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Orphan in the promised land
We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose,
cast our awful solemnity to the winds,
and join in the general dance.
--Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
The house sits like an orphan in the promised land, abandoned and forlorn, right at the peak of a mountain that looks from New York State, across a rural valley carpeted with farms, into the green hills of Vermont.
It is sly, revealing itself slowly, like a stripper in a cheap bar. It lies well off a country road, down a dirt drive. Each step of the way, you feel swallowed up a bit more by the forest; the world gets left further behind.
The first thing I saw was an odd tide of almost eerie debris--decaying benches, rotting wagon wheels, a sign that said the last resort hanging askew on a pole. The lawn was baked and dusty, half dead, the gardens overgrown and untended.
Here and there posts that had once supported birdhouses stuck up from the ground. I counted half a dozen stacks of firewood, enough for three or four winters, scattered around. A tall plastic swimming pool full of scum and slime sat by the side door, and something--a frog, maybe a snake--slid out of it as I came near. My two Labradors and I jumped. "Jesus, welcome to Dogpatch," I said to my friend Jeff, who lived in a nearby town. Jeff had scouted the house and had strongly urged me to drive north and take a look.
"Wait," he said.
Disappointed, I wondered what he had been thinking, urging me to rush upstate and look at this decrepit, charmless place, a tiny cabin built in 1965. A truck driver and his father had constructed it board by board, all 846 square feet of it, and couldn't have been any prouder if it were the Taj Mahal. I was also relieved to be underwhelmed; I couldn't afford a second house, anyway.
Georgette, the real-estate agent, watching me sag, was murmuring about the possibilities, trying to spark my imagination. "I'd take down the dark paneling," she suggested. "Open it up a bit."
But the interior was even more dispiriting, murky and tomblike, with thick shag carpeting in hideous colors and fake-wood ceiling beams made of plastic. The small kitchen was festooned with ceramic tiles and plaques offering sayings like kissin' don't last, cookin' do. While showing me how dry the basement was, Georgette asked me to pick up a couple of decomposing mice and toss them out into the woods. My dogs looked unnerved. Then Jeff took me by the arm, led me past the swampy pool to the front of the house, and rotated me eastward. The sight hit me like a hammer blow; I almost reeled. The view was as spectacular and uplifting as the approach from the rear was cheesy and disheartening.
What a tease this house was, betraying no hint of where it really was. The lakes and farmland spread out for miles before us. I could see tiny dairy cows grazing deep in the valley. Mist shrouded the hills opposite, and sunbeams streaked from the sky and lit up the distant mountaintops. Jeff said nothing, letting the view speak for itself. I sat down on the front step and tried to take it in.
My dogs, I could see, were transformed. The older Lab, Julius, a philosopher and contemplative, plopped down and didn't move, staring hypnotically at a hawk floating above the valley. Julius was born to muse and observe. He has never chased a ball, retrieved a stick, treed a squirrel, entered water deeper than his ankles, run more than a few yards, or menaced any creature.
Stanley is another story. He has a devilish lust for mischief and for retrieving, amassing caches of socks, underwear, and chew bones. He is happy to chase rubber balls till he drops. Less regal but far more energetic, Stanley went right to work and rushed into the woods to collect sticks. I felt transformed, too. In a few seconds I had gone from not being able to imagine living in this neglected dump to not believing that somebody like me could possibly be lucky enough to own it.
"It's a writer's place," said Jeff. "The view is worth a million bucks. The house, you can always fix up."
That was right, I thought, seizing on the idea, the reassuring real estate truisms. The land, not the house. Buy land, they're not making any more of it. It's an investment, not an expense. What difference did the carpeting make anyway, when you could gaze at this outside?
I almost drooled at the prospect of toting my computer up here, clacking away in the shade of the maple in the backyard. I had the sensation of something important happening to me. It was a familiar feeling. Ten years earlier, as executive producer of the two-hour program The CBS Morning News, I had stood in a control room one day before dawn, staring at a wall of high-tech color monitors. The coanchor of the spectacularly unsuccessful show, a former beauty queen and sports commentator named Phyllis George, was smiling back at me surreally from all of them. An assistant dabbed at her makeup and fluffed her hair.
I was powerful, well compensated, lost.
A few minutes later, I was locked in my office, weeping. I had reached a rung in life a lot of people would have coveted, and I would rather have thrown myself off a bridge than stay there for another month. So, tentatively, with equal parts determination and terror, I set out on what Thomas Merton liked to call a journey of the soul.
Merton, a Trappist monk whose work I had begun reading when I was in the ninth grade and in sore need of solace, as did millions of others all over the world, was my guide on this trip. I'd read almost everything he'd written. He was a Catholic, I was raised a Jew; he had absolute faith, I never did. Still, for reasons I may never completely understand, he spoke to me, personally and powerfully. As a boy, I'd written him a letter that he never answered; if he had, I might have wound up in the monastery with him. Merton died thirty years ago. I never met him, but if a stranger's voice can enter one's soul, his permeated mine.
