21 September 2014


"You are in Joy."

And so I enter New Clairvaux Abbey's guest room #2. The most desperately pressing question of my no technology retreat is answered at a glance: yes I have a private bathroom. I refrain from fist pumping because monasteries are holy places.

I spent the Sunday before I got to Joy in Sonoma. I wanted to ease my way in to four nights of no cell phone/internet/television by going to a place where sometimes I don't get 4G reception. My aunt brought me to Jack London State Historic Park, which is a more appropriate but less romantic name for the 47.5 acres than the original: Jack London Home and Ranch. With apologies to my readers who are big fans of the WTT and White Fang, London seemed like a real asshole, the sort of socialist with a fascist's emphasis on physical strength and a racist's unpleasant fixation on "lesser" peoples. But he had a hell of a nice home and ranch, even if the landscape is marred by intermittent stands of eucalyptus (a fake cash crop sold to London by enterprising Australians).

London wrote many books (amazing how fast they come when you write 1,000 words a day) in his cottage as he waited for the great Wolf House to be built. His mansion burned down a couple of weeks before it was set to open—chemical soaked rags left in a closed room conspired to build a fire. It would have been beautiful, a two-story stone horseshow surrounding a reflecting pool, but his insurance wouldn't cover all the costs of reconstruction ($80,000 in 1913). So he left the ruins to the woods and went back to his comfortable, Polynesian-grass-mat-lined cottage and wrote and drank some more and died on his sun porch in view of a tremendous oak tree in the front yard. This tree is so goddamn Californian it ought to be on the flag of the republic, somewhere behind the grizzly. I’m devastated because my aunt say it's dying—it gives off light like a dead star. 

Day One
On the way into Vina, CA, the hamlet nearest to New Clairvaux, the landscape changes from green vines to dust and semi trucks. There are fewer Dean & Delucas. Stopping in Williams, I hear an unsettling statement in a gas station parking lot: "I feel like I'm in that movie No Country for Old Men." I pull back onto the highway past the Liberal Ave. exit decorated with a handcrafted "Obama Must Go" sign. Closer to New Clairvaux, quarter-sized drops of rain sprinkle intermittently.

I enter the abbey through a side gate and a green cloud of oleander, my hand already shaking from desire to flip my phone back from airplane mode, for one last text, one more Twitter refresh. In the Welcome Center I find a "Back in 10 Minutes" notice and consider driving home. But I stand and watch watercolored koi lap around their fountain in front of the guest chapel, shaded by storm clouds taking turns with bright sunlight.

Guestmistress Michelle arrives full of dread-lifting friendliness. She chirps "Kirk!" then leads me to a cheap-Badlands-motel cinderblock structure (as my aunt remarked when we were browsing the online gallery, "would it kill them to put up some drywall?"). Perhaps the guesthouse has been made deliberately drab to enhance the beauty of the mature walnut, pine and Italian cypress trees dominating the grounds. (I’d name a lot more species if I knew their names—how does John McPhee know all the damn trees? Does he spend time outdoors? Ask better questions?) At the end of our tour, Michelle says there's no option but to stay through Friday and, thanks to her kind, dark-dotted green eyes, that doesn't even feel like a threat.

Beyond the windbreak of trees outside Joy’s window there's a fallow field of long, browning grass. This room, with its thin seafoam bedspread and institutional sheets, makes me nostalgic for my grad school dorm, windows wide open and bad weather driving over the hills. I could listen to Fleetwood Mac's "Storms" and have some tears but I'm learning to say no to technology. Also, the lyric "not all the prayers in the world could save us" is rather inappropriate for this setting.

As I make my way to a dinner Michelle termed "modest," the oleanders are writhing, redolent with what Frederick Seidel calls the delicious smell of rain before it falls. I almost step on a cat called Lucious, who is blind and has white eyebrows—a cliché of a monastery cat. The lights are off but this must be the dining hall, St. Luke's (note to self: google St. Luke in four days (the Patron Saint of Artists!)). The wind rattles spooky sounds into the dim back kitchen. Dinner tonight is cream of broccoli—I'll have to tell the maître d tomorrow that I prefer something along the lines of a bisque.

