located on the banks of lakes, streams, or wetlands where water for drinking, fishing, hunting, washing, removing waste, and boating was readily available. London was founded at the junction where the River Fleete flowed into the Thames Estuary, New York between the Hudson and East Rivers, Rome on the Tiber, Paris on the Seine, Alexandria in the Nile Delta.

Communities spring up where they do for good reason, often having to do with protection from the elements, plentiful food, water, and natural resources essential to survival, together with ease of access to other areas.

People gather in communities for many reasons. We have school communities, work communities, religious communities, ethnic group communities, and common interest communities of all sorts. I see all these various groupings as communities of engagement. We gather together either formally or informally but always personally, at meetings and events, or on the Internet, to suit our common needs and interests.

In community there is strength because engagement builds connections between separate individuals. When facing difficulties, two minds are better than one. Communication by means of a common language is of the essence in building communities to meet common needs and purposes. Communities are where we learn the language(s) we will use to express our minds for the rest of our lives.

To achieve mutual benefit, all members of a community must abide by the same set of rules and expectations. In reflection 427 I suggested ten rules of engagement with nature. Local courts and law enforcement agencies enforce our formal rules of engagement with our local communities. Pay your taxes, honor contracts, don’t go bankrupt, drive on the right side of the road, and so on. If we’re late for school, we’ll be called to the office. If we’re late for work, we’ll be docked.

There are no laws requiring us to respect our neighbors, but without doubt communities depend on harmony between neighbors of all sorts. If you borrow a cup of sugar, repay the favor as soon as you can. If you borrow a lawnmower, return it all gassed-up the same day. Invite the neighbors over at least once a year, and by all means be sure the kids go to birthday parties bearing gifts when invited.

In my case, coastal Hancock County, Maine, provides the context of my personal engagements. It is the particular sector of nature and culture that I engage with every day. It is where my wayfaring feet meet the pathways of the collective society I am a member of. Community is the footprint of my personal experience on my local culture and, in turn, my culture’s footprint on my mind. In practical terms, my community is the locus of my engagements within walking (and short driving) distance of where I live.

A circle with a fifteen-mile radius around my apartment in the town of Bar Harbor embraces the coastal community (both land and water) I have engaged with for the past twenty-nine years. If I have made any kind of a mark, it would lie within that circle. Certainly that circle has left its mark on my mind.

I have a good many albums of photographs I have taken within that circle, and thousands of jpg files on my several computers. I have made a dozen aerial surveys of bays, ponds, streams, and mountains within that circle, and written four illustrated books about my natural experiences within that same geographic area.

My son and his wife blow glass within that circle, and his brother is buried in Riverside Cemetery, along with my mother, father, and two brothers. Stephen Merchant, my great-great-great-grandfather (after whom I was named), who spent the Revolutionary War in Halifax, Nova Scotia, would have been buried next to his wife in that circle had he not died at sea as crew of a ship loaded with lumber that went down off Cape Cod in “the memorable snowstorm” of November 20, 1798.

Communities write their memories on our minds, as we blaze our ways through the generations along their walks, trails, and roads. My father first met my mother at her family home within the bounds of my communal circle. He was walking from Middlebury, Vermont, to Nova Scotia in 1925 when he stopped at a colleague’s wife’s family home in Sullivan, Maine. That wife’s sister bore me as a child seven years later. My father never made it any farther along his intended journey than that stop. Had he not entered my community circle, I would not be writing this blog today.

On December 23, 1988, I left Burying Island after my two-and-a-half-year stay in the wild to live with Janwillem van de Wetering and his wife , Juanita, in Surry, Maine. Janwillem was a Duch writer of police non-procedurals based on his experiences in a Zen monastery in Kyoto. His wife was a skilled sculptor from Colombia. They were ideal hosts and companions during the two years it took me to develop a new community on the mainland centered on environmental activities.

Both Janwillem and I were on the rebound from excessive indulgence, sobered by pushing ourselves too far in searching for an ideal community to engage with, he in Zen Buddhism, I in going solo as an outlier in nature on Burying Island. We both found a sense of humor essential to our recovery. He offered me a small bedroom in an uninsulated studio on his land on the Union River near Ellsworth. Having little money, I gratefully accepted, and stayed with him and Juanita for two years.

In 1993, I took a job as a seasonal ranger at Acadia National Park, lived in park housing, and in the off-season did volunteer work in the Lands Office in exchange for a place to stay for the winter. I worked first as volunteer coordinator, then as a writer-editor in the Planning Office. My community involvement began to expand, first due to contact with over a thousand park volunteers, then through planning projects in the park and beyond.