"It is absolutely impossible," he wrote all those years ago, "for a man to live without some kind of faith."
It is equally impossible to change your life without some. A prolific author, journal keeper, letter writer, and poet, Merton lived in the abbey of Gethsemani in the Kentucky woods. He was approaching fifty when he retreated to a hermitage; perhaps it's not coincidental that as I approached fifty, I ran to a mountain, too.
Merton was obsessed with a central issue for our time--figuring out how to live, trying to forge a life of purpose and meaning. I've grown to share his obsession, his belief that life demands a lot of tinkering, requires people to give birth to themselves not just once but over and over. Central to much of Merton's writing is the idea of these journeys, powerful images of seeking and traveling. The journey of the soul--his term--is to me one of his most important notions. It has enormous moral force and potent appeal to us wretched pilgrims as we struggle to find direction, to figure out what to believe, to incorporate some measure of spirituality and peace into our frantic lives.
Our approaches could hardly have been more different, of course. If he accepted dogma, I find much of it the antithesis of reason. He struggled to remain behind monastery walls, while for me, everything depends on getting over the walls. Nevertheless, in the years since I stared into those monitors, my own journey had proceeded, my life changing more radically than I had imagined.
I underwent years of psychoanalysis, became a writer, and swore never to work for a large institution again. Shedding ambitions, friends, and colleagues of fifteen years, I left the world of offices, annual evaluations, meetings, suits, and expense accounts behind for good. The world I entered--the life of a suburban parent and solitary author--could not have been more different. I crossed a vast cultural and social divide in months, from barking orders in a high-tech control room to holing up in the attic of my house trying to write and sell a novel, keeping one eye on the clock so I never missed a car pool.
Had I a realistic idea of what a writer's life would really be like, I would have thought a lot longer and harder. But the point was, I began one year a big-deal producer and ended it at home, fielding calls about play dates from the other moms, learning the ways of supermarkets, and sitting in front of a primitive Apple computer at the dawn of the Digital Age, clacking out the story of a network taken over by a heartless conglomerate.
So began the wildest ride of my life.
A decade, seven books, and countless articles later, I was driving up the New York State Thruway, my heart pounding like some eager traveler about to hit the road again. Change, I remembered all too well, is risky and frightening as well as exciting and rewarding. Much as you flail around seeking help, when it's all said and done, there is only one genuine source of inspiration, courage, and determination--that's you.
But as I turned fifty in the summer of 1997, even before I stood on that mountain, I already suspected that I needed to take another trip, even if I didn't really know why. In fact, this spiritual adventure, running to the mountain, proved even more frightening than the first. A decade of shocks, disappointments, successes, and defeats had accumulated since the last trip. If I had a heightened sense that one could successfully change one's life, being a writer had taught me time and again that rejection and failure were even greater possibilities. The first time, I'd leaped more or less blindly into the void. This time, I had a sense of what awaited me.
Only recently has it occurred to me that recounting this ongoing trek might be worthwhile. Because so many people have embarked on journeys of their own--of all sorts, from parenthood or divorce to changing a career and facing the end of life--it may be worth telling.
I had to have this house; once I saw the view, I knew that right away and I never wavered. But I had plenty of dread and guilt, even panic, about proceeding. It was far from clear that this was the right thing to do. My wife would be upset and unhappy. I had bills to pay. It was the worst possible time for my daughter, a high school student heading for an undoubtedly expensive college.
If there is a Code of Responsibility for somebody like me, a middle-class man living a middle-class life in a middle-class New Jersey town, acquiring another house at this point would violate most of its provisions.
The conventional wisdoms went ricocheting around my mind: Family comes first. Responsible people pay outstanding debts before taking on new obligations. We had to fix up the wreck of a house we already owned before we took on a new wreck. We should think about saving for retirement. In a writer's wobbly financial life, the only predictable thing is that nothing is predictable.
When a person with a family takes a gamble like this, he is playing with more than his own fate, of course. If he guesses wrong, the people he loves most go down with him.
So buying this house was an ass-backward move, premature, unjustifiable. I could already hear my friends. What is he thinking? Is this a midlife crisis? Poor Paula. Poor Paula. An inherently steady and responsible woman, she had married an unstable maniac, but she hadn't figured that out until it was too late. That she had not grabbed a toothbrush and run for her life a hundred times is a source of continuing astonishment.
We'd moved nine times in the first ten years of our marriage. Our lives lurched from one work crisis--all mine--to another. Now Paula and I not only had no money to spare, we were in debt--again. We were just beginning to bounce back from a nightmarish family trauma--our daughter had undergone major surgery the year before--that was both draining and costly. The last thing we needed was another mortgage.