For Cistercians like the brothers of New Clairvaux, the large meal is at midday and the rest are light. I cherrypick clumps I think are potatoes and learn that cocktail onions are the devil's work. Dessert is listed as "cantaloupe!" because monks enjoy sick exclamations. Long thunderclaps get tangled in evening church bells. I seat myself so I face both points of entry, knowing I will jump out of my skin if anyone enters unnoticed. A robed brother flits by on a bicycle, completing the horror story motif. I hustle back to my cabin thinking we have scars on our imagination that come from joy.

When Michelle told me she hoped it wouldn't be all thunder and no rain I thought she was being silly—as Stevie Nicks will tell you, thunder only happens when it's raining. I see lightning strikes and trees bent over in the gale but no precipitation. It sounds like an echoing jet plane and the undercarriage of a gravel truck and I have no idea when it will pass because my phone is in airplane mode. Does Lucious feel the rumbling under his white eyebrows? 

Day Two
After learning that I’m vacationing in a place with no television, phone or internet friends have one question: Why would you do that? Beyond the actuality that I am a poor person who likes to be alone, I’m doing it because of Patrick Leigh Fermor. When you take your own monastic retreat, don't leave home without his excellent short book A Time to Keep Silence. He writes, "I was, in fact, in search of somewhere quiet and cheap to stay while I continued to work on a book that I was writing." And he had to have been talking about Twitter when he wrote of "the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life." With Fermor’s help the question is easily reversed: Why would I come back to the larger world?

Fermor details the funny attire of monks but, though I look carefully, I haven't spotted a single hairshirt. Perhaps I can't really tell—the New Clairvauxans’ commodious robes don't show underwear lines. Rereading A Time to Keep Silence makes it clear that I have conflated two orders—those with more intellectual than ascetic bents may leave the Trappists (New Clairvaux is such a brotherhood) for the Benedictines (who have all the fun).

"Life, for a monk, is shorter than the flutter of an eyelid in comparison to eternity, and this fragment of time flits past in the worship of God, the salvation of his soul, and in humble intercession for the souls of his fellow exiles from felicity." That's a bit heavy Paddy—it's only breakfast time for me, about four hours after the monks were up celebrating Vigils at 3:30. 

Lucious, like most felines, is capable of great speed over a short burst. In the shaggy grass, he pounces amidst the grey squirrels that parade the grounds. They have a tendency to wear their tails high, dipping them over their sharp faces like veils. I am joined at breakfast, reluctantly, by two women with a stockinged nunniness about them. One is tall and glaring, the other short and beatific. The latter manages a "good morning" but her friend does not speak beyond a few hissed phrases in Spanish. I think of her henceforth as The Stern One (La Popa).

The terminology Fermor uses for the Gothic buildings in monastic France is baffling but I can't imagine he would be much impressed by the constructions at New Clairvaux. The guest church out the window is notable for the persistent cinderblock, small inset windows and roof of red shingle trimmed with Spanish tile.

The only point of architectural significance I find here is the Sacred Stones. In 1931, William Randolph Hearst had a Cistercian chapter house in Ovila, Spain dismantled and shipped back to California on eleven boats. He needed the rocks to rebuild his mother’s estate, Wyntoon, after a previous iteration burned to the ground. Hearst’s plans changed and in the end he never even picked up his shit from Golden Gate Park, were it moldered for decades. Eventually some dignitaries (including noted insane rich person Dede Wilsey) gifted the stones to New Clairvaux, unmarked, with no IKEA instruction manuals/allen wrenches. To catch up with all the goings on, I recommend this terse timeline of woe.

What the friends of the monks have erected so far is completely open on one end and oddly finished with iron girders and cinderblock (again!). They probably ought to solve for the birdshit in the oculus windows. Still, the space is compellingly Instagrammable, totally empty. 

