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The Hermit and the Mystic: Wisdom from the Woods

A friend sent me a link to a GQ article about a man who lived alone in the Maine woods for 27 years.  The only thing he said to anyone in all those years was the single word “Hi” to a hiker he passed one day.  Although the article is titled “The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit” and the author, Michael Finkel, refers to the man, Christopher Knight, repeatedly as a hermit, when asked if he was one, Knight said:

“When I came out of the woods they applied the label hermit to me. Strange idea to me. I had never thought of myself as a hermit. Then I got worried. For I knew with the label hermit comes the idea of crazy.”

Knight had been nicknamed the North Pond Hermit by people who owned the summer cabins from which he stole food and propane and other needs without being seen.  According to my dictionary’s definition—“a person who lives alone in a lonely or secluded spot, often from religious motives; recluse”—Knight certainly was a hermit.  He lived alone in a tent surrounded by boulders and a thicket of brush and trees it was hard to see through.  But he denied having religious motives, or any religious feelings at all.  And he made it clear to Finkel that he never felt lonely.

I’ve been thinking about the label “hermit” over the past few years because some have called the man I wrote my book about, Robert Lax, a hermit.  I’ve never been comfortable with this label for Lax because he didn’t retreat to a “lonely or secluded spot” or separate himself from people, except to contemplate and write.  I’ve come to realize, though, that when people use the word “hermit” they often mean “mystic”: a hermit, to their mind, being someone who retreats from the world to meditate or pray and reach a higher consciousness.

I’m more comfortable calling Lax a mystic because there’s no question he attained “intuitive knowledge of spiritual truths through meditation” (the dictionary again).  And, despite Knight’s rejection of religion, despite the thievery that kept him alive, I think he became a bit of a mystic, too.

The only time he prayed, Knight said, was when the temperature went below negative twenty degrees. (“That’s when you do have religion,” he said.  “You do pray. You pray for warmth.”) But he meditated from time to time, especially when he feared death, and his quotes in the GQ article suggest he came to understandings of life that usually come only to mystics.  Here are a couple of the more intriguing ones:

“‘What I miss most [Knight said] is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.’ He said he’d watched for years as a shelf mushroom grew on the trunk of a Douglas fir in his camp.”  (An ability to be completely still and completely in the moment, attuned to the natural world.)

“Solitude did increase my perception [Knight said]. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”  (The disappearance of the ego and a resulting freedom from the self.)

While waiting in jail for the court’s decision on his theft charges, Knight said:

“I am retreating into silence as a defensive move…I am surprised by the amount of respect this garners me. That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable.”


“Sitting here in jail, I don’t like what I see in the society I’m about to enter. I don’t think I’m going to fit in. It’s too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia.”

The article ends with Knight being released from jail to live with his mother but wishing he could simply return to the woods. I’m reminded of the custom among some Native American tribes to have their young retreat to secluded places on their own to find themselves in some way.  What if we had this kind of custom in America, or at least allowed people like Knight to live in nature undisturbed?  What insights might we obtain that we as a society desperately need–especially in this time of superficiality, noise, violence and greed?

Note: One of my new projects is a book about a year my wife and I spent in a small cabin in the woods in the San Juan Islands: what that time and way of living showed me.

Novelist Kent Haruf (1943-2014) On Teaching and Learning Writing

Monday, November 30, was the first anniversary of the death of Kent Haruf, the bestselling author of Plainsong and other novels of unusual simplicity and beauty.  I met Kent when we taught together at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and we became good friends.  In his gentle way, he taught me many things about writing and being a writer, teaching and mentoring writers.  In January 2000, I did two in-depth interviews with Kent, a portion of which was published in the March/April 2001 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Here are some excerpts in which he talks about teaching writing, including what aspects of writing can and cannot be taught:

McGregor: What do you find most difficult to teach students or for students to learn about writing? Can you teach them, for example, to have an intrinsic sense of life or human values?

