May 21, 2017

21 05 2017

I am listening to an audiobook called The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, about a man who, at the age of twenty, left his home in Massachusetts and disappeared into the Maine woods. He did not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later when he was caught and arrested for breaking and entering to steal food. Christopher Knight lived in a small, superbly secluded camp, emerging only to go on midnight raids for the supplies he needed to survive. These supplies, by the way, included books.

It’s a true story, and the author tells the story well, going into biographical and psychological details, interviewing people in the area and the police who caught him. He befriended Knight and got him to talk about himself and his experience. Finkel visited Knight’s campsite and describes the ingenious methods the man used to survive.

The story combines several elements that interest me: camping alone in the woods, solitude, and the psychology of someone who simply doesn’t need or want human contact. Ordinarily, human beings hate being alone. It is the worst form of torture we inflict on our prisoners. The United Nations has condemned solitary confinement as cruel, inhumane. And yet, this is what Knight chose. Even though he sometimes suffered terribly in the cold of winter, or from hunger, or both, he preferred this to returning to human society.

In the book, the author reports that very few people go more and a few hours without human contact of some kind. Most never go more than twenty-four hours. I thought back to my multi-day solo hikes. When I did the Grafton Notch loop there was a stretch of at least 48 hours when I didn’t see a soul. Perhaps it was longer. I recall passing one or two groups of hikers with whom I exchanged small talk, but I think that was just on the first day. Most of the time I saw no one. It was wonderful.

We are evolved to be a social, cooperative species. We managed to survive in a harsh environment by working together in groups. And yet, over the course of history, there have always been those who preferred solitude. Hermits, holy people, those who leave human commotion to go into the mountains, the deserts, the woods, hide themselves away in cells and caves, in order to find peace. Such solitude is the means to enlightenment, the way to the center.

What Knight experienced in his solitude was just the sort of enlightenment spiritual people talk about, that disappearance of self, the dissolving of the ego. He was never bored. Contemplation was his primary pastime, along with reading and the daily business of maintaining his simple existence. His way of life was the complete antithesis of our hyperconnected, intensely busy lives, where success is judged by achievement and how much accomplishment can be packed into our waking hours. We shun suffering and pursue happiness with dogged obsession. Knight accepted suffering—from cold or hunger, or the stress and guilt of having to steal to survive, the terror of being caught—as just part of life. It made the times of peace and contentment all the more sweet.

It occurs to me as I write that there are many in our society, the ones who praise self-sufficiency and scorn those who depend on others, would admire Knight. He solved his own problems, took care of himself, relied on no one to help him. But they overlook the stark fact that Knight could not have survived if it weren’t for other people. He could not have fed and sheltered himself without the help of others. That help was stolen, not given freely. But help it was. Even the hermits of the caves and deserts had food brought to them by others. They were not completely independent.

We need each other to survive. Social cooperation enhances our lives. It benefits us materially and psychologically. We experience mental and emotional distress when isolated from our fellow human beings.

Or at least, most of us do. Knight didn’t. And many of us can relate. Social can be difficult. Alone is easier. Perhaps we cannot live without other human beings, but we need a break from them. How much of a break depends on the individual. I can happily go several days without human contact. Perhaps even longer; I’ve never had the opportunity to find out. Being with people is a mixed bag for me. In general, it is always an effort, trying to think of what to say, trying to figure out what the other person expects. I am most comfortable in scripted situations, business transactions, interactions where what the other person expects and what I am supposed to do or say is clear.

Even being with people whose company I enjoy can be stressful. The pleasure of being with them is balanced against the constant effort I have to put into it. My earliest use of alcohol and marijuana were a way to reduce the anxiety of performing socially. I always experience a sense of relief when I am alone again, as well as a sense of accomplishment: Good, I got through that encounter successfully.

I hope my friends understand that this in no way means I don’t value their friendship. I envy those for whom social situations are pleasant and easy, and conversation flows effortlessly. It’s why social media, where interaction is mostly written, appeals to me so much more than face time. With an email or a post or exchange of comments, I can think over what to say, get it right, take my time. Much less pressure. I can be social while being alone.