In the guest library I see the name Thomas Merton over and over but never find The Seven Storey Mountain, a book I wanted but couldn’t find in time for my trip. There are at least two critical studies of it. Some of the religious titles are unintentional giggles—Touched by a Saint—and others generate derisive snorts—Schindler's List. But the overall catalog is good: from the illustrated Thucydides to Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods and if not The Power and the Glory, at least's there's Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote. Greene begins with a satirical vignette on a bishop entirely occupied with the matter of imbibing wine. Even surrounded by monk-tended vineyards, I wonder if such blasphemy is suitable. Perhaps this is the enfer, an area Fermor mentions as the shelving spot for books banned to the main population of monks.

I'm certain that my mother would want me to be on the lookout for a future life partner, as nothing screams single and ready to mingle like vacationing at a donation-only monastery. Given the rather advanced age of the ladies spotted so far at New Clairvaux, a veritable sexpot enters the dining hall as I'm about to shove off after lunch. I pause for a moment but she takes a cell phone call and everyone else in here surely agrees that she should be ejected from the grounds.

A big part of one's spiritual health is physical labor, so I take the hike Michelle recommended when I arrived. I walk west down the South Road because the North Road is off limits, the exclusive provenance of the brother monks. Those fatcats get all the shade and non-cinderblock buildings on the upper campus. Even though it’s 90 degrees I'm happy to be out amidst the companionable whistling of the disrobed farm workers and the jerky circling of turkey vultures. The path goes from asphalt to broken pavement to gravel and here I am. Deer Creek, 30 feet below me down a sheer mud bank. The water looks so cool. My friends know me as an expert bushwhacker but, following the example of the peaceable monks, I didn't bring my machete. I head north, seeking a clear trail down to the stream. I pick my way through brambles until I find the path to salvation the way I always have: by the reflective glare of a beer can. The Bud Light Lime breadcrumbs lead me to a fetid finger of the creek but I wouldn’t make it to the main body without getting knee deep in the muck and compromising my only pair of shoes.

My sweaty despair is mitigated by a field full of blue-black butterflies with eyes on their backs like the cover of The Great Gatsby. In the understory of walnut groves lope fawn-sized jackrabbits. The big two-hearted oak in the middle of the guest campus drowses up and down. Smelling supper from the outside I fear another round of cream of something but the result is much better: fried potatoes. The Stern One strolls in and gives me what seems to be, but surely cannot be, a malicious smirk. She waits for her friend, who enters with a spry septuagenarian. They've weaved some lovely fabric key chains and I'm furious I wasn't invited to that workshop.

But the new, non-nun arrival offers me half of the pear she’s slicing and tells me she's an atheist. When she scores a Kraft single from the fridge and offers to split it, I want to ask her to be my grandma (I could use a replacement). Elizabeth is on vacation from a husband with Alzheimer's and says her new goal is to get away every fourth week. This takes planning, as the man does not like to be left with "young girls." This is not her first monastic rodeo—she’s taken a nine-month walking trip over southeast Asia with Zen peace monks, drumming rhythms at victims of genocide and water buffaloes. Furthermore, she explains that she's composing poems while retreating—she finds it easier to capture stray thoughts without the demands of prose. Don't I know it—I want to tell her, "it sounds like you've just grasped the nature of the poetry MFA student." She says that on her walk today she saw the same huge jackrabbits I did. When she mentions spying a heron or egret I fear we're approaching a Mary Oliver moment but blessedly it never comes.

Day Three
I begrudgingly admit that the best-dressed person at New Clairvaux is The Stern One, with a new habit color every day: crisp white to deer brown to blushing violet. The wheat bread for breakfast has the heaviness of penance and you could use a loaf of it to bludgeon a zombie monk if it came to that. I struggle to finish my portion even after slathering it with monk-approved JIF peanut butter. The Stern One's contemptuous gaze follows me to the door and I feel like shouting: "I haven't even masturbated since I got here!"