Today I live in senior housing in Bar Harbor adjacent to the park, a more suitable habitat among many people, so I am not the conspicuous exception disturbing the natural order of my wild habitat on Burying Island, my toehold in Maine. Now retired, I serve on the Bar Harbor Housing Commission, am the token atheist member of Acadia Friends Meeting (Quakers), and spend my days writing and blogging about the miracle of consciousness as witnessed during many daily bouts of introspection. I also manage Burying Island LLC, a company that owns the island on behalf of its members among my extended family.

As I view it, our life’s energy courses through our varied engagements within our several communities. We act, and are acted upon in return, round after round of exchange. In that sense, the communities we contribute our life’s energy to are dynamic and ever-changing. Our immediate surroundings support us, as we support them, each in our own way. Community building is one of our main jobs in life.

With this blog, I am striving to contribute to a global community of conscious individuals with a shared understanding of, and appreciation for, our common endeavor.

 

This post is the last installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

10. Space Junk. Early in 1962, I started work at Harvard College Observatory by setting up a photo lab that eventually expanded to become worthy of the Space Age. I started my fiefdom in a one-room darkroom with walls eight feet apart, which ultimately led to a fourteen-room photo lab suite near Fresh Pond on the outskirts of Cambridge. Apparently there was money for expansion available in those days.

Early on I was handed a remnant from a fallen Russian satellite that had landed piecemeal in northern Canada. No one knew what its function was, but as a novel piece of space junk, it deserved to have its picture taken.

That was a first for me, and the beginning of Harvard’s playing an active role, along with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, in lofting research satellites into orbit. With one click of my shutter, my mind went from a dark-wood kind of nineteenth-century awareness into a full-fledged, gold-plated, twentieth century engagement with the new world of space exploration and surveillance.

11. J.F.K. When President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, I was in the photo lab darkroom at Harvard College Observatory making prints with the enlarger under the glow of a red safelight. I had the radio tuned to WGBH. When the bulletin came that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, I called my assistant on the intercom and asked if he was listening to the radio. He was. The horror of that moment was implied in neither of us commenting on what was happening. Suddenly cut adrift from my everyday assumptions, I did what was familiar, so went on with what I knew how to do without thinking, my insides churning all the while. I never felt more cut off from the culture I lived in than I did contemplating that violent act in Dallas. Doubly sealed in my darkroom and in my own thoughts, bathed in red light, I got myself set to enter the new reality under the fluorescent lights beyond my lightproof darkroom door.

12. MIT Chapel. On a Wednesday afternoon in the spring of 1973, I drove my Humanities 3 class at Abbott Academy from Andover to Cambridge to see what we could discover in two hours exploring MIT. Starting on the steps of Building 10, we headed off in different directions to see what engagements we could have and sense we could make of a cultural institution devoted to science and engineering.

A chapel had been added to the campus since my days at the school, so I was curious about what sort of building could acknowledge the ineffabilities of faith in those stark surroundings. On the outside it resembled a red brick pillbox much smaller than I thought it would be. Without windows, which surprised me. Entrance was through a curved archway.

Passing into the interior, I left Cambridge, Mass., behind and entered another world. It was dark, almost black. I left my pupils to adjust at their own rate. Arcs of chairs spread across a circular floor. A larger space than I expected in a pillbox, almost infinite—like the darkness outdoors on a moonless night. Beautifully lit from above by a gentle shower of light descending from an off-center light tube onto a table below. Golden rectangles like leaves hung suspended in the glow as if falling through eternity. I was stunned by the aura of the place.

I sat and savored the ambience. Everything faded except for those golden leaves. I had not a thought in my head. Unlike the granite institution on the far side of Mass. Ave., here was no place for thought. Awe, comfort, and wonder were the currency in this space. Whatever I needed at that moment, there it was. Released inside, not outside of my body.

As my eyes adapted to the shadows, I sensed movement in front of me to the right of the table. I was not alone. A silent figure removing something from a case. Raising it up. Suddenly a burst of music. A violin. Bach. A solo sonata. The voice of that place on that day. Exactly what I needed to hear. What I had come for and didn’t know it. At MIT of all places.

I just sat, wholly open to the dark, the music, the falling golden leaves. I knew exactly where I was, who I was. I was meant for this experience. Nothing else mattered. There was nothing else.

After a time, the music stopped, the figure of a woman carrying a violin case passed up the aisle. Who could she be? Why had she begun playing in the dark after I sat down? But I already knew. She was kin. A fellow wayfarer. Making sense of her brief stay on Earth by doing what she had to do. As I had had to take my class on yet one last voyage of discovery before Abbott (oldest girls’ school in the U.S.) shut for good in a few weeks, to be swallowed by the boys’ school up the street, leaving me out of a job.

What these twelve cultural engagements share in common is that I remember them from the years between 1951 and 1973, each having made its mark on my mind and memory so that it is still available to me today in 2015. Available, I now believe, because of an element of surprise in that things turned out other than I had expected them to.