Thinking about my solo hikes and how much I enjoyed the prolonged solitude has inspired me to plan another. It will be logistically difficult to arrange to have several days strung together without obligations. And I can’t really monopolize a vehicle for that long. Our household has four drivers and three cars, and wildly varying schedules. For me to disappear into the mountains for a few days with one of the cars would be a hardship for them. Still, I can plan and imagine. It is a pleasure to think about. In the meantime, I can find quiet moments of solitude here, in the early mornings, in the garden, in my room. Long walks in the woods close to home.



May 15, 2017

15 05 2017

Another rainy day, although it is supposed to clear. I’m grateful for the rain, but ready for a bit of sun. I spent most of yesterday cloistered in my room with my cats. I wrote another piece for the Monitor, scanned and posted a bit on Facebook, then devoted myself to revising a story to submit to an anthology.

I haven’t done much with short fiction for several years. It is a lot more work than the pieces I write for the Monitor, and it pays squat. But two friends of mine, Dan Kimmel and Morven Westfield, nudged me in that direction. I’d been cleaning out the basement (as my regular readers know) and unearthed a number of files from my past. Back in my younger days, I wrote compulsively. I was absurdly prolific and never sought to publish any of it. Getting my fiction published was too much work. I’d rather write.

As a result, I have this treasure trove of unpublished work. It desperately needs editing and revising; I’ve become a much better writer, technically speaking, since those early days. But I enjoy editing and revising; it’s not the chore for me that it is for other writers. And having established myself as a published writer, with a few connections and a better understanding of how the process works, I’m going to see what I can do about cleaning them up and finding homes for them.

In the process of choosing a candidate for submission, I stumbled onto one of my earlier unpublished novels. I wrote it in the early eighties. Terribly dated now, but I started reading it and was completely absorbed. Again, dear god, did it need a good edit! But the characters, the story—I couldn’t stop reading. I had to pull myself away from it to go make dinner. Yes, it’s my own damn book and of course I’m hopelessly biased. But I found myself wishing somebody else would write a book like that.

I enjoy reading, and I’ve discovered a lot of good books, many good enough that I’ve wanted to revisit them. But very few that totally sucked me in so that I didn’t want to stop reading, watching the end of the book approach with regret. You know the kind. Rare and wonderful reading experiences. Stories that resonate perfectly with you.

It’s not vanity to say that I felt that way reading my own work (and no doubt why I enjoy the revision process, polishing and perfecting it). I first started writing because I was dissatisfied with most of the books I read and wanted to write the sort of book I would enjoy reading. So naturally the characters are people I would like and the story is interesting to me. I wrote the ending to be satisfying to me. These are recipes for meals tailored to suit my tastes. Why wouldn’t I enjoy them?

Whether anyone would else would feel the same is the question. I expect most writers feel that way about their own work. They can’t understand why editors, publishers, and other readers don’t find the meal as tasty as they do. Kale is delicious! Why doesn’t everyone think so?

Experience and maturity provide the answers of course. If you want to appeal to a greater audience you stop insisting that they must like kale. You cook for other people to suit their tastes. Find a recipe that works and start cranking ’em out. You might actually be able to live on the proceeds. Heck, cook shrewdly enough and you might get rich.

Another thing I found in my excavations was a card I used to have tacked to my bulletin board: “Sibi scribere – The sensible author writes for no other posterity than his own, that is to say for his old age, so that then too he will be able to take pleasure in himself.” It’s an excerpt from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human All Too Human, picked up in my college days. It’s the fundamental choice a writer makes early on. Who are you writing for? Why do you write?

Sibi Scribere. I write for myself. But surely there must be others out there who also enjoy kale.

May 11, 2017

11 05 2017

I am working extra hours (Yay!) and have furiously thrown myself into spring cleaning and organizing projects, so I have less time to write. A temporary thing. One can only devote oneself to so many things at once. Especially when one reaches a certain age. As my friend Mary and I used to say, At 65, one can do all the things one did at 35, just more slowly and with a few allowances.

It started with the painting project. I decided that I needed to figure out just exactly what we had for paint and painting gear. This meant I had to get into that part of the basement where it was stored. There was such a mess down there (my ex was a hoarder—compulsively saving odds and ends that “might be useful”) that I girded my loins and did battle with the whole catastrophe (details in a previous blog).

So far, I have tamed the area of paint (original goal) and excavated the gardening area (collateral victory). The work bench remains a daunting monolith. 90% of what’s there I wouldn’t ever use, even if I knew what it was used for. Yet I hesitate to get rid of it, because I’m not sure what additional 10 – 20% the kids might need. So I settled for tackling the heaps and boxes piled around it.

