Stepping through the porthole: “Caribbean Sea, Jamaica,” by Hiroshi Sugimoto

"Time’s Arrow" (1987), by Hiroshi Sugimoto (seascape: 1980; reliquary fragment: Kamakura Period, 13th century) Gelatin silver print, gilt bronze.Introduction: The original version of “Life Without Backgrounds or Frames: ‘Time’s Arrow,’ by Hiroshi Sugimoto” (8/25/2023) was an email written for a young visitor to Quaker Meeting who was stuck in an overburdened local homeless shelter, having fled an abusive living situation.

He grasped the core message: that human beings reflexively construct backgrounds and frames around the fragment of reality that we perceive. Our brains do this quite naturally as a way to contain and attempt to control our interactions with the Real.

In the process, though, we fail to enter the Real in an authentic way, and we can get lost in our reactionary struggles with what we suffer.

What follows is a loosely edited version of my next email, once the young man had replied to me further about his struggles and hopes.

“The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty”


I grieve for you.  But I also see in you a strength and faith that you may not trust you have.

Anne Lamott once wrote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.”1

We all crave and cling to certainty, out of our fear of whatever seems beyond our powers to cope with.  Some of us go so far as to cling to the lies that others with power insist we cling to.

But real life, life as it happens moment by moment, is not certain.  It is groundless, in the sense that there is actually no unchanging, forever certain place for any of us to stand.

So faith is actually a matter of starting over and over and over again to put our trust in the reality that God’s love is the ultimate groundlessness.  It does not need a place to stand; it is the place.

Stepping through the porthole

This sounds very “woo woo” to me as I write it.  But here’s the opening I’m wrestling with myself in response to the “Time’s Arrow” image I shared with you yesterday.

The antique bronze relic frame in “Time’s Arrow” surrounds a segment of this earlier photo by Hiroshi Sugimoto.  It’s titled “Caribbean Sea, Jamaica” (1980).2

"Caribbean Sea, Jamaica" (1980), by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Art Institute Chicago

The challenge I am facing is this: to leave behind the background and the frame by stepping through the porthole into the groundlessness of the real world, where there is only the sea and the sky, with no certain place to stand.

Friend, you are presently in the groundless place where I have feared to go for my entire 73 years.

In the groundless place

I’m not pretending that this is an unmixed blessing.  Just by knowing how terrified I have always been of being without home or material and social resources, I have a faint hint of what you are probably feeling most of the time now.

You are in the situation of many of the first Quakers.  They had left the authoritarian security of the Church of England, which means that they were being denied any of the parish services that local C of E churches usually provided to their communities.

Worse, they had become outcasts in the eyes of the law.  On almost any pretext they could lose their property and their freedom and be imprisoned.

What sustained many of them was the faith—faith, not certainty—that God would not abandon them.  They had abandoned the black background and bronze frame of society; they had stepped through the porthole.

They based this on having personally experienced that the groundless sea and sky of reality is God’s reality.  Other Quakers who knew of them communicated with them, visited them in prison, risking their own seeming safety to be identified as fellow Friends.

Again, as I write this it sounds all sweet and sentimental to me.  It doesn’t carry the horror of being groundless.  I don’t want to sugarcoat anything that you are experiencing, anything that you are feeling.

I do want to stir up your faith, faith that you already have because you constantly aspire to it.

Meeting divine groundlessness in each person

One final thought.  George Fox spent years in prison himself.

You write: “unlike him I don’t have the benefit of being able to walk cheerfully about the earth conversing with folks of every spiritual shape and colour.”

That was something he did through pain and suffering, not through certainty and ease.

The people around you in the shelter and on the street are the very people he meant in that saying.  He said to meet “that of God” in each person.  To find that groundlessness of God’s love within ourselves, knowing that is always there in them as well, whether they know it or not.

To deal with even the people around us who alarm us, knowing that they have the same “seed” within them.

We may not be able to befriend them.

We may not be able to trust them in the usual survival sense of knowing we are safe with them.

Yet we can watch them dispassionately and notice which of them has a glimmer of awareness of that “seed” within themselves.  We can speak to that “seed” and encourage them to affirm it and trust it.

You are where I have not dared go

I acknowledge that I rarely practice what I am preaching.  This has been a struggle for me for decades, most particularly because I am always aware of the homeless people around me and almost always afraid to let myself be vulnerable with them.

Since you are already suspended “between sea and sky,” perhaps you can share with me the hints you get from day to day experience, the moments when you find yourself interacting with someone else in ways are are simply human to human, without judgment.

Perhaps you and I could also find places to meet and be in the moment with each other.

We will stay in touch.

Quaker Meeting will gradually discover to find practical support for you.

Thank you for being so open with us, Friend.

Blessings, Mike

  1. Plan B : further thoughts on faith (2005, 2006)
  2. Art Institute Chicago, Gift of James N. Wood.

4 comments On Stepping through the porthole: “Caribbean Sea, Jamaica,” by Hiroshi Sugimoto

  • Thank you!

    • Linda, this has been such a helpful pilgrimage for me, first spending several weeks pondering the images, and then finding a real world need to share what I am opening to with one specific person here in Quaker Meeting.

  • Wow. More courage than I possess….

    • Kay, the young Friend’s fled his household and became homeless more out of survival need than out of courage.

      Where I see the courage is in the willing vulnerability to other Quakers. He as been very frank with Friends Meeting since he started visiting us, sharing his distresses and fears and his sense of betrayal by those who abused him. He has not share the specifics of who abused him and how, but members of our Spiritual Life committee are speaking with him privately.

      Better still, yesterday after meeting for worship a long-time member offered him room in his own house until he gains some financial stability.

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