When on retreat you can read a book a day and today brings me to J.A. Baker's The Peregrine. He belongs to my favorite species of writer—the wildly talented recluse—and, according to the NYRB introduction, we are not even sure when or where the man died. But he wrote the best book I have ever read about the peregrine falcon, and probably the best on any raptor.

Baker’s impressive, obsessive diary follows a pair of falcons through his native Essex. October through April, he walks the orchards and fields of his home range like a current underneath the birds, easily covering a dozen miles a day. A peregrine weighs between one and a half and two and a half pounds; its eyes are the same size as ours. As he describes them, the hawks are ideal artists: "the peregrine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist." Baker's language is so unusual and pungent that I'm sometimes unsure if the words are verbs or nouns or British bird names: "the tiercel raced away to the east through snaking lariats of starlings."

The writing is violent and very much like James Salter's flying memoirs—Gods of Tin is also written in diary form—and this makes me ecstatic. "He stared down at the hand-sized earth that had drifted by beneath him so slowly every time before. Now he seemed to be crossing it with great speed, as if running with the current of time. Ribbons of ocher road, highlands and villages were all floating swiftly out of sight under the wing. He felt an overwhelming, captive sadness. It was his farewell."

Baker makes constant use of metaphor but all the comparisons are related to other things he finds in the wood. Coastal East Anglia is a self-contained universe of meaning. "Light shines in woodland hollows, like still water. Birch twigs are a winish haze. A cock brambling calls, a grating nasal 'eez-eet,' bobbing and flicking his tail. His underparts are orange and white; glowing orange, like a sunset on silver scales of birch bark. A bounding flight of redpolls ripple out their harsh and tangy trills, hang upside down, dip deep into birch buds, then bound away. A redwing flits through the trees. Straw-colored eye-stripes make its eyes look slanted. Its red wing-patches are like smeared blood." The color, the assonance, the metaphor: masterful.  

I look at the door to the meditation room and know I need to go in and ruminate over what to do with my life but I keep putting it off, wishing the monks had felt a stronger need for a sauna or indoor pool. My aunt told me I could mediate if she could meditate but I didn't ask follow-up questions as to how one does it. The chamber is small and looks into the pulpit of the guest chapel. Finally I sit down in a crossed-up lotus, clasp my hands and close my eyes.

At first I draw inspiration from the green and gold rug underneath me, the decadent crosses and moths gliding over sparkling water. I breathe birds into motion, my deep heaves the forward and backward sweep of tide. I am walking the strand as a curlew, a dunlin, and then I'm metal-legged and digging my beak into the sand, an oil derrick unaware of any raptors. I want to know what to do with my life. What I repeat is: I am 31 years old. I follow it with I'm unhappy and I want to know what to do next and it's May then June then July then August the September and I must change my life.

The tide rises, covers me up to my chest. Because my legs are falling asleep or because of something else my extremities tingle. I rock in my posture, trying not to spasm. I am sucked out into the ocean and struck by lightning or a peregrine falcon, ready to leap back to my feet with a snapped neck but the limbs won't cooperate. I am in a rush of visions and still calling to the wind I am 31 years old, my numb hands cupped before my face. The electrical current continues underneath me—a live wire touched on a sheet of ice. 

I leave the room with my hands shaking too hard to write. I try to compose myself on the bench beside the door but the cool wind adds to my trembling. To use the proper religious term, I had "a bad trip."

On my walk to Deer Creek I follow a great blue heron stalking through the shadows of walnut trees. He is bothered when I get too near him and flies ahead, but never far enough to lose me. After a half mile he figures out he can fly back the way I came and avoid my irritating gait in his periphery. If you can believe it, I swear there’s a peregrine falcon above me, or some other bird gliding with greater elegance than the vultures.