And the filing cabinets, which startled and dismayed me with their contents (again, see previous blog).

Aside from the occasional vital paper or useful manual buried in the slag, I found a couple of drawers of stuff from my UNH days, going back before I was married. And I found a couple of boxes I had packed and sealed long before, carrying them with me from place to place as I moved. I discovered—

Me. Before I was married.

I was writing letters to the editor protesting damn near all the same things I am protesting now. Back then it included anti-nuclear activism (Does anyone recall the Clamshell Alliance?). We were fighting against political corruption and the rising oligarchy, the trampling of human rights, especially those of Native Americans. Bigotry against women, gays, and non-whites. Destruction of the environment. Christian domination and the persecution of non-Christians (I leaned more towards Paganism back then). Dear god, how little has changed, except that it has gotten worse. The current administration makes Nixon, Reagan, and the two Bushes look like great liberal statesmen.

I followed local bands around and wrote articles about them. I wrote short stories and poems for an assortment of small press magazines. I was involved with Earth First, the Green Party, The Church of the Subgenius, and subscribed to the Stark Fist of Removal. Several college friends and I started an underground ‘zine called Th’ Fishwrapper, a leftist, absurdist, anarchist rag which I continued to publish for several years. We had contributors from all over the place, including Chris Cloutier, an artist living in New York City, and Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead. I had a number of personas, including Xeno L. Smith, Julian Fry, and Max Gestalt. I dressed like a hippie. I was heavily involved in the drug culture (but never the hard-core stuff—we were into mind-expansion, not self-destruction).

I went to dance clubs in Boston with my best friend Jon, a gay man who was among the first wave to die of AIDS. I hung out at the Stone Church in Newmarket. I studied philosophy, history, religion, linguistics, anything that caught my interest, because back then, if you worked at the University (which I did, in the basement of Thompson Hall, as Archives Clerk) you got to take classes for free. I finally graduated, fulfilling my last requirement for a BA, after seven years, and with a boatload more credits than I needed because I’d taken so many other classes out of sheer curiosity. I officially have a dual major in Philosophy and English with a minor in Religious Studies.

Wow. What a life. What a character. I quietly thanked my past self for saving all those bits and pieces, to remind me of who I was.

Mind you, I wouldn’t want to be that person again. I have matured. I have learned patience, tolerance, and compassion. Back then, I was snarky, confrontational, rude, irrational, and intolerant. I shudder at some of the things I did. Stupid things. Insensitive things. Selfish and cruel things. There are people I wish I could go back an apologize to. But what is done is done. The thing is, I’ve grown. Hell, I’m not beyond mistakes; nobody ever is. To err is human. But I won’t make those sorts of mistakes again.

So the big lesson from this? I had a life before I got married. And I’ll have a life after that marriage. I am eager to see what it’ll be.

May 8, 2017

8 05 2017

Spring cleaning.

I had started on the basement last fall, but ran out of steam. So I am back at it. The work bench area is particularly daunting. It includes paint, house maintenance, and gardening stuff. Piles and stacks and boxes and bags, unused, half-used, barely used, nearly empty, congealed or solidified into uselessness. I steeled myself to it.

There is no point to saving things if you forget they are there. If they become so lost in the strata of other saved things that you couldn’t find them even if you remembered you had them. Part of the problem is sharing storage space with someone who has different ideas about how to organize and keep track of things. Another part is sharing the space with someone who gets an idea for a project and goes out and buys all the supplies, then never gets around to the project. Or worse, gets part-way through and then abandons it.

When I think of how frugal I was, how restrained in my spending, denying myself things because I could do without and I didn’t want to spend the money because we had bills to pay, and then I see this accumulation of impulse purchases, I want to weep. It happened while I was cleaning out the office he used to use. All the software and gadgets and equipment he bought for himself while I was telling the kids, “No, I’m sorry, we can’t afford it.”

Never mind, never mind, that’s all in the past. Nothing to be done about it.

He was also a hoarder. Old tools, odd pieces of wood, half-used boxes of mismatched linoleum tiles and flooring, entire boxes of obsolete technology, parts of toys, broken appliances. Hauling away the pieces of a battered, disassembled, metal shelving unit, I came upon a filing cabinet. I groaned. More disorganized files to try to sort through and make sense of. Most of it could probably go directly into the next bonfire. I pulled out a drawer with a faded label that just had his name on it. This should be easy. Just dump it all into a box to be burned.