The truth is, I'm still sorting out why I felt compelled to retreat to the mountain. I'm sure it had something to do with my birthday looming just a few weeks away. If I didn't feel old, exactly, I was increasingly conscious of age. I wouldn't have many more chances to further recast my life. I'm not nearly as afraid of dying as I am of the hinges inside my mind and soul rusting closed. I am desperate to keep them open, because I think that if they close, that's one's first death, the loss of hope, curiosity, and possibility, the spiritual death. After that, it seems to me, the second one is just a formality. I wanted to oil the hinges, force the doors to stay open.
As a writer I was reasonably successful but almost too busy. To make enough money to live, I was writing constantly--books, articles, columns on a Web site, some good stuff and some not so. I wanted, needed more space to think and write. I needed to do fewer things better in the time I had remaining.
I wanted to try harder to figure out how a rational human being sets out on his or her own, to find a faith and an ethical code. I wanted some real peace. I wanted to change the script I saw being written for me. I believed that was possible because I'd done it before.
I didn't want to spend the rest of my days cranking out articles and books in northern New Jersey, clacking away at the keyboard, whittling away at my bills, until I keeled over.
Yet, I could picture that happening. Sometimes I had dreams about it. I saw myself taking my affable dogs for their final walk of the night on my quiet suburban street, where we walked four or five times every day and knew each tree, shrub, and manhole cover. Overweight and out of shape, I would feel tightness in my chest. I would sweat, totter, fall to the ground, wishing I'd brought my cell phone. The dogs would pace anxiously, confused at this unusual behavior as I lay on the sidewalk, gasping for breath. Stanley would probably bring me a stick. But Julius, who lies close by my side every second when I'm sick, would know exactly what was happening. He'd sit down next to me, whining and licking my face.
Sometimes, in this vision, Paula has fallen asleep on the couch watching the late news as I lie there wishing I had some way to scribble a final message. Sometimes I die right on the sidewalk, worrying that I haven't said good-bye to my family, hoping the dogs get home somehow. In alternate visions, Paula wakes up, notices my absence, and comes out looking for me. Sometimes I hear the sympathetic murmurs of concerned neighbors as the ambulance pulls away.
I don't want to die in New Jersey.
It's become my mantra, evolving from a fantasy to a kind of recurring panic. It isn't that New Jersey is a bad place, or that I much care where I actually draw my last breath. But the symbolism is bell-ringing: this isn't how I want things to end, any more than producing a network TV show had been a decade earlier. Leaving TV to be a parent, a writer working at home, a man who knew how to shop and cook, was the right choice for me when I made it. But it was a chapter, not the whole story; a means, not an end. I'd done it, and again I wanted something more.
So in 1997, against all reason, I bought the house and ran to the mountain. The people who knew me best were the most amazed. I've lived in big cities most of my life--New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore--until my daughter was born, when we moved to a suburb outside New York. I've had little to do with the country or nature. My favorite night out is a trip to a bookstore, the pizza place, and the Sony megaplex twenty minutes from my house. I have rarely lived in isolation, am unable to fix or maintain much of anything. There are men who know how things work and men who never learned; I am one of the latter.
But I'm proud of the fact that I have been taking a journey of the soul; I've become part of a secret society of travelers, spiritual adventurers. En route, I've struggled mightily to figure out how to be spiritual without having to be religious, how to find peace without bending my knee before an altar.
And on this particular part of the trip, I have lots of company.
People like me are drawn again and again to sacred books, holy men, and revealed words. Then we almost inevitably become confused, disillusioned, frustrated. We pull back. We are too skeptical to submit to absolute faith, much as we might want to. But we can't, as Merton suggests, live without faith altogether. So we bounce back and forth from one state to the other, spiritual refugees, adrift in a void. We can't let go because we badly want a spiritual framework for our lives; we can't, don't even dare, believe we might find truths on our own; we look everywhere else for answers. We want change and fear it.
We are a lonely generation in that way. We don't have wise men and women to guide us, traditions to follow. The lives, truths, and experiences of our parents often don't help us any more than those of priests and rabbis. The world has changed too quickly; we know it and it frightens us. We are afraid to let the old trappings go, but we know we're heading out without a map.
Standing on that mountain that day, I had what my old friend Merton might call a revelation. Since in many ways my own journey began with him, why not take a trip with him, a spiritual adventure--up here? Why not test and, I hoped, affirm my faith in me? Why not run to the mountain with a PowerBook and tackle the questions that have been buzzing in my brain for years, questions so many others have been gnawing at: Do you have to be a monk to be a holy man? Can you find spirituality outside of a church, temple, or mosque? Is it possible to build a rational, moral framework for your life amidst the choices, complexities, pressures, expenses of modern existence? How healthy is change? How much is too much?
So I accepted the invitation to Merton's General Dance. I forgot myself on purpose. I took a chance, cast my awful solemnity to the winds, and broke for the mountain.