Sentences seem like little bridges crossing a flooded plain. I step onto one and it feels shaky, incomplete. When I come to the end of it, I face anew the expanse of water with nothing laid over it and no materials. So I wait there, lonely and exposed, until something new comes to me.
–from an old journal entry
STUDY that which you would like to see in this world—peace, truth, faithfulness, community, economic fairness, good government—and it will have a better chance of coming to be.
On this day of hope, let us all prepare our minds and hearts to work for a better world when we are free again.
Happy Easter to all!
I haven’t added a new post to this site in a long time, and I’m not going to promise to be consistent about adding posts now. But I’ve started working on a new project, centered in the first decades of the 20th century, and some of what I’m reading for it is worth posting about because it relates to what we’re living through in the US today.
I’ll try to say more about what I mean by that in future entries, but for now, just to get started, I’m going to simply post a quote about FDR from a book published in 1937, when his policies were showing some signs of working but the Depression was far from over. The book deals primarily with his policy toward electricity and public utilities in general.
Here’s the quote:
“The President’s thinking goes first to government–democratic government–and after that to economics…In the prodigies of effort he put forth to lead the country out of the bogs of depression he therefore sought, and seeks still, more than what he has termed ‘a purposeless whirring of machinery.’ It is important that every man have a job, that every factory have orders to fill and that business as a whole earn profits. ‘But,’ as he said in his annual message to Congress in January, 1937, ‘government in a democratic nation does not exist solely, or even primarily, for that purpose.’ The factory wheels ‘must carry us in the direction of a greater satisfaction in life for the average man. The deeper purpose of democratic government is to assist as many of its citizens as possible–especially those who need it most–to improve their conditions of life, to retain all personal liberty which does not adversely affect their neighbors, and to pursue the happiness which comes with security and an opportunity for recreation and culture.'”
pp. 292-293, Pyramids of Power, M. L. Ramsay
A man in Germany (Jörg Kowalski) who reads my bimonthly Robert Lax Newsletter (you can sign up at robertlax.com) sent me a note and a book recently. The note told of his trip to Patmos to follow in Lax’s footsteps, and the book contained his poetry, some influenced by Lax’s work.
The back of the poetry book had only the words pictured here on it. I can’t think of a better (or more succinct) definition of being an artist; of why one makes art.
For those who don’t know German, here’s a translation:
now I see
what you don’t see
and that is me
I recently received the note below from a Canadian reader. It expresses so well the kind of response I would hope for–to my book and to Lax–that I had to share it.
“Thank you so very much for writing Pure Act! Like Robert Lax’s poetry it’s a welcoming place to go to as the competition, chaos and anxiety of the 21st century become ever-more overwhelming. At 66, I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography or memoir that is both so enlightening and comforting—one of which I can say, ‘This is thoroughly necessary.'”
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.