Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/21/2011

It’s all about me (of course), not Occupy (any) Place

This morning I was determined not to write. I have a set of student essays I must evaluate. Today. Impossible. I’ve had them nearly a month. Students submitted them the week my father died. I have been unable to concentrate on them. This is my job, my work, my passion. I love trying to help students write better; reading their writing is the only way to help them. This must be either short or fast.

I know exactly when I discovered writing to be my—thanks to Joseph Campbell—bliss. But writing hardly ever brings me anything like bliss. What it brings me is solitude. Or does my solitude bring me writing?

The other day I wrote about my solitude. I said I fear that

rather than a search for meaning, my inability to socialize freely has become isolationism. Or perhaps I should simply relax and understand that I have this in common with Wollstonecraft:  “Solitude is border country, the boundary zone where self and other negotiate for possession of what Wollstonecraft would have called her soul” (1).

I wondered if Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) would have referred to her “soul.” I have to study her writing further. She was the wife of William Godwin (1786-1836), atheist philosopher. Wollstonecraft was also an atheist, as was her daughter, Mary Shelley.  I know where to go for help understanding Wollstonecraft. Would she have referred to her soul?

It’s not Wollstonecraft I need to understand, however. It’s what goes on in my own mind.

Yesterday as I was putting a bunch of grapes away in my refrigerator (it’s not really “mine;” it belongs to the apartment), the thought struck me—as it does with some regularity—that it is pointless for to me get healthy because when I die, I will be dead just as surely whether or not I’m healthy when it happens, and no matter how many more years away my moment of death is. What’s the point of changing the way I live when the way I am dead is the same no matter what I do. I had written earlier yesterday about Herman Slip, the richest man in the world, and was thinking that when he is dead, he and I will be exactly the same—dead—and wondering why he has spent his life amassing wealth (what’s the point? he can’t take it with him).

Indeed, what’s the point?

I’m not really solitary, of course. Today I will face four groups of fifteen college students in succession. I will speak to a couple of my colleagues. Later I will take Groucho The Cat to the vet. I won’t spend much of the day “alone.” Except five hours now and perhaps five hours this evening.

I am told my aloneness is not good for me, that humans are social creatures, so I am somehow diminishing my humanness by being alone so much. (I could repeat the question above, “What’s the point?” When I am dead, I will be dead no matter how much time I spend alone.)

I’ve written that my solitude is, in a perverse way, my attempt to ameliorate my fear of death. I know absolutely that the “tendency to place a buffer between oneself and the Void is as inveterate as the fear of death” (2). I think what I’m saying is a paraphrase of Pascal’s observation that

“We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing it,” Pascal wrote in his Pensées. That “something” Pascal called human activity, which, he argued, could as a whole be placed in the category of diversion. Under the heading “activity” he writes this single sentence: “When a soldier complains of his hard life (or a laborer, etc.) try giving him nothing to do” (3).

(Aside: I quoted this same passage of Antinoff quoting Pascal in my writing the day before my father died. I guess I’m stuck here. Shall I comment on circular reasoning?)

Is my being stuck here morbid, unhealthy, dangerous? I think not. Do you, dear reader (if any is left) think I should not be pondering Herman Slim’s death?

That refrigerator. Part of “my place.” The place of my solitude. What difference, I wonder, does the place of my solitude make? I’m not asking you that question, but myself. Is it true that “Wisdom sits in places?” (4). Is it possible for me to find wisdom opening “my” refrigerator door?

Douglas Burton-Christie says that the insights of the Apache proverb about the power of Place

have much to teach us about what it is to be a human being alive and aware in the world. In this sense, place-making can be understood as a deeply contemplative work. This is because, as Basso notes, “places possess a marked capacity for triggering acts of self-reflection, inspiring thoughts about who one presently is, or memories of who one used to be, or musings on who one might become” (5).

This is my place. Seeing my place may be

a way of being in the world that allows [me] to cherish it with all the feeling [I am] capable of. It is a way of seeing that enables [me] to gauge the true significance of what [I]gaze upon. This kind of seeing is akin to what the early Christians meant when they spoke of theoria, that way of seeing into the heart of reality that sometimes revealed the very face of the divine (6).

My place is not beautiful; it is disorderly; it is lonely. There is nothing majestic here. Burton-Christie quotes the famous journal entry Thomas Merton wrote a few days before he died in December, 1968. He had stood before the Buddhas at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. He wrote that when he saw the figures, when he stood in that place he was

suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. . . . All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya—everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. . .  Surely, with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for I don’t know what else remains (7).

So now I’ve set up an insurmountable problem of logic and believability (mostly to make myself believe).

What does Merton’s experience have to do with my apartment—or with me, for that matter? I’ve been practicing yoga for six months. One practice in which I participate is “yoga with sound.” The teacher helps us hear and feel the sounds of Tibetan chants in our bodies. What I feel in the class, but especially in “my place” at home is the absence of sound when the OM or the RAM or the DZA has left my throat. That absence is really my place.

[Please follow the blog “Ecumenical Accompanier” in the list to the right.]
(1) Knight, Harold. “Solitude is Border Country.” 10/17/2011. Web. 21Oct. 2011. Quoting: Taylor, Barbara. “Separations of Soul: Solitude, Biography, History.” American Historical Review 114.3 (2009): 640-651.
(2) Antinoff, Steven. “Spiritual Atheism. Part Two: The Quest for Atheistic Salvation.” American Poetry Review 35.4 (2006): 23-35.
(3) Antinoff, idem.
(4) Basso, Keith. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and. Language Among the Western Apaches. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press (1996). Quoted in Burton-Christie, Douglas. “Place-Making as Contemplative Practice.” Anglican Theological Review 91.3 (2009): 347-371.
(5) Burton-Christie, Douglas op. cit.
(6) Burton-Christie, op. cit.
(7) Merton, Thomas. “The Other Side of the Mountain: The End. of the Journey.” The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Seven: 1967-1968, ed. Brother Patrick Hart, O.e.S.O. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco (1998).  Quoted in Burton-Christie, op. cit.


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