I’m drawn to living in a tiny space for the simplicity and clarity it will bring me. I know this, I remember this, because when I was in my early 20’s (1990’s) – unexpectedly rocked by the end of a relationship – I experienced a resonating call to monasticism. This was very peculiar, because I am an Atheist. For whatever the reason, I just can’t make that leap of faith, I’ve been this way since I was the brooding skeptical tot in Sunday School.
So what did this mean? For an Atheist to have the deep desire to travel inward and seek meaning? I spoke with my father on the phone about it. As an Lutheran raises Episcopal, and as a deeply contemplative man, he had an interest in monastic life as well. We spoke of ‘meaning’ sans the supernatural, and I believe it was this conversation that gave me the strength to take the first step towards my secular monastic experiment.
I lived in a tiny bachelorette in a building called ‘The Baxterly’ in Lakewood, OH. Right by Cleveland. Most of the apartment buildings in that neighborhood had names, so it wasn’t any indication of stature. It had tiny rooms and a bed, breakfast counter, and ironing board that folded neatly into the walls, Murphy-style.
I was working as a sculptor at the time, teaching art center classes and selling my wares through a mall store that accepted work of local craftspeople. I finished that cycle of teaching and said goodbye to the larger world. I would drop my goods off at the mall during slow mornings. Grocery shop in the wee hours for the limited palate of food that I permitted myself. I turned the radio off. Canceled my telephone account. I didn’t have a TV. I asked a friend to stop in on me once a month and make certain that I was well.
I read Benedict’s Rule. In accordance to the Rule, I incorporated meditation, and study in lieu of prayer. I found Taoism to resonate deeply with me, so I read much from the Taoist tradition. I only listened to pre-Renaissance music. That amounted to a few Gregorian Chant cassette tapes that I managed to find before I shut my doors. My labor during the day was my sculpture. I would fold up the Murphy bed, and work away, tidy up for dinner and vespers.
Food was simple. For breakfast, oatmeal with cinnamon. No sugar, no milk. Lunch was a salad. I alternated between a simple stir fry and rice, and pasta with red sauce for supper. I would do the prep cooking once a week after my measured shopping trip. As in the Rule, I allowed myself wine in moderation with supper.
I took to this lifestyle like a fish to water. I was happy, deep inside, I had everything that I needed. It wasn’t long before I lost the impulse to keep tabs on the craziness of the world, and the social sphere that I found hurtful and baffling. My world made sense and I was at peace with it. Granted, I had just put a large bag over my head, but it worked and I found the keys to a peace that would change me forever.
However changed I was, the experience ended a year and a half later. I found a very sickly stray dog that I was compelled to keep, meaning frequent erratic veterinary visits. I had just returned from a three-week retreat of solo (but, with the dog) camping on an uninhabited island in Lake Michigan. The walls, curbs, and lights of Cleveland made little sense after the utter isolation of the island wilderness. My friend who checked on me monthly came by as usual. He had news: I was being sought out for a large commission. The commission would provide a respectable sum of money and was for a good cause: the opening ceremony of the 1994 International Special Olympics.
I looked at the dog, who was needing socialization badly and recovering from mange and a host of other expensively managed health issues. I looked at my bank account. I looked out the window at the gray landscape. I took a mental snapshot of the profound peace that I had found on that island, that peace that made the monochrome urban landscape look so wrong, so absurd, and I filed that snapshot in the “Someday, I will feel this again” folder. In one decisive turn of the wrist and with a deep breath, I turned the radio on. The tuner had remained set at the news station I had left it on over a year ago; the Waco,TX siege was full swing; I was again a member of society.
So now, about 25 years later, my kid is almost reared; that ever present, but distant call to solitude is growing nearer and louder. I’ve got a stable income through my business that I can manage from home, online. I’ve got some forest, and plans for a tiny dwelling, and a good workshop/studio. My path is straight and clear.