Haruf: I think you can teach them how to observe life. That can be learned. For example, you can teach somebody how to listen to natural speech sounds. One of the most difficult things for students is to understand what a story is or to see their own experience as story. Most of their notions of story are so distorted by bad movies and lousy TV that what they end up writing is pretty shallow, pretty implausible, and derivative. One thing I do is encourage them to read things that aren’t derivative—aren’t lousy TV. Presumably if they can learn what a bad story is and think it’s a story, they can learn what a good story is and know it’s a story. Another thing I do is encourage them to think about what has hurt them, because they will remember that better than good times or joyful times. I don’t want them necessarily to write autobiography but to use that pain as a springboard to a story. That leads to a lot of stories about pain but to me fiction is about problems and pain. Something has to happen, and it seems to me action most often comes out of yearning or pain.

McGregor: Are there things you can’t teach students?

Haruf: You cannot teach students talent.

McGregor: How would you define talent?

Haruf: I’m not sure. It has to do with an ability to write musical language. It’s a sensitivity to language, I think, before story. A person can learn how to see stories. I feel I have, and if I can, other people can. But while you can show a person why these words in this order might be musical or these words in this order are vivid and wonderful, you cannot affect the reception of that language in somebody’s ear in some innate way. You have to read a lot to find out whether you have that sensitivity to language or not, but reading alone won’t develop it.

McGregor: In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner wrote that anybody can learn to write a story they can publish. Do you agree with that?

Haruf: In most ways, yes. If you have at least some ability with language, you can be taught to write a story. If you work at it, it will be published, yes. But most people don’t have the talent for work required. The persistence that takes you past defeats and helps you stay in this process for the long haul. In my experience it’s a very long haul. And you have to be doing it for its own sake rather than any external reward because those are few and far between.

I sometimes say to students that writing is like religion. That doesn’t mean I’m solemn about it but I am very serious. I want to enter into it, devote the best I can to it, be the best I can to it. There’s no point in doing it in some mediocre or less than totally concentrated way. I’m irritated when students don’t take it seriously. I can’t see why they would be taking a writing class. There are so many other things that are easier to do. Writing calls out the best in you. It is difficult and the rewards are few, but if you actually succeed in creating something that seems like art, the satisfaction is greater than almost any other satisfaction available to human beings.

Application Period Now Open for My Summer 2016 Week at the Collegeville Institute

Every summer I spend a week working as a writing coach at the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Minnesota.  The week, called Apart and Yet a Part, is for experienced writers with a project that has a spiritual component.  The participants spend their days writing on their own and their evenings together in conversation and fellowship.  I work with the writers individually to help them strengthen their work or talk through questions about the writing process or being a writer.  All of the participating writers’ expenses are paid, including their airfare, and they’re housed in apartments spread along the shore of a lake.

If you or someone you know might be interested in participating, this year’s Apart and Yet a Part week will take place June 14-20.  You’ll find more information and instructions for applying hereThe application deadline is January 25, 2016.

Thoreau, Gandhi, Malcolm X: Books About Spiritual Quests

The following post appeared today on the Combined Academic blog in England, in celebration of Robert Lax’s 100th birthday:


I don’t know when I first put spiritual and quest together. In my childhood church the word spiritual was seldom used, so I never thought about it. It took on meaning when I heard it spoken in the plural, applied to moving songs by enslaved people. It still bears that soul-deep sound for me, the suffering and longing for freedom.

Quest, I’m sure, came first through knights and Argonauts, the tales and myths of boyhood. While spiritual sounds softer, more ethereal, quest suggests a hardy physical journey, a dauntless searching through the material world. It’s the joining of these elements—the soft and hard, the hidden and the tangible—that gives the term spiritual quest a holistic feel, a sense that it involves one’s whole being.

I was well into writing my biography of poet Robert Lax  before I realized that it was the story of a spiritual quest. This realization got me thinking about the books that influenced me when I was young, most of which, I found, had spiritual quests at their core.

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The first that came to mind was Walden, which I first read in high school. It made me want to homestead in the Canadian woods just north of my Seattle home. I don’t remember Thoreau calling his solitary living a spiritual quest, but his book is full of things described in holy ways: the woods, the lake, the west. The benefits of simple living. His quest was for a way to live that kept him in the moment and in nature. His physical movement was small—a short walk from his Concord home—but he roamed continents in his thoughts, explored exotic lands within his soul.

