The Cricket in My Basement, and Merton

Every fall a single cricket manages to get into my basement.

This is amazing, because our ancient, Michigan-style basement is like an encased stone vault with cobwebs and a coal room.  I have no idea how a cricket finds its way from the outdoors down into the basement through a foot-thick stone foundation wall, here in my inner city neighborhood in South Bend.  But there it is again, in my quiet house.  Chirp Chirp Chirp Chirp.

A field cricket (L. Gryllus)

The arrival of the basement cricket signals the end of summer for me.  It only shows up in mid- to late August, when the weather is still warm.  As if the cricket  knows what’s coming and will need to find dry, safe, and warm accommodations for later on.

The cricket always starts out strong.  On the warmest, most humid late summer evenings, it’s a raucous CHIRPCHIRPCHIRPCHIRPCHIRP all night long.  Full volume, singing its heart out.  It’s an amazing, piercing, simple, yet charming one-note song and I’ve never been able to understand how an insect the size of a paper clip can generate that much sound just by rubbing two dry wings together.  Only nature could come up with that.

As the days wear on into fall, the cricket gets quieter.  Chirp.  Chirp.  Chirp.  It (he) is still down there, belting out its song for…well, for whom?  For her?  His hoped-for mate?  Out of compulsion?  Out of joy?  Can any other crickets even hear him?  Are there any female crickets down there with him?  He sure is persistent.  The days get shorter, the nights gets longer, but the cricket plays on.  More modestly now.  Chirp.  Chirp.  Chirp.

One evening in mid-October, I notice that the cricket sounds weaker.   I walk over to the top of the basement stairs, and stare down into the dark.  How are you doing, buddy?  Are you getting tired?  Hungry?  Lonesome?    Chirp.          Chirp.         Chirp.    I’m a little worried about the cricket.  I wish I could feed it or something.

The morning of October 26th I’m sitting at the kitchen island in silence.  Regina and the girls are off to work and school.  It’s just me, a bowl of granola, and the newspaper.  I don’t want to look at the newspaper.   And then I hear,

                                   chirp.                           chirp.                         chirp.

The cricket sounds really tired.   Like its batteries are almost dead.  I can hear it, but only because the house is quiet.                        

                                                              chirp…                            chirp…

And then suddenly, silence.

* * *

A few weeks ago I made a long-desired trip southward to Kentucky to visit Gethsemani Abbey, the Trappist monastery situated in the rolling hills and wooded knobs south of  Bardstown.  It was the home of the late Trappist monk, writer, and activist Thomas Merton.

At Gethsemani, a conservative Roman Catholic religious order with roots in the middle ages, the monks live under a vow of silence, community prayer, work and strict isolation from the world.  No outside news comes in, and no writing goes out.  But Merton’s abbot, as the story goes, recognized his gift for spiritual writing early on and breaking with centuries of monastic tradition, the abbot allowed (actually ordered) Merton to write and publish.  And later on he allowed Merton to move into a private hermitage out in the woods on the smileAbbey property, another break with strict tradition.

The rest is history: Merton, through the paradox of writings composed in complete solitude, became a semi-reluctant spiritual rock star for an entire  generation of seekers in the 1950’s and 60’s.  He was visited by poets, writers, spiritual leaders, artists and activists (Joan Baez for godsakes).  He became a known voice of peace, social justice and spiritual clarity in the upheaval of the Cold War and Viet Nam.  Young men read his writings and lined up at abbey gates to join the monastic life.  Merton’s autobiographical first book, Seven Story Mountain (1948) continues to sell to this day and was single-handedly responsible for my leaving the legal profession and entering Catholic lay ministry back in the 1980s.

During my own stay last week at Gethsemani, I found Merton’s grave.  It’s marked by a simple, undistinguished iron cross with hundreds of other simple, undistinguished iron crosses in a lumpy little knoll next to the abbey church.  The only thing that distinguished Merton’s grave from the others was a little splay of plastic flowers, and several prayer-bead bracelets draped over his cross.  A small steel plate on the cross reads,

Fr. Louis Merton.  Died Dec. 10, 1968.

