Well, the long-awaited time has at last arrived! After more than ten years in the planning and ground-laying, I have arrived back on Eagle Island for six weeks of winter solitude. Six weeks!!! I have no official commitments until March 9. And while there will no doubt be trips ashore for groceries and errands, they will be at the dictates of time and tide, not crammed on either edge of a flight-to-somewhere-else that has to be risked, sometimes in marginal conditions, because “the show must go on.” If I’m content to live on macaroni and rice (with mussels gathered from the shore), even these provisioning trips may be few and far between.
Bob Quinn, our island boat captain, brought me ashore yesterday afternoon in a gathering easterly breeze and light snowfall. He drove the bow of his lobsterboat right up onto the beach, and in two quick passes of his dinghy we had groceries, cat, computer, suitcases, and the several canvas tote bags full of books and files that have accompanied me on the latest month-long roadtrip, all safely ashore and under cover at my little house before nightfall. Today, as snow turns to rain and the only sound is the steady drip-drip-drip from a leaky rain gutter overhead, I am tending my woodstove, lugging water from the well, and taking advantage of the still only nine hours of usable daylight to get as far as I can with the unpacking and sorting of mail and awaiting Christmas presents.
What now? How to use this precious time? There are a billion projects awaiting my attention, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. There’s the Trinity book to “git further” on. Three major lectures, two Wisdom Schools to prepare, and the inevitable flow of correspondence that still manages to pile up in the twenty minutes a day I can be online without crashing my solar system. (Please forgive me if it takes a bit longer to get around to questions and queries these next several weeks!) It would be easy to simply bury the time in the usual sort of busy-ness, or the semi-Dionysian frenzy I always disappear into when a major writing project has my full attention. To emerge six weeks later with check marks next to everything on my “to do” list and an organized calendar for the next two years: well, that would be an accomplishment of sorts, but not really what I’m most yearning for in this precious hermit window of opportunity.
What I’m most yearning for is also what I (typical human being that I am) most strenuously resist.
My hermit teacher Rafe always headed up the hill to his winter hermitage carrying neither telephone (let alone email!), a good book, nor a to-do list. Not even a watch (I gave him one for Christmas one year, but he managed to lose it in less than a week). Real hermiting, he insisted, is consecrated to emptiness, to deep inner listening. Even the usual contemplative piety of regularly-apportioned periods for prayer, meditation, lectio divina, was too much structure for him, too much imposition of a human scale on the vast, cavernous spaciousness of silence. “You have to endure the tedium until something emerges in it,” he always told me (“in” it, not “from” it, he insisted). “It always takes me about four days to shift gears,” he added, intent that the real hermit’s work was not to do anything in particular, but simply to acclimate gradually to living in conscious fullness “at the intersection of the timeless with time.” It requires a steel-trap mind and a lot of patience—“enough being to be nothing” is how he put it. It is a slowly gathering capacity to live inside one’s own skin, directly face to face with the sheer immensity of the now, without running off downwind into schedules, structures, prayers, accomplishments: all our human defenses against reality.
Well, I can’t pretend that I’m going to do any of this particularly well. The lure to get busy is strong, and the worthy projects—and even fun ones, like finally learning a few more Bach inventions on the piano or cello, or reading through the pile of books that has been slowly accumulating for all these ten years—is part of the time, too, all part of that “with time” part of that “intersection of the timeless with time” equation, and my own restless spirit will no doubt relieve itself with any number of these little monuments—not to mention cutting up all that dead and downed wood out in the south pasture and having that long-awaited winter bonfire. But being present even to my own restlessness is all part of being present, and I suspect that if I can just keep myself grounded in the gentle rhythm of human busyness and cosmic attending, I’ll come upon the right stride and pacing eventually…
…like the slow, steady rise and fall of the sea against the popplestones down on the shore, barely but always audible as the underlying pedal point when the wind drops down and the piano (and cello) fall silent. One thing I know, this precious, magic time will be over in the blink of an eye. And I’m curious who will emerge on the other side of it.
With love to you all, from the heart of God!