After all the kind words about an interview in Manchester InkLink earlier this week, I feel duty-bound to include some more of that, bits that ended up on the cutting-room floor.
How did you decide to retreat to Pittsburg?
It would be a good story to say I had a vision in which a man with a flashing sword on a fiery steed came out of the north, crying “Follow me, My Lord! Safety, sustenance and sanity await you in my land. Ride with me to the farthest point in the New Hampshire northland to winter there in a wooden box surrounded by metal.”
That would be a good story, although the retelling of it would likely get me locked up in the bin. Or, to be more sensitive and accurate, an Involuntary Emergency Hospitalization in the New Hampshire State Home for the Bewildered. The truth is much more mundane. Still, it’s true, so worth telling on that account.
Five or six years ago, when I was at Liberty House, a man named Jon Worrall came calling, telling me about Warriors@45North, a retreat on the Canadian border where veterans could go, free of charge, to hunt or fish or shoot or just kind of hang around with other vets. While Jon is a combat vet and tough as nails, when he gets talking he is virtually indistinguishable from an excited golden retriever pup, practically bouncing off the floor and looking in need of newspapers to be placed down, just in case. Jon was so damned happy to talk about 45North. Anyway, I talked with the guys who were living at Liberty House at the time, and one guy came up for a week or so and fell in love with the place. Mike, as I’ll call him, came back and proceeded to get himself kicked out of Liberty House, although he continued his association with 45North for quite a while.
The following year, I came up here for a few days away from work, then we rented the main cabin for a Liberty House staff and board retreat. One thing followed another, and when I knew it was time for me to withdraw from Liberty House, I called Jon and there you go, no horses, no flaming swords, no mysterious riders. The wooden box surrounded by metal, though, became the mystical Tiny White Box, a major character in the last year or so of my life
Yes, the Tiny White Box. Where did that notion come from?
It would be a good story to say I had a vision in which a man with a flashing sword on a fiery steed . . . Wait a second. I’ve already used that intro, haven’t I?
As you may or may not know, I spent a year in Raymond, on the property of Alaya and John Chadwick, living in a converted cargo trailer—8’ by 22’—to demonstrate the possibility of such structures as a partial answer to the problem of homelessness. As it happens, I didn’t lead a movement to living in 200-square-foot boxes—nobody but nobody was interested in doing so. I, on the other hand, liked it a lot, but felt I could go much smaller. Hence, the Tiny White Box, sketched out by me but built and, honestly, designed by my friend Gavin Beland, a genius of woodworking and a great man to work with. So . . . I now live in a six foot by 11 foot box that doesn’t seem all that tiny at all.
You’re going to continue in the box, even with your new job?
Yes, I don’t think entertaining at home is necessarily part of my job description. If it is, I’ll clearly need to rent someone’s house for those occasions.
More seriously, I am a man of few needs, and those needs are easily met in the Tiny White Box. While I’m not saying I’ll live in it forever, for now it means I can live simply and cheaply and, if necessary, head out for the hills.
Why did you decide to retreat at all?
As I’ve made clear for a long, long time, I’m not a very good hermit, nor am I cut out to be a retreatant. I prefer to think of myself as having taken a life sabbatical. Having grown up in a college town, it seems perfectly natural to me that every seven years a person would throw off what they’ve been doing and try something else. As I understand it, the notion of sabbatical comes from the agricultural advice in Leviticus that every field be allowed to lie fallow every seven years, with an implicit promise this will increase the future yield of the field. We’ll have to check with my future cowrokers and employer to see whether this notion bears fruit.
My daughters, some dear friends and any number of strangers, when they heard what I was doing, asked me if I was inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Although I was an English major as an undergraduate, and read voraciously for the four years I was in the Army, I never read that book. Honestly, I started it at one of my daughter’s urging, and had to hurl it to the ground after 10 or so pages. Thoreau just seemed so goddamned self-satisfied and judgmental of his neighbors. Give me Mark Twain any time.
Throughout your columns, I notice a lot of Biblical allusions. Is this conscious or merely accidental?
I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on, so you’ll also see a number of references to Encyclopedia Brown, the Bobbsey Twins and the writings of Beverly Cleary. As a brief aside, the other night I was having dinner with a friend, and she mentioned her father used to work for Bendix, a company I imagine I should know something about. All I could think of, though, was Beezus’ little sister, Ramona, whose doll was named Bendix. Needless to say, the conversation was rerouted to a discussion of Beverly Cleary.
Reading everything includes reading the Bible. Later, in seminary, I read the Old and New Testaments in a more scholarly way, but I think the stories and lessons in the Bible have stuck around because they’re interesting and useful. Even when I left the church more than 30 years ago, I continued to occasionally re-read favorite parts.
Do you have a favorite passage in the Bible?
Yes. Yes, I do. Probably the last part of the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. I enjoy, and enjoy being enjoined to visit prisoners, feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
And do you have a least favorite passage in the Bible?
Yes. Yes, I do.
Are you willing to share it with me?
No. No, I’m not.
Oh. Well . . . um . . . I’m sorry.
No reason to be. I just don’t want to step on the unprotected toes of someone’s belief. I mean, if a reader’s faith is based on, for instance, the line, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” I might question their ethics or morality, but I don’t want to be a stumbling block to them.
Earlier, you quoted Lau Tzu. Does this mean you’re a Taoist?
I am very bad at faith, so bad I keep on switching beliefs like a boy hopping from rock to rock over a snow-fed stream. When I fall in, whatever rock is nearest becomes my favorite. I believe in kindness, particularly to those who don’t deserve it. I believe in gentleness, particularly to those who are most harsh. I believe in laughter.
That last, laughter, has been a great comfort to me over the nine months I’ve been up here in Pittsburg. Since I’ve no one else to laugh at, I’ve gotten great amusement out of myself. I find myself very entertaining.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you?
A quote from H.L. Mencken, I think, sums things up well.
“We are here. It is now. The rest is all moonshine.”
I think in this sentence the word “moonshine” is a euphemism for bullshit.