I'm back at the shelf over the creek, still stuck up top and bitterly considering the monks frolicking in the cool waters downstream. This time I walk to the south, trampling across thick foliage, frightened as ever of stepping on live snakes or dead hobos. Even though I can hear the water, there's no clear path to it. Only on the way back up do I spot the skull and crossbones Hazardous Area sign. Should I beware of pumas? Cottonmouths? Nude friars?

It's the hours after dinner when I would like to, with all due respect to the simple life, just watch a damn movie—perhaps a monastery-related favorite, like Into Great Silence or Black Narcissus or Robin Hood. It amazes the way that, when one strips away the phone, the internet, the television, the magazines and the books, the best form of entertainment left is writing. I write two pages of novel-like matter a day instead of one (or half of one or none) and even compose letters for a lark. 

Day Four
I don't mean to blaspheme but you can treat Laszlo Krasznahorkai's Seiobo There Below just like a bible, savoring it over and over. It’s one of the ten books of my life. I came a bit late to Krasznahorkai the writer (and never realized that he wrote all those Béla Tarr films) but from the first time I read him I was hooked, addicted to the avian stillness of the Ooshirosagi, and desperate for Seiobo to come out in full. Krasznahorkai writes about people with obsessive devotion to their crafts—there are chapters on monks preserving a Buddha statue, a Noh actor completely given over to his performances, a dying monk who steps out of his body and circles his surroundings like a hawk and, most crucially to me, a section called "He Rises at Dawn." It is the story of an artist, a man who spends each day making minute changes to Noh masks he carves in incredible, supernatural detail...painstaking is not a strong enough word for it.

This morning I read the chapter "Distant Mandate," about a man driven to vertiginous collapse by the complicated beauty of the Alhambra. "No, it is not at all a question of these specific writings but of a language, arranged out of the so-called girih motif based on the pentagon, but in any event, an inaccessible language rendered from a geometry sacredly conceived; which at first one experiences as pure decoration and considers as a form of ornamentation assembled from tiles or engraved or pressed into the stucco, and at the beginning it really is possible to be satisfied with the impression that this decoration and ornament, because the dizzying symmetries, the suggestive colors—not only the plentiful but simply immeasurable glittering form-ideas—do not leave behind themselves any questions or uncertainty..." This is masonry done in parallels so intricate that they were only discovered and mapped by mathematicians in the 1970s. There is art beyond our understanding in words and stone, patternwork that is a gigantic unity holding together a world falling apart into chaos. 

My second go around in the meditation room is better. I begin again as the Ooshirosagi, gliding a course over field and stream then landing in silence to find fish under a horizon shimmering with heat, undulant water melting in quilted patches. I step slowly into the future. I commit to two paths: a 9 to 5 that offers some meaning and an early morning hour dedicated to real writing work, every day. The resume and the CV. The Ooshirosagi hunts on land and water, at dusk and dawn, strong enough to wait out the day with its neck cricked like under-faucet plumbing. This is the passion of Krasznahorkai and Anne Carson, the ripples in Fitzgerald's golden bowl, each lifted to my lips. The ennui of regular employment is enabling my own laziness against greater labors. I put my head down and pray to the pen crossed over my journal. On the inside of my eyelids strings of Alhambra script fall like rain.

My fascination with Deer Creek comes to an end. Walking a new route along an irrigation ditch I'm often startled by the small movements of alligator lizards, stoned in the sun until goaded by my footsteps. I come to the end of the trench where there’s not so much as a view of the creek. Just that taunting water sound. As I turn on my heel I see a snake, poised five feet to my right. I think of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, the crowning Midwestern glory of driving a spade straight through the neck of a vicious serpent. I think of the bravery of my Minnesotan forebears and how I can honor them now.

Not really. I immediately squeal, "Jesus Fucking Christ!" and leap as far as I can to my left. After a couple wobbly-ankled steps in tall grass, I hop to the bottom of the ditch and sprint. I know from the nature documentary Anaconda that the key is to put as much space as possible between the beast and me. I wish I'd thought to start a stopwatch to measure my time in the 400-meter dash to the main road (wind-aided, but with backpack). I’m uncertain about the species of snake—it did not have a viperous head or rattle but rather a curious expression and smooth belly: yellow as my own. I'm happy to retreat to the friends of St. Patrick.

