The Mind Does Not Like To Be Alone With Itself

Writer Brooke Williams visited Fact & Fiction last week as part of the tour in support of his new book, Open Midnight: Where Ancestors and Wilderness Meet. It was an interesting discussion and I enjoyed it immensely. One particular topic piqued my attention the most: hermits. I wish I could remember the specifics, but Brooke mentioned something about reclusive Chinese poets (part of his talk was about his recent trip to China, which is another discussion entirely) and how someone had mentioned that one of the interesting things about America is we really don’t have a tradition of hermits who are important contributors to our culture. That’s kind of a hamfisted way to put it — fault for that being entirely my own — but that was the gist of it.

That discussion led me to finally reading The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Bozeman author Michael Finked. Here’s a short synopsis of what it’s about:

“This is the fascinating true story of Christopher Knight, who lived in the Maine woods for 27 years and survived by stealing supplies from vacation cabins while living in extreme conditions to avoid detection. After more than 1,000 burglaries, he was finally caught and partially reintegrated into society. His story is told together with the history of hermits and those who have sought solitude in order to have insight. Chris defies psychological profiling, and it’s amazing Finkel was even able to interview him to write this book. This level of solitude would drive most people insane, but for Chris, it seems like an almost pure contemplative state. An excellent read.”

— Todd Miller, Arcadia Books, Spring Green, WI

I found this book fascinating. I was also mildly surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, with the number of personality traits I share with its subject, Christopher Knight. In particular, this passage struck me:

A large majority of men, and twenty-five percent of women, a University of Virginia study found, would rather subject themselves to mild electric shocks than do nothing but sit quietly with their thoughts for fifteen minutes. Unless you are a trained meditator, the study’s authors concluded, the “mind does not like to be alone with itself.”

That boggles my mind. I’m no “trained” meditator, though my morning practice is one of my favorite parts of the day. Beyond that, though, I bet I sit with my own thoughts for spans of fifteen minutes or more multiple times a day. I find as I’ve gotten older, silence is my preferred state. I rarely listen to music anymore. The list goes on. I’ve never considered myself particularly unusual for that, but perhaps I am. Particularly among men, it would seem.

I love quiet. I love the ambient sounds of the world uninterrupted by human-introduced noise. I love solitude. I’m convinced I could live perhaps not entirely secluded, but far more than I am now. I think I would thrive in that environment.

Brooke Williams said he too was fascinated with the idea of hermits, and that might be the subject of his next book. If that is the case, I await it with enthusiasm.

Hard Sell Promotion

I’ve mentioned before that this anthology from Riverfeet Press, Awake in the World, is out, and that I have an essay in it. I know a few of my friends have already purchased it via the pre-order opportunity I posted a few weeks ago, and for that I am eternally grateful. I want more of these things to sell, though, and I’ve set a goal to blow at least 50 copies through the doors of Fact & Fiction, whether via online purchase or people coming in and buying them in person. As of this writing I think I have 46 more to go. Hopefully I won’t have to be too annoying to make this happen, but I’m willing to go down that dark road if I have to. It isn’t so much to promote my own work, I just want to support independent publishing and see this thing do well. So, if you’re a nature loving person at all, please consider dropping $15 (plus shipping) on this thing. The world will be a better place because of it.


Thank you!

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A Really Free and Enlightened State

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. His importance to me as a writer and philosopher can’t be overstated, even though I often get a bit weary and eye-rolly over how frequently he is quoted in certain circles. I’ve visited Walden Pond, and his grave in the town of Concord, MA, several times. I hope to take my mom there some day, as she too is a fan and honorary member of the Thoreau Sauntering Society.

The following is an excerpt from his essay, “Civil Disobedience.” He wrote it after he spent a night in jail in 1849 as a protest against the Mexican War. He deemed American’s violent, imperialistic actions illegal and refused to pay a poll tax, which led to his incarceration. Reading Thoreau, much of what he says is particularly relevant today. Please forgive the male-specific references throughout as a sign of the times.

There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellowmen. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.

Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

The 4th of July. America’s birthday. This is the day we are supposed to get all Pollyannaish about the state of our Republic and wax, “Golly, aren’t we swell?” in spite of everything, right? Grill a wiener? Drink a case of watery beer? Get sunburned and piss in your brother-in-law’s pool and blame it on your niece? Possibly, but I can’t get there, not this year.

Consider our reality. America is the laughing stock of the world. It would be comical how inept our current administration is if it weren’t so damn dangerous. Decades of social and environmental progress is being attacked and rolled back daily … if not hourly. Our government continues to wage war on the poorest people of the globe, only now we’ve upped the ante to include those folks who live here too (overtly, anyway; this class war in America has been going on a long time, it’s just out in the open now). Given the rumblings coming out of the twitter account of our Toddler-in-Chief, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the more violent aspects of that assault become even more lethal at home. I mean the inclusion of poor white people in the carnage, of course, as the smoking guns of law enforcement have been aimed at our black and brown neighbors bloodily and efficiently since all those founding white dudes first broke away from the royal We 241 years ago.

The notion of this holiday being a celebration of independence is particularly laughable. The vast majority of us are more deeply enslaved every year to a system where hard work and responsibility only helps shovel more wealth to the fortunate few and does nothing to protect us from the cruel lottery of unexpected illness or hardship. For all the talk of bootstraps and opportunity, unless you are white, male, and straight, your choices are extremely limited.

And the current dudes doing all this? We put them there. Gave them their power. Turned them lose on us. From my desk I can see a couple a couple neighbors out in the street leaning against their trucks talking to each other. From the stickers I saw on their rigs during the election cycle I’m pretty certain how they voted. I’m supposed to celebrate in common with them? How? What?

Yeah, I’m pissing and moaning. I feel surly. The summer is really starting to swelter these days, and that makes for my least favorite time of year. I’ve always hated the 4th, and it’s only getting worse. The meatheads in and around whatever neighborhood I happen to live in have eternally cranked up their noisy fireworks several days before the 4th and kept at it for a few days after. It makes me seethe. It is a perfect indictment of American intelligence: let’s launch a bunch of cheap, paper missiles showering sparks into our surroundings, where the tall, dry grasses of summer are just aching to chemically transform everything to ash. Fire’s always awesome so long as it’s someone else’s acreage belching smoke, right?

I’m a bitter, hopeless, hateful man these days. But happy 4th anyway. Perhaps somebody’s god will choose to bless this cesspool of a country. None of my small ones are going to.