There was a file labeled, “Birth Certificate, etc.” In my handwriting. WTF?!? Here was another, labeled (this time in his handwriting) “Legal and Important”. My heart pounding, I began to go through it. I found my old diploma from both grammar school and high school. I found copies of our original wills. And assorted other legal papers which I had tried to find during the divorce proceedings, when I was attempting to take over the files and organize them. And…damn it. My older son’s social security card. Son of a bitch. Just a few years ago, he had gone through hell’s own labyrinth of paperwork because he needed his card, and couldn’t find it. And his father had no idea where it was (it should have been in the strong box with other important papers) and implied my son must have lost it. Because heaven forbid he ever admit he was at fault for something.

I felt a flood of rage. I trusted this idiot. I let him take over the financial and legal tasks. Whenever I offered to help because he was expressing frustration with it, he always said no. And now, since the divorce, I have come to find out just what a mess he made of things. How could I have been so foolish? Because I loved and trusted the man.

Never mind, I told myself again, it’s all in the past. Nothing to be done about it but to sort through the catastrophe and move on.

Sitting with my tea this morning I mulled over it. I have learned so much about the man in the course of salvaging a life out of the wreckage of the marriage. He was terribly insecure. So much self-doubt and self-hatred. He needed other people, other things, to make him feel good about himself. A wife that catered to his needs and that he could control. He bought things for himself to make himself feel better. He built up an image of himself through his purchases and accumulations, his projects and ambitions. What he was going to do. If he made mistakes, forgot to pay bills or lost important papers, no one else knew, because he was in control of it all. Criticism, even constructive criticism, upset him terribly. He never apologized, because it was always someone else’s fault. It had to be, because admitting his own failures was too threatening.

I actually felt sorry for him. The poor man. And he gave up all this, the life we built, the wife who was devoted to him, his kids, all we had. So much he has lost because of his own flaws and insecurities. And now he has gone on to someone new, a new life, new things and projects to make him feel good about himself. What a pity.

I suppose he could not help being what he was. A scorpion cannot help being a scorpion, but that does not lessen the pain of its sting. And I am under no obligation to feel fondly towards it or give it a home in my boot.

I cannot help being who I am, either. I haven’t the strength of character to forgive him and feel kindly towards him. Trying to put aside the anger and bitterness, telling myself it only does me harm to dwell on negative emotions, simply doesn’t work. I can’t help feeling what I feel. It’s all I can do to refrain from bad-mouthing their father in front of the boys, and damn it all, the truth still slips out. I could not keep the emotional undercurrents out of my voice when I gave my older son his missing social security card and told him where I’d found it.

Today I will continue spring cleaning. It is good for the soul.

May 5, 2017

5 05 2017

The tabloid at the supermarket shows a picture of the current president with the headline “World War 3 Is Coming”. Social Media continues to cry out in fear and anguish. This morning, I cannot get this poem out of my head. I am not generally one for poetry; I prefer prose. But there are some lines that are so intense with elusive meaning, eloquently and economically expressed, that they fasten onto the mind. This is one.

A Song on the End of the World

By Czeslaw Milosz
Translated by Anthony Milosz

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

Warsaw, 1944

May 4, 2017

4 05 2017

I had mentioned something about painting the walls in the spare room. Jen leaped on the idea. Now that I’ve pretty much given up the notion of renting the extra bedroom (I ended up losing money in my attempts, which is definitely not what I had in mind—although I did help a couple of people out during tough times in their lives, which is a big plus) we are going to repurpose the space to our use. Mostly for Jen, who is sharing Max’s room, and it’s getting cramped for both of them.

The walls definitely needed help. I was sick of the color—a tasteful pale yellow—anyway. Jen said she wanted to paint one wall green and the other three light blue. I shrugged and said go for it.

She picked out a shade of emerald green. Dark for a wall. The common wisdom is light colors—even non-colors that go with everything—for walls. Pale, bloodless, lifeless colors. They lighten a room, so they say. The walls shouldn’t attract attention to themselves; the focus should be what is in the room. But the paint was purchased, and I thought, what the hell. It’s green. What could be bad?

