Aug 12, 2011

On Whiskey Bottles, Trail Mix and Walker Percy


Do you ever get this empty feeling you just can’t shake?  It’s like the person who pulls up to their house, sits in their car and lets the engine run when they get home from work, to breathe again, before easily letting go of the ignition, sighing as the car dies.  Not that the person hates his life.  He just needs to breathe.  Again.
This reminds me of Walker Percy, a writer who searched out answers to the odd questions of everyday life – like, “what do I do with myself?” He won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer in 1961, about Binx Bolling, a disconsolate everyman in New Orleans who ostensibly has a good life, a girlfriend, a steady well-paying job, but nevertheless feels this emptiness inside the pit of his gut that he just can’t shake. One day it occurs to Binx to embark on a “search,” to discover what is missing in his life.    
The summer of my first year in the monastery, I was twenty-two years old. I was on a search.  I escaped the monastic schedule to hike with a fellow monk who had joined the community at the same time as me. Our plan was to climb the fence along the cemetery to reach a tiny creek, full of white sand, like an ocean's front, that meanders to the Bogue Falaya River. I think we did this once or twice: took off our shoes and socks and donned a bathing suit, crinkling our toes gingerly over rough patches of pine needles and dried up Water Oak leaves until we reached the banks of the creek. A soda for each and a bag of trail mix from the house – one for each – drank 'em and nibbled on fleshy banana bits and salted cashews on the banks, on a Sunday afternoon, when the everydayness gets heavy. We knocked back a few dried apricots into your mouth; take a swig of Orangina, to reduce the despair of the early twenty-first century. The water was cool, even in the summer, and the sand was supple, sinking a few feet past our ankles, making it difficult to walk, careful to avoid the odd shard of glass or roping water snake that patrols the shallow waters. When the bag of trail mix emptied and the sodas had gurgled in our bellies, we hurried back to the monastery to attend evening prayer. To enter back into the rhythm of monastic life. On days like this, as a friend of mine told me once, you feel on par with existence. 
Coming out of the woods, I spotted an empty bottle next to Walker Percy’s grave. He is buried in our cemetery. Usually there is a flowerpot on the edge of his grave: WALKER PERCY 1916 - 1990. So not to see the usual flowerpot, but an empty bottle, struck me as peculiar. At first I thought that it could have been leftover by rowdy teenagers from the neighborhood, but on closer inspection I saw that it was an Early Times whiskey bottle, Percy’s favorite brand; an admirer had left behind a note stuffed inside. This intrigued me. 
Why would someone come to a Benedictine monastery to leave behind “a message in a bottle”?  What search were they on?  Did they find themselves at a difficult time in life, seeking answers? Or was it an inside joke, a jocund sentiment left for a friend? Or a prayer left unanswered? Coming out of the river and finding someone else’s message situated me at a crossroads, a place of tension where the monk meets the world – a place where my disconsolation and anxiety struggled with a sense of place and meaning – for I was very much not at ease all the time, in my skin, in my monastic habit, in this place I called home – and the questioning of another seeker confirmed for me that we are both searchers on this planet, seeking and groping for answers.  For aren’t we all searchers? Aren’t we all castaways on an island? For Percy, “to be a castaway is to search for news from across the seas.”
I think this is the self in any generation: a castaway on an island, searching for news from across the seas, salt in his face and hair, thirsty and desirous. But at every juncture we are not at ease in our skin, with our station in life. We do not know how to sift through the avalanche of information that bombards us, not knowing the difference between the Good News and the Daily News. Coming out of the woods is a messy business. We emerge as castaways, hoping to decipher a message in a bottles.     


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