Each incident of engagement is based on a discrepancy between my expectancy on that occasion and what actually happened. The combination of discrepancy and surprise heightened the engagement itself, making it memorable, for either its positive or negative polarity in comparison to what I was ready for at the time.

These incidents are the stuff of my personal consciousness. The emotionally-charged high points between long hours of my flying on automatic pilot, between routine engagements leading up to the peak occasions marked by disparities such as these.

Why do I call myself a wayfarer? Because I love going beyond where I’ve been before. Exceeding my own expectations. For good or ill, trial-and-error is the name of my game. Taking the next step, and the step after that. Some would call it empiricism. Or experimentation. I call it being a wayfarer driven by heartfelt curiosity, and the conviction that wonders surely lie around the next bend in the trail.

Now, onward to the community level of engagement.

 

This post is the third installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

7. Helicopter Ride. In the Army, I was stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany, as a Signal Corps photographer during the Cold War. My unit was the only Signal Company (Photo) in the U.S. sector of occupied Germany at the time, so its still and motion picture photographers were assigned to cover events anywhere from Bremerhaven to Munich. On one assignment, I covered all the territory between those two cities.

In the damp spring of 1957, the first U.S. Helicopter Company deployed to Europe arrived in Bremerhaven on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, and I was assigned as the still photographer to document its journey south along the Rhine River and then across Southern Germany to Munich. Helicopters? What role could they play in the Atomic Age? It took the Viet Nam War to set me straight on that.

I began by photographing the readying of the helicopters on the flight deck of the carrier, then views from the open door of my designated craft during the short flight to the Rhine, on to various landings along the route in plowed farmlands, and in one case, a municipal soccer field.

The stop that caught my attention was the one in a rural field where, on takeoff, the generator of the helicopter I was in cut out when we were forty feet in the air. Craft, crew, and single passenger with 4 x 5” Speed Graphic abruptly fell like a downed duck into a bed of black mud. Powered by inertia, the rotors kept turning as we hit, the sudden halt forcing the tips of the sweeping blades down to the ground, where one crewman had the luck of his life in darting between those blades to get away from the explosion sure to follow. But there were no sparks this time to ignite the magnesium-alloy skin, and the rest of us waited in a sort of daze for the rotors to calm down so we could seek higher ground with whatever gear we could lug.

We had to wait for the wrecker that was following us by road to reach the site of the crash and pick up the fallen bird. In the meantime, a crowd of local residents came out of nowhere to comment on damage to field and helicopter both, and I struck up a conversation in German (I’d had two years in college) with a sprightly man wearing a dark green loden coat and Tyrolean hat.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. The helicopter company made it to its base near Munich, and the photo crew took the train back to Kaiserlautern.

8. Atomic Cannon. I knew it was the Atomic Age because as a soldier, I bivouacked with atomic cannon in Germany, all barrels pointing east. On one assignment in 1957, I was sent to photograph Soviet antennas rising above the trees just beyond the cleared boundary through the woods that marked the Iron Curtain. By the time I got there, the antennas had been moved. I took a photo anyway, which showed nothing but trees on a hill.

Returning from another training exercise, during which I had slept in a stainless-steel darkroom sink, and taken night photos using infrared flash bulbs, our company convoy got stalled in a traffic jam in a rural village featuring a right-angle turn in the center of town.

Creeping forward, we at last we came to the cause of the jam. An atomic cannon with transport carriers on both ends was jammed into the right-angle corner and couldn’t move. In the oncoming lane, it was straddling the corner, the trucks at either end, each with its own driver, hung up against stone walls, unable to inch either back or ahead. I’ve never seen a stucker pair of trucks.

Our lane of traffic millimetered past the turn, but while the cannon was in view, it never budged. As far as I know it may be there still as an ad hoc monument to the Cold War.

I remember the engagement with that cannon because until I saw it with my own eyes, I thought bivouacking was just playing soldiers like we used to do as kids during World War II. But this was no wooden gun, and we were no tin soldiers. This was a pointed show of strength against our then national enemy of choice. That realization quickly woke me up because I saw with my own eyes how vulnerable our big guns were in having to depend on roads built for hay wagons.

9. Khrushchev comes to ISU. In early September, 1959, I was hired as the Information Service photographer by Iowa State University in Ames. Timing was of the essence because Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev was coming to town during my first week on the job. He wanted to learn why U.S. farms were so much more productive than those in Russia. His entire entourage of dignitaries—both U.S. and Russian—was coming with him.

I barely had time to get my hands on the equipment (notably one ancient Leica) I was to use before I had to get memorable photos of one of the most famous men in the world.

One stop on the tour was a home economics lab equipped with several rows of gas stoves. A Home-Ec class was to demonstrate the frying of eggs for the Premier and his wife. But at the last minute the Secret Service ruled that said stoves couldn’t be turned on because they might cause an international incident by scorching the person of the Russian leader.