I stood there quite a long time, fascinated.  Unsettled, actually.  I walked away.  I came back.  I did this like, four times during my weekend at the Abbey.  Here he was: the monk that even his abbot knew couldn’t be quieted, now quieted forever.  Silent as the once-noisy cricket down in my basement.  I stood there gazing at that lumpy little non-celebrity grave.  Knowing the monks are traditionally lowered directly into the bare earth with no vault or casket nearly took my breath away.

Suddenly, BONGGG, the abbey church bell high above my head clanged.  I jumped.  The bell was calling the monks to midday prayer but it startled me right out of my thoughts.  Just like Merton did through his writings: startling people out of their naive, childish, narrow assumptions about faith, “holiness”, sainthood, prayer, mysticism, and the spiritual life.  It was as if Merton had had enough of my wistful ponderings and was giving me a big brotherly dope-slap across the ears.  Hey, dream boy, he might be laughing.  Wake up.  What are you doing staring at graves?  For godsakes.  Live!

* * *

I made the long drive back to South Bend thinking about monks, urban crickets, and the rare experience of any kind of solitude for us modern city dwellers, let alone a real monastery.  I thought about the field cricket singing out from the vault of my inner city basement- about as far as he could be from his natural habitat of a prairie field.  I thought about the paradox of the “famous hermit”, Merton, writing from the seclusion of the monastery, about as far as he could have gotten from his worldly European boyhood and his Columbia University days as a young man.  Singing his sacred song, to this day.

I thought about all the small, but captivating points of sound, of writing, of joy and of love that sneak down into our lives for a little while and sing and then go silent.  Chirping for us, or speaking to us.

They ask a quiet but insistent  question:  Who is this, that is hearing this chirp, or reading this essay?  What is the music, what is the life that aches to come alive in your own heart?  What are you doing staring at gravestones, or TV screens, or whatever else holds you in trance, in a dream state of nonaction?

Years ago, I attended a retreat lead by one of Merton’s contemporaries, James Finley.  Finley had been a novice monk at Gethsemani Abbey as a young man, and was assigned to Merton for routine supervision and spiritual support.  Finley, like Merton, has a sharp mind, a quick wit, and an impish sense of humor.  But he described himself back then as very sincere, perhaps too sincere, a young man very earnest about the spiritual life and in complete awe of Merton as the world-famous writer-monk-theologian.  One day Finley sought out Merton to ask him about something that had been troubling his young heart, about the whole matter of death and life after death and the resurrection of the body and soul and the various Catholic religious teachings on these matters.

“What do you think happens to us after we die?” Finley asked Merton, with all the quiet seriousness and deep piety that only a novice monk can summon.  “What do you think about the Kingdom of Heaven?”

Merton burst into laughter.  “Well one thing’s for sure,” he said.  “There sure won’t be much of you there!”

Finley was taken aback, saved only perhaps by the twinkle in Merton’s eye.  Only slowly did Finley come to understand the brilliant mastery of Merton’s single, koan-like retort.  A response that completely punctured the pious religiosity and self-important ego-identification this young novice brought to the monastery, like all his peers.  His outer shell of social identity and psychological security seeking some kind of safe escape into purity, solitude, mystical oneness with the Divine, whatever.  All that needed to die, Merton was saying.  And was going to die, in fact.  So, get over yourself, young monk.  The sooner the better.

At that same retreat  I attended with Finley he said something I have thought about often in my life since.  He was talking about the universal human condition, our mortality, and all the crazy things we do to avoid thinking about that and living as if we were something special because we were good, or religious, or hard-working, whatever.  “Our horses are all hitched to a hole six feet in the ground,” he said.  And he went on to talk about the urgency we should thus be feeling about getting it right: our perceptions, our consciousness, as we live our daily lives.  And Finley sat there behind his desk and grinned and watched all us pious, earnest, spiritual seekers squirm a little in our seats as the vivid, inescapable truth of all that sank in just a little deeper.  In case we thought we were special, or immortal.