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The second book I thought of—Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—is more focused on movement, in this case a motorcycle ride, but that movement is even less necessary in terms of getting places than Thoreau’s walk from Concord. What’s more important for Pirsig is being away from one’s regular routine, out where paying close attention is both possible and needed. There, a mindful focus on the seemingly mundane unlocks his narrator’s thoughts about the Greek ideal of Quality, a value he finds lacking in the modern world.

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I’m a bit embarrassed to reveal the third book that came to me, The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, because I’m not sure I read it. It’s possible I only saw the Bill Murray movie. In the film, Murray plays a man who returns from World War I traumatized by his experiences. He rejects the regular life offered him and sets off on a quest for meaning. His quest takes him through the things that matter to other people, all the ways they seek fulfillment, including books. In the scene I remember most, he sits outside, alone and cold, somewhere in Asia, feeding pages from a suddenly useless book into a warming fire. He has realized that what gives life meaning is ineffable.

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Two other books that came to mind don’t describe journeys per se. Not chosen ones, at least. One is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he explores the psychological states of Holocaust victims. A Holocaust survivor himself, Frankl finds that the survivors’ most important trait was the understanding that in any circumstance, no matter how dire, we retain the freedom to choose our attitude toward it.

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The other book is James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays drawn from Baldwin’s life that echo Frankl’s thinking. Instead of focusing only on the individual, though, Baldwin looks at our society. Not only do we have the ability to choose our attitudes, he says, but the choices we make determine our common future. The quest implied in both these books is to become a person who can make what are, in essence, spiritual choices.

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The last three books I thought of are all a type of spiritual autobiography and so, I guess, more truly fit the category: Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (in which I first encountered Robert Lax).

I found Gandhi’s book tedious in places but his story of becoming sensitized to the world’s needs through experiences of prejudice and encounters with the less fortunate inspired me to pursue more of these encounters myself. Once again, my memory of a book has been altered by a movie. Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” shows him riding through India in a third-class train car to learn about the life of the common people. In the scene I remember most, he sits in his homespun clothes, still and aware, absorbing the noise and chaos of the lives around him rather than fleeing. It is this acceptance of the moment, his poorer countrymen’s reality, that allows Gandhi to transcend his privilege and become a true leader.

Autobiography Malcolm X

Malcolm X’s book is even more clearly about the struggle with one’s self as well as with society. In many ways it is the most extraordinary book on this list because Malcolm X had only his own awareness and fire to change him from an angry hustler for whom racial oppression is a given into a touchstone for whites as well as blacks, an evolving consciousness enlarged by his mistakes as well as his triumphs.

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Merton’s book is the one that most emphasizes the spiritual. It’s tempting to say that he had fewer physical things to struggle against—he wasn’t a victim of racism or a Holocaust survivor; he didn’t have the mental problems of Pirsig’s narrator or the horrifying memories of Maugham’s hero—yet Merton was aware that his main struggle was against his worldly self: his complacency, his egoism, his misplaced desires. Nothing outside his own consciousness forced him to confront himself and the life he was living. Yet he was willing to relinquish everything to find the meaning he desired, to reject all physical comfort in pursuit of a purely spiritual good.

So what has been the benefit of reading these books? Awareness, I suppose. Increased sensitivity. And camaraderie across the ages: a feeling that I’m not alone in my own spiritual pursuits. These fellow seekers give me courage and models to remember when my own struggles, however comparatively small, sometimes seem too much.

Michael N. McGregor is the author of the new biography Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax (Fordham University Press, 2015) .  A former journalist and editor, he is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Portland State University.

The photograph used at the beginning of this post was taken by Michael McGregor.

Thoughts on the Refugees Crossing to Greece

When the Greek islands were hospitable to strangers

Recently the online world has been filled with images of people in desperate conditions, images not from Pakistan or Syria but from the Greek islands closest to Turkey: Chios, Lesbos, Leros. One picture showed a migrant raft landing near sunbathing tourists on Kos, an island I once knew well. It was a way station on my yearly visits to the nearby island of Patmos, where St. John was once a refugee himself. I went there to visit another immigrant to Greece: a spiritual poet named Robert Lax, who was Thomas Merton’s best friend.