A quick-witted teacher had the students draw outlines of fried eggs on paper cut to the proper shape, with the words “Fried Eggs” written across the drawings. No sooner done than Premier and Mrs. Khrushchev walked in the door, followed by a retinue of high government officials from both countries.

I stood atop a wooden stool to record the delegation’s response. The front row directly facing the stoves, including both Khrushchevs, erupted into hilarity upon seeing the paper eggs on cold stoves, followed by a wave of laughter moving through the crowd behind them. Everyone had a good laugh, except perhaps for the sheepish Home-Ec teacher. I got my picture, even struggling with the primitive Leica I inherited with the job. I was happy, my boss was happy. I was happy that my boss was happy.

This post is the second installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

4. Walking Down Broadway. At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred from MIT to Columbia College, where I took up the study of the humanities in earnest during the last year in which that major was being offered. I studied cultural events in the city as extensively as books at the college. I needed a big dose of what the city had to offer.

On a spring night at a little past one o’clock, I was reading in my room, when suddenly I decided to walk the length of Broadway from 113th Street to the ferry terminal in lower Manhattan. Just me and my shadow, my solo wayfarer.

The signs, curbs, venting manhole covers, streetlights, water-towers, few cars, buildings, and people I met have now blended into an impressionistic collage of that walk, all of Broadway compacted into a single image distilled from my moving perspective, largely visual, partly made of sounds and smells wafting my way as I went. That and a sense of great adventure is what I have left. And of belonging right where I was. I can’t recall specific details—they’ve faded away. I must have passed through Columbus Circle, Times Square, Union Square. I can’t remember how long it took. I know I got to South Ferry at dawn, and took the subway to 113th Street. When I got back, I thought of doing it again in daylight, but went off to class instead.

5. Walking to Concord. Thinking about my walk down Broadway reminds me of another walk I made with my younger brother, Peter, a few years later, a cultural walk of a different color because largely rural, not urban. I met him at his apartment near Kenmore Square in Boston at noon on a Saturday, and together we headed west to place stones on the cairn at the site of Thoreau’s cabin twenty miles west in Walden Woods near the famous pond.

Once past Cambridge, we walked back roads the rest of the way, immersing ourselves in the region as we imagined it had been a hundred years ago, and in some stretches still was in the 1960s. Narrow roads, stone walls, farm ponds, and apple trees, which went on for miles, are what I remember. Our feet may have trod the modern ways of Lincoln and Lexington, but our thoughts were with Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau in the Concord of their day. Time warps are available for the doing if you set your mind to it.

We got to Walden Pond at dusk, and I remember scrambling for stones to add to the cairn at Rolly Robbins’ reconstruction on the site of Thoreau’s cabin just back from the pond. Walking twenty miles to add a few stones to a humble monument in the woods seemed a sensible thing to do. We walked into Concord in the dark, sure we would find a bus stop somewhere along the way. Luck was with us, and we just caught the ten-o’clock bus back to Boston. Now that Peter is dead, that walk stands out as one of the highlights of our brotherhood.

6. Routine Engagement. In 1955, I worked as an engineering aide in the servomechanisms group at Boeing Aircraft in Renton just south of Seattle. I had a desk in a giant hangar of a building filled wall-to-wall with similar desks, an engineer seated at each one. That was in the days before cubicles and sound-absorbing tiles, just one big room with a sky-high ceiling. The only thing on my desk was a lever-operated mechanical calculator.

I spent six months making charts and plots on graph paper, a task I was used to from my year of mechanical drawing at MIT. One day my supervisor explained that one of two prototype B-52 airplanes was showing a tendency to veer (his term was yaw) to the side, and he wanted me to plot fuel consumption of all four engines to see if one engine was burning more or less fuel than the others.

The fuel consumption records consisted of a series of actual photos of dials taken during each test flight. I was told which flight to check, and sent to the large hangar where the records were kept. I got the photos in a thick file, read the dials for all four engines during that particular flight, went back to my desk and plotted the hundreds of points I had read from the dials. My graphs showed that all engines were burning the same amount of fuel.

What I remember is the bleakness of the days I spent on that job. Doing the duty I was assigned in a mechanical frame of mind. I was engaged to the extent of doing what I had been asked to do, being sure of my accuracy in reading, writing down, figuring, and plotting long series of numbers. But beyond that I was not personally engaged, just pulling the lever on my calculator again and again. I set up a routine to get through the day, effectively renting out my brain to help solve someone else’s problem. I was in a room full of people, but hardly talked with anyone all day, punching my time card when I left.

At the end of six months, I was drafted into the Army, and left Seattle for basic training at Fort Ord near Salinas, California. Ever since, wayfarer that I am, I have made sure to choose my engagements from among those that appealed to me as much as walking down Broadway at night.