So here’s to two of my favorite spiritual directors: the cricket in my basement, and the famous hermit Merton, who has been one of my own most effective, and delightful guides.  I am grateful for the teachings, and the reminders of both these creatures, as my own horses draw me closer to the portal of nothing, and of everything.


Terlingua Desert Log #4. Solitude, and the Super Bowl

I didn’t expect to be invited to a Super Bowl party while living in a trailer in the Chihuahuan Desert. It messes up the story I was going to tell you, about what it’s like living off the grid with no cell phone signal, no Facebook, and no idea what Donald Trump is throwing at the TV cameras today.

IMG_7615But then here comes my landlady, Lori. “Woo hoo,” she yells whenever she’s approaching my trailer. “Woo hooooo!” Texans apparently don’t like to sneak up on people, or get snuck up on. I figure that has to do with either the uncertain location of rattlesnakes, or the fact that everybody has guns. “Oh, I’ve got a bunch of guns,” Lori chortled with her raspy smoker’s laugh. The ground around my trailer is littered with tarnished .30-06 rifle casings, .22 shells, shotgun shells. Mostly from Lori’s teenage son, doing target practice over the years.

Anyways, Lori came over last Saturday to invite me to the Super Bowl party on Sunday, at her trailer. I looked around at the vacant high desert all around us. “Party?” I said. “Yeah!” she said, “we’re going to barbeque! Dale’s coming down from his camper IMG_7541up there—“ she pointed to a small RV parked halfway up the mountain, “–and my son Rusty’s driving down from Alpine, and Jerry’s coming up from the canyon over there.” I had seen Jerry’s place through my binoculars from high up on ridge, a speck of tin nestled back up the foothills. I’m slowly getting the drift out here. What my urban eyes first perceived as uninhabited wilderness is, to the folks who live here, the neighborhood. Everybody knows everybody else within miles and mountain ranges. Which isn’t a lot of people, but it’s some.  Lori used to work at the Cottonwood General Store in Study Butte, so she has  met every resident in the county.

Still, most days I’m not getting invited to parties. When I don’t make the hour-long drive into town days can go by where I don’t see or hear anyone. I still marvel at the silence. When the air is still, you can hear a twig snap a thousand yards off. I’ve heard one airplane, a little Cessna, passing low over the distant hills a week ago.

You can really go primitive out here, if you want. If you’re looking to buy land the first thing you get asked is, “On or off the grid?” Prices vary accordingly. If you just want some acres to call your own, its available, and relatively cheap. Ranchland in the remote areas is going for 400. to 500. an acre. Want a well? Road access? Electric line? You pay more. A typical listing in the local real estate flyer reads, “926 acres in Pecos County, 1 water well with solar pump, cattle pens and small barn, new fences, large neighboring ranches, abundant wildlife, 1,200/acre.” No matter where you buy, you’ll have mountain views that just shut you up. The various For Sale descriptions tell it all. “Longdraw Bluff Line…solid road access, Study Butte…Chisos Mountains view…Solitario…8 miles north of Terlingua Ranch, Gate 2, via South County Rd…2 access routes…Great Hunting Location! Nine Point Draw 40 acres off grid…Fossil Knob, good access, bunkhouse, 2 steel buildings, water catchment, elevated porch, toward mountains, exceptional view… Stunning view… Excellent water potential…”

IMG_7526Water potential. That’s an artful way of putting it. Most days in Brewster County, Texas, there is not a cloud in the blue sky. Lori says they went for 17 months without rain a few years ago, a drought that actually killed a lot of the cactus and lechugilla. Too dry for cactus. A big thunderstorm might come through up in the Chisos or Los Caballo Muertes, that sends flash floodwaters into the surrounding river beds and arroyos yet leaves the rest of the land dry. So most people have “water catchment systems”, simple PVC pipes that divert occasional rainfall off the corrugated roofs into giant rainbarrel storage tanks. If you don’t catch rain, or have a deep well, you pay to have water hauled in.