Lax made his home in Greece, first on the island of Lesbos, then on Kalymnos, and finally on Patmos. One reason he did this was that the Greek Orthodox islanders lived their Christian faith more deeply and fully than other people he’d known, and this included following the biblical injunction to show hospitality to strangers. When Lax landed on Lesbos in 1962 and then traveled through the islands, people came out of their homes to give him things—loaves of fresh bread, water from a well, an apronful of almonds.

They did this because he was a stranger passing through a land that had few strangers in it. And because they believed the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Even when I started visiting in the 1980s, the Greek islanders were still overwhelmingly hospitable, calling out to me to offer oranges or water or ouzo.

It wasn’t until 2006 that I witnessed a different response to people entering the country. As I walked to a beach on Patmos one day, a voice called out to me. Off to my left in a decrepit building—a onetime school or government structure—the second-floor windows were lined with thin, dark-skinned men apparently being detained. The one calling out asked me to come nearer. When I did, he pantomimed that he wanted a pen. When I pulled one out of my pocket, he lowered a kind of bucket on a rope made of rags. Then, as the men in the windows were smiling and nodding their thanks, two Greek women arrived with bags of supplies for them—cigarettes and food and sodas. These women may have been the last remnant of those who once greeted strangers openly.

I don’t know if the men in that building were Albanians, who were the main Greek refugees then, or if they were part of the first wave of what has become a flood of Middle Easterners seeking a haven in Europe. The number of refugees pouring into Greece this year, most of them fleeing the fighting in Syria, is more than ten times last year’s number. An estimated 50,000 people entered Greece in July alone. And the conditions they are kept in—in this once-hospitable country—are worse than those I saw as a journalist in refugee camps on the Cambodian border and off the coast of Malaysia during the era of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese boat people.

No doubt some of the Christian people in Greece are calling the refugees crossing the watery border “criminals,” “terrorists,” and even “rapists,” as migrants have been called by some in the U.S. Given the economic situation, it makes sense that Greeks would be afraid. The once healthy flow of EU money has thinned, and unemployment—even without migrants—is at 25 percent (50 percent among youth). Where, though, I wonder, lies the line between biblical hospitality and self-preservation?

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,” says Proverbs 19:17, “and he will reward them for what they have done.” The question for God, I suppose, is Is there a limit? Can you really expect us to welcome anyone? What about our own safety?

When he was young, the poet Lax, like his friend Merton, chose to live simply, without possessions he’d need to protect. But he did it out in the world, on his own, not in a monastery. His small house on Patmos had a lock, but he left the key in the outside slot. I wonder now, 15 years after his death, as people are celebrating his centenary and Merton’s, how he would view these refugees. I wonder, too, how I should view them, having known and written a book about him. Having been a Christian all my life.

Full Text of the Oregonian’s Thoughtful Review of PURE ACT

Oregonian: Robert Lax’s pure life examined by Portland State professor Michael N. McGregor
Author: Jim Carmin
Posted: November 5, 2015

This article originally appeared in The Oregonian:

It’s comforting to know that even with the vast amount of information for which we now have access there are still biographies to be written about fascinating individuals most of us have never heard of. Michael N. McGregor, a professor of English and creative writing at Portland State University, has given us one of these: “Pure Act,” a highly readable and erudite account of the life and work of poet Robert Lax (1915-2000), a man whose poems and moral standing in the world deserve greater recognition than they’ve had.

Known perhaps less for his poetry and more for his friendships, Lax became close with writer Jack Kerouac, painter Ad Reinhardt, editor/author William Maxwell, and especially Thomas Merton, the great poet, monk, social activist, and one of four Americans that Pope Francis recently called exemplary before his address to Congress. Like Merton, Lax was a quiet and extremely spiritual man; he was introduced by Kerouac to his mother as a saint. When Lax wrote, he did it mostly for himself with little thought of commercial or financial gain. Both he and Merton, besides being hugely influenced early on by the writing style of Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” took a vow when they were young to write simply. Lax took this notion “to a daring extreme,” especially as he developed his short-lined, sometimes single-word, vertical poems.

