A Note from A Canadian Reader

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.'”

I’ll Be a Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in March

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been selected to be the Spring 2017 Lenna Endowed Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York.  I’ll be on campus for the last two weeks of March, giving talks, visiting classrooms, meeting with students, and chatting with the Franciscan friars.

I’m especially honored to receive the Lenna Professorship because the first recipient of it, when it was established in 1990, was Robert Lax.  St. Bonaventure is in his home town and, as those who’ve read my biography of him know, he and his mother went there often.  The friars were an important early spiritual influence on him.

The dates for the public talks haven’t been set yet but they should be soon.  I’ll post them in the Talks section of my website.  If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come!

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.

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.

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!

In Memoriam: C. K. Williams (1936-2015), Robert Lax’s Good Friend

I’m writing this on Monday, September 21, the official publication date for Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  I was going to write a celebratory post and remind everyone that we’ll be honoring Lax the Poet at 7 p.m. at McNally Jackson Books in SoHo this evening.  But C. K. Williams, the wonderful poet and friend of Lax, was supposed to be part of tonight’s event and he died yesterday.  The show will go on, as they say, but it will be a bit less joyous.

I didn’t know C. K. Williams–or Charlie, as he was known to Lax and his other friends–but I’m proud to say he blurbed my book.  To honor him, I thought I’d tell the story of how that blurb came about.

I knew from my research that Lax had met Williams and his wife Catherine Mauger on the island of Patmos in the summer of 1973 and visited them in Paris in later years.  When I shifted from research to writing on my book in 2007, I wrote to Williams and asked if he’d be willing to blurb it. He wrote back: “I don’t usually write blurbs anymore, but I will for a book about Lax.”  I know those were his exact words because I wrote them down on a Post-It note I kept in my desk drawer for seven years.

When I finally had a publisher for the book, I wrote to Williams again, afraid he might have changed his mind. This time his return message said: “Good to hear you’ve finished the book. I’d like very much to write a comment for it.”

Although he received my book late and had to deliver his blurb sooner than he had been told, Williams was generous and accommodating.  More than anything else, I was looking forward to meeting him tonight and thanking him in person.  I will have to meet him in his poetry now and thank him by telling others about it.

Let me close by showing you what he wrote for my book, which you’ll find on the front inside flap of the dust jacket.  Although it’s ostensibly a blurb, it’s really a loving commentary on the life and spirit of his dear friend and a testament to their friendship:

“Robert Lax was a poet who devised his own poetic forms, much admired by some readers, unfortunately unknown to most. He was an intellectual and was often called a mystic, but he was neither, just as he was called a hermit but really wasn’t. When he was younger, he lived in New York, where he worked for a period at The New Yorker and knew many figures in the arts, from Jack Kerouac, to Ad Reinhardt, E. B. White, William Maxwell . . . the list goes on. Most crucially he was a close friend of Thomas Merton’s and was made known, a little, by Merton’s autobiography, in which he appears. He also for a time traveled with a circus and wrote a lovely little book about it, The Circus of the Sun”–hard to find, but worth the search. For the larger parts of his life he lived alone, on islands in Greece, and spent much, perhaps most, of his time in solitude and meditation, trying to find some kind of ultimate peace (though he never put it that way). Even then he knew and was admired by many; and many others who’d only heard of him sought him out. He was invariably hospitable and welcoming, his presence gentle, humorous, and utterly patient. In short, there’s never been anyone like him, and Pure Act, in its offering of a detailed recounting of his life and an acute presentation and analysis of his too-neglected poetry, gives him to us: the gift of a human being unlike any other.”  

–C. K. Williams


Before Its Official Pub Date, PURE ACT Headed for a 2nd Printing

About 70 people attended the wonderful launch for Pure Act, hosted by Fordham University Press at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus on Wednesday.  The first thing my editor, Fordham U. Press Director Fred Nachbaur, said to me when I arrived was that sales have been strong enough to warrant a second printing!  This was five days before the book’s official publication date: September 21.

To mark the official publication of the book this coming Monday, I’ll be the featured speaker at a celebration of Robert Lax’s life at McNally Jackson Books in NYC’s SoHo district.  The event begins at 7 p.m.  (See my Talks page for full details.)  The other participants, all reading from Lax’s poetry, will be Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner C.K. Williams, experimental writer and critic Richard Kostelanetz, former poet laureate of Queens Paolo Javier, former Lax literary assistant John Beer (my colleague at Portland State University), and Lax’s niece Marcia Kelly.  If you’re in or near NYC, I hope you’ll come!



First Look at the Actual Book!


I heard footsteps on the cabin deck yesterday and looked up to see the UPS deliveryman holding out a package.  Inside were two copies of Pure Act: my first look at the actual book.  It’s beautiful–and that’s not just this author’s humble opinion.  When my editor saw it, he called it “stunning–breathtaking, really.”  I hope others like it as much as those of us who have worked on it.  If you’ve pre-ordered it, your copies should be arriving soon.

My first reading is up here at the library on Lopez Island at 1 p.m., next Saturday, August 29.  Another good reason to visit the San Juans!  Next up will be a reading at the Edmonds Bookshop in Edmonds, WA, at 6:30 on Friday, September 4, and then our Seattle launch at the University Bookstore on the Ave at 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 5.  Please see my “Talks” page for other upcoming readings.  I hope to see you at one of them!