The following is a modified version of my final column for the “Adirondack Daily Enterprise”. It’s not as personal as it may seem. It’s about down-sizing and mortality and reflecting on the past and starting to get one’s life is order – common concerns for people of a certain age.
After living in Saranac Lake in the former Carmelite monastery (before that Franklin Manor Sanatorium for treatment of tuberculosis) – sometimes as seasonal, sometimes as year-round resident – for almost nineteen years, it’s time for Ann and me to move along to a different life. We are simultaneously eager and regretful. It calls to mind Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing views in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” We’re sufficiently intelligent to be functioning, but we are conflicted, sometimes uncomfortably so.
I’ve changed residences somewhere around forty times.
Some moves were just across town. In fact, I lived in three different houses on three blocks of the same street in Austin. (Some people said I was in a rut; I said I was being commendably consistent.) Those moves hardly engaged the emotions beyond wishing they hadn’t involved the usual disorder. You know – those days of packing boxes followed by more days of not being able to find things.
Other moves were undertaken with little feeling other than eagerness. When I finished graduate school and got a job teaching at a college in Washington state, I was so happy to be going, I was an hour up the highway before I realized I’d left a suitcase behind.
On the other hand, some moves involve sadness all around. I have a clear recollection of my older brother’s teen-age friend, Art, standing alone in the driveway crying inconsolably as we drove away. I don’t recall my brother’s reaction, but I imagine it was equally sad; it was the seventh time he’d been through that scene. When Ann and I had to leave London after almost four years, my neighbor Peter cried just like Art had. “They make a pill for everything else. Why can’t they make one to take away this pain?” he sobbed. He was a war hero. Evacuated at Dunkirk. Fought at Monte Casino. He was not one to show his emotions. I think of Peter often.
The change Ann and I are embarked on now, offers a mix of feelings: happy anticipation of what lies ahead while laden with a sense of life’s evanescence. It doesn’t change a thing that it’s a common experience expressed in multiple ways – notably, for example, in “parting is such sweet sorrow.” The usual wistfulness that accompanies a move is even stronger for us this time because we’re leaving during the sublimely beautiful days of autumn. Checking out during a mud month would have been preferable.
I”ll be a different person when we no longer live in the monastery. So will Ann.
In it, Ann let her light shine by becoming an even more accomplished baker than she had been as a professional baker before becoming a lawyer. She began making connections through the postal service with friends and relatives in what came to be a trademark way – cookies and sweets for every birthday and most other holidays and low-fat granola, some of it suitable for diabetics, as an offering that required no prompting by the calendar. She bought ingredients in bulk through a coop. At the same time, she got comfortable hosting dinners and parties, soirees and benefits. Her inner Perle Mesta came to the fore. It will be difficult to maintain that way of being in a small apartment.
Despite having no affiliation with a local church, we both grew in our faith. We began to read daily the family service from the Book of Common Prayer (1928 version, of course) and otherwise pursue devotional practices. Our life in this place has suggested that of religious hermits, albeit hermits with a mild penchant for Benedictine hospitality and with lots of dinner parties for good measure.
At the time we bought the monastery, I had a drawer full of novels and other writing projects, but nobody except my otherwise successful literary agent thought much of any of it. I was pretty down on myself. Unexpectedly and dramatically, that changed.
We closed on the purchase at the end of the last day of 1998, and before the new year even began, I had become respectable to myself and to others. From novelist manqué I turned into owner of a historic home with a story to tell about it and me and our life together. No longer did I stammer and look at my feet when asked what I did for a living. I spoke up proudly. “I spend most of my time renovating a former monastery/cure cottage in the Adirondacks.” Then, often as not, I would go on in boring detail about what I had just learned about such matters as roof rakes and spreading fox urine around my lawn to keep skunks from digging it up to get at the grubs that I should have fended off in early spring. I’ll miss being that person.
I’ll also miss writing this column. Reflecting on the events of one’s life and surroundings is good for the soul. Putting the reflections in writing at stated intervals and honing the words and structure in an effort to be clear and graceful multiplies the benefit greatly. Of course, it’s not necessary to be a paid columnist to do those things, but columnists also get the benefit of editing, a readership, and responses.
On September 15, I’ll become a person who used to own a monastery and used to be newspaper columnist. I’ll have to find a new me unless I’m going to become a garrulous old man who lives in the past. At this point, I don’t know who that person will be, but I’ll find him, and Ann will find her new self. We’re looking forward to the search.
Until further notice, our postal address with remain unchanged (8 Franklin Avenue, Saranac Lake 12983) Cell phone numbers and email addresses will also continue as before.