McGregor, who met Lax in 1985 and got to know him well through the years while visiting him often at his modest home on the Greek isle of Patmos, meticulously researched the archives at Columbia and St. Bonaventure universities to present us with a warm, sympathetic literary biography of this complicated man who lived life as simply as possible.

Born in Olean, N.Y., Lax moved to and from Olean to New York City for much of his early life. In Olean he often stayed at his brother-in-law’s cottage, sometimes with friends such as Merton drinking wine and coffee, and writing and talking late into the night. In New York City, after graduating from Columbia where he (and Merton) studied with poet Mark Van Doren, Lax worked briefly for The New Yorker and later as co-editor (with Merton) for Jubilee, a Catholic literary magazine. (Despite growing up Jewish, Lax converted to Catholicism early in his life.)

But it was Europe that had the most lasting impact on him, especially early on with a visit to Marseille where Lax taught himself a “willingness to accept and even embrace poverty …  the poverty that comes from simplifying one’s desires and thereby reducing one’s need to earn money.” This daily monk-like sensibility led Lax to develop a way of life he called pure act: “a natural living out of one’s God-given abilities and potentials without the splitting-off of consciousness that might question or judge.”

McGregor argues effectively of the influences that helped shaped Lax’s work and life, noting that “Kerouac helped him think differently about how he wrote, and Reinhardt helped him find his way beyond artistic conventions.” McGregor’s fluid narrative moves easily through the life of the man and the poet for whom he clearly has great respect and admiration: from Lax’s uncertainties in his early life to his difficulties in having to leave the island of Kalymnos after the complications of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and his last years on Patmos where he lived as he always wanted, simply, with no refrigerator, no phone, and mostly on the generosity of his friends and neighbors.

After reading McGregor’s deeply satisfying “Pure Act” we conclude that Lax lived an admirable life, remaining true to his beliefs to the end, including his strongest thought that life should be lived simply and slowly; the words marking his gravestone perfectly capturing his preferred place in the world: “slow boat / calm river / quiet landing.”

Reading: McGregor and John Beer will lead “A Celebration of Robert Lax” at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at Literary Arts, 925 S.W. Washington St., Portland, OR.

Jim Carmin, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Portland.

The Oregonian Reviews Pure Act


Portland’s Oregonian newspaper just posted a review of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax on its website, “Robert Lax’s pure life examined by Portland State professor Michael N. McGregor.”

At the end of the review there’s a plug for one of my upcoming events: A Celebration of Robert Lax at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, December 9, at Oregon Literary Arts (925 SW Washington St, Portland, OR), with readings by poet John Beer and me and a podcast interview of the two of us by Late Night Library‘s Paul Martone.

I’ll also be reading from my book in a “pop-up” event at 2:30 p.m. this Saturday (Nov. 7) in the Modern Section of the Portland Art Museum and appearing onstage at 5 p.m. that same day in PAM’s Miller Gallery in an event called “On Biography: Joan Didion and Robert Lax” with biographer Tracy Daugherty.  Both events are part of Portland’s annual Wordstock book festival.

Two Chicago Appearances This Week: Oct. 28 and Nov. 1

I’ll be speaking and reading from Pure Act at two very different events in Chicago this week:

The first event is at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, October 28 at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave. in Hyde Park.  I’ll be in conversation with Poetry magazine editor Don Share and critic Max Nelson from The Point literary journal.  Poetry, the oldest poetry monthly in the U.S., will be featuring Robert Lax’s work in its December issue, a 20-page spread with an introduction by me. This reading is co-sponsored by The Point and the Lumen Christi Institute.

The second event is at 1 p.m. on Sunday, November 1 at City Lit Books, 2523 N. Kedzie Blvd., just off Logan Square.  This one will be a bit more intimate, with just me talking and reading.

(Between these two Chicago appearances, I’ll be part of a panel at the “Transcending Orthodoxies” conference at Notre Dame University, speaking on “The Language of Spiritual Literature in a Post-Religious Era.”)

