My readings have begun slowly but in earnest: I’ve started Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and Primo Levi’s Moments of Reprieve. Close at hand is my battered copy of Jane Roberts’ The Coming of Seth, though I haven’t opened it yet. I haven’t gone far enough into the the Merton or Levi to comment in any detail, though I will say that Merton’s vivid style grabbed me from the very first paragraph, in which he dives right in to his world:
ON THE LAST DAY OF JANUARY 1915, UNDER THE SIGN OF the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.
Merton was no stolid old fogey when he wrote his autobiography; he started it at the age of twenty-nine and published it four years later. But thus far he seems rather wise for his years and open-eyed about his own quirks and failings. At one point, inspired by John Donne and planting the seed of his own later book No Man is an Island, he writes of his youthful and curious if sometimes chaotic drives,
Here was a will, neutral, undirected, a force waiting to be applied, ready to generate tremendous immanent powers of light or darkness, peace or conflict, order or confusion, love or sin. The bias which my will was to acquire from the circumstances of all its acts would eventually be the direction of my whole being towards happiness or misery, life or death, heaven or hell.
More than that: since no man ever can, or could, live by himself and for himself alone, the destinies of thousands of other people were bound to be affected, some remotely, but some very directly and near-at-hand, by my own choices and decisions and desires, as my own life would also be formed and modified according to theirs. I was entering into a moral universe in which I would be related to every other rational being, and in which whole masses of us, as thick as swarming bees, would drag one another along towards some common end of good or evil, peace or war.
No one can live without affecting others, sometimes many others even directly or indirectly, and that connection with all things around us exists whether or not we realize or accept it. But there have been plenty of times where I would have tried to cut myself off if given half a chance.
It was in the midst of one of my black pits, those worst episodes of depression that could last anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks, when I came up with my concept of the Island. It was born from the feelings of pointlessness and the certainty that I was a disappointment one way or another to everyone, and though I was never suicidal, I just wanted to be gone – not dead but away where I couldn’t hurt anyone else or set myself up with expectations that would just fail. The idea of the island was, from this perspective, an emotional defense of intentional, enforced isolation.
But in better moments, I realized that being on this mental and emotional Island could have a very different effect, one for the positive. Sometimes, like the Monastery or the Hermitage, getting away from the noise and clutter of the world through a brief isolation, can generate focused revelations.
When I remove myself from the noise and can step back, take a breath, and feel for just a moment like I’m in a sanctuary but isolated from everything around me, but that I’m doing this by choice and not depression, my thoughts and my priorities begin to sift and focus. Less important things fall away from my thoughts, while the most important step to the forefront. Here are the three stages the process took for me, and for good or ill, being me, it started with books:
Stage One: Even amid the black pits, when I wanted to run away to an island, it never occurred to me that I would leave my animals and my books behind. But then my logical brain – as logical as it could be while feeling so bleak – understood that I likely wouldn’t be able to schlep thousands of books along with me. But which to choose? If I could only take, say, one hundred – or being generous and counting a series as one book, since I figured I’d be on this island for the rest of my life – which ones would I take? Which had the most meaning and were the most lasting in my mind and heart?
Despite how many books as I own, it hasn’t been all that difficult to keep being drawn back to the same ones over and over again whenever I consider this. I would have a terribly hard time giving up most of my library, but not a hard time at all deciding which books would come with me.
Stage Two: Once the worst of the bouts would fade, I would grab back onto the fact that I didn’t want to end all communication with everybody. But what if this, like my books, had to be limited? If I could only speak to, say, forty people for the rest of my life, who would they be? That’s not an arbitary number – among other reasons, forty is the number the Bible always uses to indicate a time of trial.
Naturally this was vastly more focusing than the book question. Forty isn’t as big a number as it might seem at first. But again, the same people I couldn’t give up came to mind over and over again. There certainly are people I would have a hard time saying goodbye to for the last time, but most of those forty were an easy choice.
(Now would be a good time to mention that those of you whom I specifically invited to read this blog make my list every time.)
But then came Stage Three, the hardest of all. What of my life is the most important? Should I ever get off this Island but knowing I had a limited time (even if it was decades – time still feels limited to me now regardless), how would I choose to spend it?
Part of that answer was easy. I want to spend more time one way or another with the people who were the answer to Stage Two. Try to let them know more often that I love them. Think about how I am connected to them, not just physically and in the ties that keep us together, but also spiritually – why they are in my life, how many might be soulmates by the broadest definitions.
Another part of that answer was more challenging, though. Take my writing, for example. I haven’t started a new novel at all this year, even though I’ve been writing novels steadily every year now since 2002. Once that would have depressed me, but right now, not so much. Because using the focus I gain whenever I go to this emotional Island – when I’m not depressed, at any rate – I realize that my interest in writing hasn’t changed.
I still want to write good books; I still want to be read. But I’ve come to realize that my desire to be a full-time writer has slipped away. Because with that comes the strictures of publishers and markets, hawking the book and marketing, and having to tailor the books you write – even what you’re going to write – to publisher and market demand. The older I get the more I realize I have less tolerance for that. If I end up skipping the “traditional publishing” route and do everything from here on out by self-publishing, so be it – just so long as I know that the book is a good book by the time it goes into print.
What all this boils down to is that I want my life to become more personal. The people I love who I spend time with…the spiritual work I do and those I share it with…the books I write…if being off Donne’s and Merton’s island means the ripples I create go out to the world then fine, and I need to be aware of that. But these days I want to have a much greater and positive impact on those who are closest to me.
I want to make myself the kind of person, secularly and spiritually, who has that kind of impact on the people who have that impact on me.
Even if I mess up. Even if I disappoint people, or get them angry, because messing up is going to happen sooner or later, being human and all. It’s the overall results that count, and I want those results to be positive and ones born out of and creating love.
Another way to sum this up is from a meme a friend posted on Facebook this week. He’s had his own spiritual journeys going for some years now (and published a couple of books about them), which have been both tested and reinforced by recurring bouts with cancer. I’ll close this entry with his meme picture (including his cell phone menu, apparently, but that’s OK):