So pleased to be alive, in face, that I attend Vespers, at the cost of putting on proper pants and hoofing it to chapel. The building is cross-shaped and particle-boarded, a less appealing version of a high school gymnasium. About ten monks file in, one in a motorized wheelchair, one with a walker, all a little deflated. A Methuselah-bearded old timer makes sure I'm on the right page in the prayer book. Proudly, I've already found Thursday Vespers. But it turns out I'm facing the wrong direction in my seat. I have an eye toward an icon, a candle and a small cross, but the action is on the other end, dominated by a large Byzantine-looking crucifix. Music pours from a dolorous keyboard, the prayers are muddled and the singing subdued. I feel a creeping sadness turning the worn pages of the book. We come to the afternoon reading, some blather about Sodom. All the things that make me gloss over the capital-B Bible are present: random destruction, incomprehensible judgments, a weird fixation on units of measure. Ten percent of Sodom was destroyed in an earthquake and I’m reminded of the absurdist sci-fi storylines Chow-san concocts in 2046—this is the closest I've come to a blockbuster film all summer. Why didn't the holy men sit and outline before committing to this mishmash? After a few more hymns we end on the Lord's Prayer. This one I get—I bow and pray and don't even recite it as Hemingway did in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place."

Anon in the dining hall we're passing around copies of the book written by New Clairvaux’s Brother Paul. He went the self-publishing route down Mexico way and the resultant errata page is impressively long. He says they got all his words between the covers but not necessarily in the right order. Glancing through The Hermit Bird's Song I wonder over my own self-publishing future, the freedom he felt to mix prose and verse, quotation and original material.

Elizabeth tells me that local herons hunt the koi in the sanctuary pond (she pronounces koi in two syllables, as you might in the East). New Clairvaux has attempted to mitigate the poaching by employing a scareheron to intimidate the real ones. I thank her for the hospitality this week and we wish each other the best of luck.

At my new friend’s suggestion, I step outside to watch night fall, for the Silent Light of it all. Or to demand more from the sunset, as the lady said. It's the best show on tonight. From the plastic chair in front of Joy I see red roses and a burnt orange pickup and a brick wall in medium to extra long shot. Under the lone cypress in this stand of pine a white statue turns grey. The placards on statuary here are for the benefit of the donators, not the folks who can't recognize their saints. Birds chirp. Dogs have a disagreement down toward town. A summer evening on Earth. Yellowing sky, the clouds stretched thinner and thinner. The train. All the monks are asleep. If not, they'll regret it at 3 AM. Or I mean I would. They've probably gotten past all that. This is the most pleasant 90-degree day of my life. More orange in the clouds. A chickenhawk floats overhead. I have wasted my life. Just kidding, and maybe James Wright was too. The sunset is ending as it does for so many of us across this great land: listening to a middle-aged woman coo baby talk to a blind cat.

Clouds reduce to grey, white and indigo—languid dolphins. Those monks with their prunes and walnuts, regular as all hell. The splash of the fountain and first cicadas. The sky is violet and piled with snowy peaks. Tomorrow I will be back in San Francisco, what Fermor calls "the outside world of bounders and sluts and crooks." Krasznahorkai’s Prison of Complexity. The snake sleeps somewhere out in the fields (not that I don't check for it under my feet every 30 seconds). The single bulb outside my room casts an amber light that makes me ache. I know why it does this. I once sat outside the door of a motel next to Zion National Park. That trip I meant to buy tomahawk turquoise earrings for a girl I was in love with out of all proportion. "I wanted her to want me so bad it hurt." I’m overwhelmed not by God but by beauty. The stillness of the Ooshirosagi in the shallows of the creek, eternally hungry, waiting for a fish to rise.