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.

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

It is a Wednesday afternoon in April, 1973. I am taking my Humanities III class at Abbott Academy on a field trip to MIT. Each week we strike into the territory surrounding Andover, Massachusetts, for the distance of up to a one hour’s drive. We then pair up and venture into the wilderness to see what sort of place we have come to. After exploring for an hour and a half, we gather, share our discoveries, and drive back to Andover. One Wednesday we went to a crossroad in rural New Hampshire [which I can no longer find on the map] to see what life was like in that neck of the woods. Another, we went to Plumb Island on the coast of Massachusetts to explore plant and animal life among the dunes. Today we are in industrial Cambridge, enjoying the mixed scent of the Necco factory, rubber factory, and Heinz pickles from the campus of MIT in their midst. My students radiate out from under the dome of Building 10. I cross Mass Ave. to look at the chapel built since my own student days 20 years earlier. There it is, an unassuming brick cylinder off the path to the athletic field. I am surprised how small it is. A for simplicity, D- for elegance. In I go. Blackness. Radiant gold flakes falling from a light tube above. Not falling, exactly; metal shapes skewered on rods radiating downward in the column of light. The effect is of power and illumination descending, shimmering over some kind of altar. As my eyes get used to the dark, I sense concentric rows of benches echoing the contour of the wall. I sit. A shape there, just outside the beam from the skylight. Someone’s standing by the altar. A young woman. Holding something in one hand. She swings it up. Music! A Bach sonata for unaccompanied violin. She plays for what seems like eternity—which I later figure to be about 20 minutes. The light descends, the sculpture glows in its dark surround, I sit, the woman plays. The music is the medium in which, together, we exist. She ceases playing, puts her instrument in its case, and walks out. As she passes me, I tell her I’ve never met an angel before. She says nothing, and leaves. Later, I have a hard time telling my students about the experience. It has nothing to do with language. To force my vision into words is to ridicule or diminish it. You had to be there, I tell them.

 

When everything comes together in consciousness like that, for good or ill, we are overwhelmed. Could be 9/11, could be Obama’s inauguration. Such states of cohesion are milestones along our journeys of life discovery. We are tempted to take them as revelations of true reality, even though those alongside of us may be experiencing something totally different. At any rate, these are momentous occasions.

 

More often, consciousness is conflicted, opening onto a world of mixed messages. Which makes a hash of so-called reality as a kind of tumult neither good nor bad. It just is. With us being pulled this way and that so we hardly know who we are. But every now and then we take that fatal step into the dark chapel, or come across a paragraph by Thoreau that makes particularly powerful sense. We are moved by being for once of one mind. Consciousness is still as complicated as ever, but all the facets contribute to the overall effect.

 

We know all about love-hate relationships. Pepperoni pizza with green peppers, mushrooms, and extra cheese is a gift from heaven—except for the gastric distress it brings on, and the extra weight we carry for eating it down at one sitting. School would be fun—if it weren’t so boring. The Friday paycheck is great—if only it went far enough. Most experiences are a mixture of the good and the bad, which turns what seems at first glance to be pleasurable into drudgery, or vice versa. Vacations, for instance, are a great idea. But when it comes to making all the arrangements, and seeing what everything costs, it makes more sense to stay home and read a good book. Everyday consciousness is usually at sixes and sevens, so we grit our teeth and bear with it. That’s life, we say. So we steel ourselves and grind on.

 

Which sets us up for those rare times when it all (attention, feeling, expectation, percepts, concepts, memory, motive, judgment, understanding, action, etc.) comes together and we feel more alive than we have in ages. That’s what basketball mania is all about, community theater, good sex, and other peak experiences when our usually fragmented consciousness gets itself together for once.

 

When I was a freshman in high school, I entered the annual prize speaking contest. I loved James Thurber stories at the time, so decided to deliver “The Car We Had to Push.” It was an all-school event, putting me as a novice up against far more mature and accomplished speakers. I remember reciting myself to sleep every night for a month, haltingly at first, then smoother and smoother. On the day of the event, I didn’t know what to do with my hands, so clasped them behind me. I got through without a hitch and thought that wasn’t so bad. When the judges announced their decision, my classmate Josephine Case won first prize for girls with “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, and I won for boys. We each got a ten dollar bill.

 

That was the first time in my life I ever got my act together. I learned it was possible, and how much work it took. Before that, I was a tinkerer who got things to take apart by breaking into barns and stealing old cars. I walked along Payne Creek springing muskrat traps I thought were cruel, getting both the trapper and town policeman on my case. As a teenager I was definitely not together.

 

But over time I have learned something of what it takes to manage my own consciousness. Insofar, that is, as consciousness is subject to my stewardship—which is not very far. But I do know how to stick with a job, how to work in stages or drafts, and something about the sorts of experiences that turn me on: nature photography, writing haiku, reflecting on consciousness, trying to figure how ecosystems work, and so on, none of which is easy

 

The main thing I have learned is to keep exploring my options. And then to be deliberate in choosing which ones to give up on, which to pursue. My personal consciousness is the medium I have been given for living a life. I much prefer having it as my friend rather than an enemy constantly catching me by surprise. It has taken me a lifetime of curiosity and exploration to learn how to work with my consciousness rather than in spite of it, which makes living each moment as rewarding as it is challenging.

 

What can I say? I do what I love, love what I do. Which is code for I am my consciousness, my consciousness is me.

 

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