My friend Andy calls me a hermit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, I live out in the mountains by myself (though I eat two out of three meals with my parents) and and can get by quite happily without the company of other human beings. But a hermit’s vocation is a hard one; I’m too lazy by half. Not to mention that I failed Asceticism 101 . . .
The blogger Paula, on the other hand – she of the House of Toast – harbors the soul of a true hermit. Her devotion to weeds, as documented in Anita Rust, seems worthy of any anchorite. And now she has a third blog, Affiction. In the inaugural entry – September 11 – she wrote:
My prevailing metaphor has become the hermitage. I have found no place among the congregations, the sanghas. Orthodoxies, lineages, spiritual curricula — they fill me with a Sartrean nausea.
“Words, words, words,” said Hamlet.
“Voids, voids, voids,” I reply, sharing his pain.
The self is a fiction, an affliction. An affiction. To be a hermit is to go solo. So low.
A week later, she declares: “I’ve finally found my hermitage, my church. I’ve been here all along.” I’ll let you find out for yourself what she’s talking about. Let me just say – at risk of being accused of heresy – that I have never much cared for Annie Dillard, because she has always struck me as being basically a bullshitter – like me. (I know the symptoms.) Paula, on the other hand, is what Dillard dreams of becoming when she grows up.
But there’s nothing out there! The complaint of the shopping mall developer, of the landfill operator. Behold the majestic playa, utterly flat tan soil stretching away to the vanishing point, distances paradoxically both magnified and obscured by the Perfect Euclidean Geometry of it all. Do you wander out alone, mesmerized by the shimmering horizon, the immensity and the dust devils kicking up shades of old Winnemucca’s people? Do you seek solace in the wind, the sun, the solitude? Or do you, bored, find the scene lacking? Do you long for blue glowsticks and a hundred boom boxes blaring inane techno and a thousand pretentious performance artists bleating about their alienation?
Maybe someone should set up a cart at next year’s Burning Man and give away little copper bracelets incribed with the letters WWTD (What Would Thoreau Do?).
I’ll give the last word not to Thoreau, however, but to the guy who generously inputs Thoreau’s blog every day – Greg Perry, of grapez blog. He spent his Sunday hiking in Acadia National Park, at one point walking along the edge of a 200-foot precipice.
It was then I realized each step I took literally meant survival. I chanted my hiking mantra, one step at a time. But I annotated it with the following: one firm well-placed foot at a time, keeping balance on my rear boot until I was sure of the front, and by the way don’t look down, not just because the depths will suck at your every depression dragging you into its pit of hell but just because there’s no time to look anywhere but there in front.
Survival. It’s the yin to the yang of wonder. Survival. Wonder. But more than that, each also resides within the other. Just as there’s wonder in survival, the marvels of our families or the fascination with our work, there’s survival in our wonder. Without it, we live in that material world where every question has an answer and every reason has its why. And slowly we become dead of soul and alive only for the next purchase, drink, or cheap promotion. So I carefully grabbed a metal rung and I firmly placed my boot on that slight foothold and I pulled my weight closer to the mystery of elevation. Amen.