As soon as we began on the wall, I felt a sense of delight. It was a lovely color, full of life, summer and cool refuge under leafy green. When it was done and dry, and the sunlight from the next morning fell on it, the room took on the glow. The wall had become a trellis covered with vines.

There was a little paint left, so I took it upstairs and painted the trim around my bedroom windows with it. That vivid green accent inspired me. The bedroom is blue, the shade chosen to be soothing and cool, conducive to sleep. I’ve grown to dislike it. I don’t want a pale, arctic blue, like the heart of a glacier. I don’t want the cold blue of the bedroom I shared with someone whose conditional love chilled my heart until it beat quickly only with anxiety.

I want vivid.

I am going to pick out the most vibrant, audacious, defiant shade of aquamarine I can find. Something on the green-blue spectrum between turquoise and teal but with a bit more of the forest in it. I will study swatches until I find the one I want. I will paint the wall opposite my bed, so that I wake up every morning and am greeted with my favorite color laughing in the morning sun.

April 30, 2017

30 04 2017

From the moment we are born we are trying to figure things out. First it’s the basics, like, how does my body work and how do I interact with this world. We move on to more complicated stuff, driving our parents crazy with our constant questions. If we are lucky (most of us aren’t) when we go to school our inquisitiveness is cultivated, and our teachers try their best to answer our endless questions. What causes the seasons? What are the stars? How do computers work? Why are there wars? How do we know about dinosaurs? What’s it like to be a fireman? What’s it like to be on the moon? Where does our food come from? Where does our trash go?

And on and on. More and more complex. Until we get to the really difficult ones. How do we know what is right and what is wrong? Why do people believe so many different things? Where do we go when we die? What does it mean to be a good person? Does God really exist?

I remember hearing my grandmother complaining one time about how science took all the wonderful mystery out of the world. She preferred to see the Moon as something marvelous and romantic. She hated that astronomy spoiled all that by telling her it was just a dead rock.

Her attitude is common. Many people want to cling to fantasy, to preserve a child-like wonder and naivete about the world. They’d rather believe in fairies and spirits and all manner of spiritual and supernatural phenomena. They resent Science for telling them there is no evidence that such things exist. (There is no harm in clinging to such beliefs, until these people try to make public policy that affects all of us based on their dreams and fantasies.)

Perhaps I can no longer believe in unicorns, angels, ghosts, or magic. I don’t consider myself inconvenienced at all. Quite the opposite. For every imaginary bubble that Science punctures, it offers me a dozen more possibilities and realities far more wonderful. Okay, so we know now that the Moon is not a goddess, not a silver world of hidden mystery, not made of green cheese. But it is fascinating to find out what it really is and how it came to be. And now, given the tantalizing hints provided by our probes, we can begin imagining what marvels might await us on far-off worlds like Jupiter or Saturn, and their divers and mysterious moons. And beyond.

Children might be delighted by make-believe, by Santa and the Tooth Fairy. But eventually their inquiring minds want to know the truth. They figure it out whether we want them to or not. Parents try to keep their children believing their own myths and fantasies, home-schooling them or sending them to special schools that don’t contradict those beliefs. They desperately try to keep them from questioning whether their spiritual and moral equivalents of Santa Claus really exist. Sometimes it works. They grow up believing in Santa Claus despite all evidence to the contrary. They refuse to consider any other point of view, and think their stubborn ignorance is noble.

But most eventually feel the pull of their inquisitive nature. They want to know the truth. It’s difficult having to admit that the glorious work of imagination you loved is not real. But then you begin to realize just how wonderful the world is, just as it is. And in the process of exploring that wonderful world, you realize there is still plenty of room for imagination. You can still believe in Santa Claus, but in a far more sophisticated way that fits neatly with how the world actually works.

No need to put your fingers in your ears and cover your eyes, recited dogma repeatedly so nothing else can creep in and spoil it. No need for mental gymnastics to try to hold on to contradictory beliefs. No need to go in terror that your children won’t grow up believing as you do. No need to worry that your life will be empty and meaningless if you let go of what you believed as a child.

Embracing truth and not hiding from it will fill your life with new meaning. You will not be losing your child-like nature, you will be fulfilling it. Asking questions. Getting answers or working the answers out for yourself. Moving on to the next bloom of questions.

Figuring things out.