I hope to see you at one or both events!

Peace Is a Good Thing to Seek: An Interview for Bearings Online

The following interview appeared on Bearings Online, run by the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in MN, where I work as a writing coach each summer.  The interviewer, poet Betsy Johnson-Miller, has published two books of poetry: Rain When You Want Rain, and Fierce This Falling.

Peace Is a Good Thing to Seek: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

An Interview with Michael N. McGregor

Michael N. McGregor, author and professor of creative writing in the Department of English at Portland State University, published a biography in September 2015 titled Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. The book chronicles Lax’s life and his career as a poet. It also explores some of the important relationships Lax had—with God, with Thomas Merton, with a family of circus performers, and with McGregor himself. 

McGregor has been associated with the Collegeville Institute since 2009. He spent a semester in residence in the fall of 2011, and has taught several writing workshops over the years. Betsy Johnson-Miller spoke with Michael about his book when he was in Collegeville for a three-day author residency.

You wrote this book, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, at least in part, as a result of meeting Robert Lax. Would you have written this biography if you hadn’t met Lax in person?

It was the presence of the man and getting to know him that intrigued me. I wanted to uncover more of the details of his life. I never expected to write a biography, and I’m not sure I would have written this if I’d just encountered his writing or even things about him.

Could you give us a sense of his presence?

To be in his presence was to feel loved, delighted, and completely accepted.

In the book, I talk about how he described Thomas Merton with only one word: liveliness. And that’s what I would say about Lax as well. When I met him, he was 69, and that’s an age when many people do not have a lot of liveliness left. But he was delightfully lively. He was, in many ways, childlike, and to be in his presence was to feel loved, delighted, and completely accepted.

Is it what he said? Or how he looked at the world?

Lax was lively in his manner and how he treated people. He would often say, “Yes, yes,” or “Good, good.” Those were his favorite phrases, and he was always encouraging people to say what they had to say, to express themselves, or in my case, to write things down. He would often break our conversations and say, “Write that down, write that down.” Sometimes, when he felt someone especially needed encouragement, he would say, “Well, that reminds me of Merton.” He may have meant it, but he also may have been thinking, “This person needs encouragement, so let me compare you to this friend of mine who is amazing.”

Lax had a deep and abiding friendship with Thomas Merton that impacted both of their lives. Merton became a monk, whereas Lax did not. Would you say they both led holy lives?

When we talk about a holy person, we are in danger of over-spiritualizing. We start to think of someone as not meant for this world. That is not the case with Lax. He was fully alive as a human being. He was of this world, but at the same time, he was fully attending to the living God, and he was fully alive as a human being to the people around him, and to himself. Merton and Lax were very different people personality-wise. They had different gifts, different ways they were tuned. But they both had a thirst for God that was their primary characteristic.

How would Lax describe the act of writing?

Lax would not have separated writing from living. He was always trying to get at what his soul was saying to itself. He believed that “down there” was where God speaks to us, from inside of us, at our deepest core. So, writing was a sacred act, but so was living. For Lax, every breath was a holy thing.

Should we consider Lax an exemplar? In other words, should we as people or as writers try to live like he lived?

Lax would never have said, “Live like me.” In fact, if you started to suggest you were going to emulate him, it would have made him very nervous. Except he did want people to emulate him in this way—to love, to be as close to pure love as you could be. It wasn’t important for him what your circumstances were or what you pursued, as long as you pursued it out of love.

There’s a story in the book about a young man going fishing. Lax believed if that man wants to go fishing instead of caring for his grandmother, if he’s not caring for her out of love, then it’s better for him to go fishing. Because he should do what he does out of love. That was how Lax saw life.

One of his most important characteristics—embracing poverty—unleashed a great deal of energy and time in his life. He might talk to you about it, but he wouldn’t say, “You have to do this—live this same way.” Some people called him a guru. I don’t. Gurus tend to give you ways to live and are much more prescriptive about that, and he was never prescriptive. For Lax, what was important was to put ourselves in a place where grace can flow, because once we do that, then things start happening. He also believed very strongly that everybody desires God, and the more we can recognize and act on that desire, the more things will take care of themselves.

