After living in the former Carmelite monastery — sometimes as seasonal, sometimes as year-round, residents — for almost 19 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 40 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 so much disorder. You know — those days of packing boxes followed by more days of not being able to find anything.
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 teenage 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 we 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 these sublimely beautiful days of autumn. If we’d planned better, we would be checking out during a mud month.
I will be a different person when we no longer live in the monastery. So will Ann, but that’s a different story.
At the time we bought it, 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. In the first of many interventions by the monastery’s resident angels, 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 went on in boring detail about what I had just learned about such matters as roof rakes and how 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.
On Sept. 15, I’ll become a person who goes about saying, “I used to own a monastery.” And, “I 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.
For a while, though, I’ll allow myself to sing those over-the-top songs of parting, such as “Until We Meet Again” and “Thanks for the Memory.”
Paul Willcott will continue to publish essays about once a month at www.geezerblockhead.com.