Rain or not, this vast and beautiful landscape is slowing me down, a real accomplishment. Every morning the sun blazes up over the ridge to the east, flooding my trailer with a pure light energy and IMG_7462illuminating the yellow stove next to my pullout bed. My mind begins its morning harassment ritual. Get up! Hurry! What needs to be done next? I think about that… Long pause… Hey, wait. Nothing. But my mind doesn’t like this one bit, and releases a torrent of negative self-talk. “Nothing”? Oh really? That sounds unproductive. Isn’t that selfish? A slippery slope into sloth and depravity? I get up, unsteady in my whole purpose now, and stumble outside the trailer like a man beset by hornets. But the landscape and the slight aroma of creosote brings me back to my body, senses, and surroundings. I find my hand drum, and as I thump out a steady beat in the morning sun the hornets disappear, replaced by IMG_7467gentle breeze and a different voice from a much deeper place. Good morning. You are alive. This day is given to you. Treat it like the first day of your life.  What would you like to do with this one precious day? Hmm.

The experience out here has been like a slow detox from a harmful substance, and the substances are busyness and overstimulation. Its takes a while, even in the solitude of the desert, and the detox is not pleasant at first. I came out here with an armload of hiking and biking maps for the Parks, two bicycles (road and mountain), a laptop, books to read, writing projects, and half-finished work projects. Good grief. I’m alone in the desert with no commitments for several weeks and what am I doing? Running around, just like at home. I’m reminded of my massage clients who often return from “vacations” exhausted, sleep deprived, and tense in their low backs, necks, and shoulders from the long flights and driving. It’s as if we’re actually afraid to slow down. As if something really bad would happen. So instead of “va-cate” on vacation, we just change the venue of our running, our spending and our doing for a week or two. It’s quite a game.

IMG_7453Thankfully, nature heals us, if we give it a chance. And wilderness nature can do that very deeply, just by getting ourselves out into it. Slowly but surely, one day at a time, the detox is working on me here. The intervention is assisted by my nonhuman friends all around me. Breathe, says the cactus. Be, say the Corazon mountains. Move slowly and with great focus, says the unseen rattlesnake. Be grateful for water, says the whole desert. Watch. Listen. Eat. Sleep. Walk. Pray. Wash my plate, cup and fork. Rinse out my socks.  Hang the shirt up to dry. Let the sun and wind dry the laundry.

Its not a new problem.  Even our indigenous ancestors needed help slowing down and refocusing. In the AmerIndian vision quest ceremony, individuals spent 2-4 days alone in the wilderness fasting completely from food and  water. This quieted the mind and opened the heart allowing a vision for one’s life to arises, with deep clarity on essence and purpose. Key characters in the Bible go out alone into the desert, and dramatic things happen that do not happen back in town. Moses meets Yahweh on a desert mountain, and discovers the ground under his feet is holy. (It has been holy all along.) Jesus leaves the crowds to out into the wilderness to pray, rather often.  Out in the desert he meets with both Spirit, and Temptation. The desert IMG_7477fathers of the early Christian church withdrew into wilderness for their entire lives, laying the foundations for later monastic traditions.

Living in a desert trailer does not equal a vision quest ceremony, a biblical encounter with the Divine, or a strict monastic life. But it’s a pretty good start. Sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with yourself, which includes the anxieties, compulsions, and empty distractions. My teachers out here have been patient, and insistent: the gentle spirits of cactus, of rock, of wind.  And that damned rattlesnake out there, wherever he is.

So do get out to the desert some time. It will slow you down, bring you to yourself, and open your heart. And if you’re lucky, you might even get invited to a Super Bowl party.