As a writer yourself, how did Lax’s thoughts on writing influence you?

What Lax said was that you should write what you want to write and then try to say it as well as you can.

The most important thing that he unlocked for me as a writer was the idea that I should write about the things that are mine to write about and that I care about. As a young writer, it’s easy to get all these ideas, or think “I want to be in this magazine, so I should write this.” What Lax said was that you should write what you want to write and then try to say it as well as you can. More importantly, he believed you should write for yourself first and only, really. He said that if an editor gets to see that writing, he should consider himself lucky.

It’s a very different way than we are taught to think about writing. We’re taught to think that we’ve got to do these things to get people to print our work. Lax believed strongly that as a writer, if that’s the thing you are called to do, then your job is to write what you are interested in as well as you can and try to get closer and closer to a kind of truth in that. If that happens, then the publication part will take care of itself.

Many writers are known for their edgy lives, whether in terms of sexual behavior or alcoholism or drugs. Lax falls at the opposite end of the spectrum. What do you make of that dynamic, both in terms of Lax himself, and of writers and writing in general?

Some people look at the lifestyles of legends like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and think, “Oh, that’s how you become a good writer,” rather than thinking “these good writers did stupid things that eventually impaired their writing instead of enhancing it.”

The best example of this from Lax’s life is the difference between him and Jack Kerouac. They were friends right around the time On the Road came out. This was a high point of Kerouac’s life as a writer in many ways, and there was this moment when Kerouac was going to follow Lax to live in a spiritual community outside of Paris. Lax went first, but Kerouac never joined him. He wrote Lax a letter that basically said, “Bob, I’m not coming. That’s the kind of thing I need to get away from,” and he turned to Buddhism instead. Even more than that—and Kerouac’s honest about it in the letter—he turned to women and drink, and the life destroyed him. And the same thing happened to others—like Dylan Thomas—who were in Lax’s life as well.

Lax said that the best gift you can give to other people is to take care of yourself.

Over time, Lax developed this sense that we need to take care of ourselves, and that doing so allows us to do our best for other people, for our writing, for whatever. Late in life he said that the best gift you can give to other people is to take care of yourself, even physically. Some writers think that they have to be where the buzz is, that they have to be in there, moving and doing things. Lax felt that the buzz he was interested in was inside himself.

Is there a moment with Lax that has stayed with you?

One such moment is when he signed one of his books and gave it to me. Inside it read, “There’s not much difference between us.” Another was toward the end of his life when he told me, “I had a dream last night that you said to me, ‘Peace is a good thing to seek, and love does conquer all.’” The second one in particular felt like a charge to me in a way. I don’t think he meant it that way. I think it was more of a hopeful thought, a hopeful dream for him, but I certainly go back to it and think, “Yes, I want to be that person and always doing that.”

The Company We Keep

One of the things virtually every American author does, it seems, is check the sales ranking on his Amazon page.  The part of the page I find most interesting, though, is the section just above the editorial reviews where other books bought by those who’ve bought my book are listed.  If, as people say, we’re known by the company we keep, this is where the true value of a book is revealed.  I have to say I’ve felt humbled and quite pleased by the books that appear there.

Among the authors represented are: Pope Francis, James Joyce, Meister Eckhart, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Vincent Van Gogh, Thich Nhat Hanh, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, Louis Bouyer, Daniel Berrigan, Jane Hirshfield, Richard Rohr, James Martin, Matthew Fox, Ilia Delio, Rowan Williams, Jim Forest, John Dear, Christopher Pramuk, Michael W. Higgins and Elizabeth Gilbert.

Impressive as that list is, it’s the book titles I enjoy most.  Taken together, they become a poem:

The Springs of Contemplation/Making All Things New/In the School of the Prophets/At Play in Creation/We Are Already One

What the Mystics Know/Waking, Dreaming, Being/The Divine Within/The Ground of Love and Truth/All Is Grace

Between the Dark and the Daylight/A Sunlit Absence/Striving Towards Being/Praying the Psalms/Eager to Love

The Taste of Silence/The Submerged Reality/This Present Moment/Crowded by Beauty/Fully Alive