Monday, July 26, 2010

The animals of Acorn Abbey

Acorn Abbey is low on people but full of life. Stuffed into the woods with a trickling stream curving through the property, the Abbey and the surrounding wild lands are home to transient coyotes, transient black bears, deer, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, skinks, and a wide-variety of birds. I try to photograph every animal I see.

Here's a family of wild turkeys that stop by every so often.

I caught this turtle sleeping by the creek.

Sometimes we can hear bull frogs croaking by the creek. This little guy has a ways to go before he can belt um out like the best of them.

We have lots of deer in the area. We had to build a fence around the garden to keep them out of our crops.

David is letting the forest "grow up" onto his property. The new growth is perfect habitat for small critters like this rabbit.

We caught sight of this snake a few times. It's at least six feet long. My next picture was going to be of a family of wrens living in a nest they built by the propane tank but the snake ate them.

The monarch butterflies like to aggregate in clusters close to water.

Spider web and tunnel that drains Wells Creek into the Dan River.

One of our neighbors has two horses.

We have three chickens who give us, on average, two eggs a day. Since erecting the fence (400-foot perimeter), we've released them from their coop. We've named them after Christian virtues: the red one is Ruth; the black one, Chastity, and there's a third not in the picture called Patience.

On my jogs to the Dan River I come across this puppy. Because Ruth pecks my toes when I go near her and because Lily won't let me touch her with a ten-foot pole and because David's not a 5'7 blonde whose smile makes my knees buckle, I live as a monk at Acorn Abbey and have no physical contact with anything animate except this puppy who has yet to become leery of my overly-passionate embraces.

I've made some progress with David's cat, Lily. She's still squeamish about me touching her, but she no longer carries an air of dignified disgust when I'm in her presence.

David--the abbey's owner--is a four-limbed hominid who enjoys long walks to the mailbox, science-fiction novels, Arkansas black apples, and writing entries about simple living on his blog here. He doesn't like "topped" trees, long periods of drought, and the smell of food burning in a hot oven.

Mr. Groundhog visits Acorn Abbey every day. David and I were fond of him until he began eating our sweet potato patch. I spent several days building a crude wooden structure from natural materials to keep him out. From the house I watched Mr. Groundhog waddle up to my fortress and--much to my dismay--slip over effortlessly. I ran into the garden and confronted him. For a moment, just feet away from each other, we stared into each others' eyes; each of us struck motionless by our brush with a wild animal. I think we realized then--upon me catching him with a big leaf hanging from his bottom lip--that we were no longer friends, but mortal enemies. (I wish I knew someone with an elegant British accent to narrate the video below.)

I took an up-close shot of the next animal. Bragging rights go to whoever guesses the correct animal first!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dear Paul's daughter

About half a year ago, a father named Paul posted the following comment after one of my entries:

Hi Ken.
I’ve been reading your stories since fall. You remind me of myself at that age. I have a daughter, I’m curious of your thoughts. She’s 21. I asked her what she sees in the next 5 years for herself, what are her goals or dreams. With no hesitation she said “finish school, get married, have a baby.” Just like that. Later she said the married part is just for us, her parents. I’m shocked. I asked her why a family so soon? (my wife and I didn’t start our family until our upper 30s). What about traveling the world? She said she moved a lot growing up and has seen what she wants to see. We did move a few times, but have been where we are now since she was 10 years old. I’m her father and I want to support her and her dreams. But her dreams are a lot smaller than what mine are for her. What would you say to her?


Dear Paul’s daughter,

Soon after I got your father’s message, I wrote out a big, inspirational, sell-all-your-stuff, and take-to-the open-road response. It was terrible. Really awful stuff. The problem was: while writing it, I got my boots stuck in some very swampy philosophical and psychological terrain. The only way to give you a clear message—I thought—was to over-simplify, dumb-down, and abandon nuance. I realized I was giving the sort of advice that a fundamentalist might give—advice that’s full of passion, but without any brains.

Sometimes I get downright zealous about voluntary poverty. In such a frame of mind, it’s easy to separate people into those who’ve been “saved” and those who’ve “sold out.” It’s sort of like believing in a religion. Doubt is cast aside because it’s easier and more convenient just to thoughtlessly believe in something. At my worst, I might think that people who enter the workforce and start families early have been “brainwashed” by the “system”—some ambiguous omnipresent demon carrying a trident—each prong representing the corporations, politicians, and consumer-capitalist elite who supposedly govern our lives. Oh, if only life were so simple! If only we could discern the good guys from the bad by the color of their hats. Things—you don’t need me to tell you—are far more complex. And only an irresponsible, undisciplined mind would preach such nonsense.

I know that living in a van is not for everyone. Hitchhiking is not for everyone. Nor is standing in front of a grizzly and reveling in some primordial high. So before I go on, know that I understand that you might be a vastly different person than me. I do not plan on telling you to live like me. Not one bit.

Just as many long for the freedom of the open road, dwelling in us, too, are fantasies about hearth and home. We have conflicting desires and conflicting interests. Consider “freedom” for example. Surely, no one wants to be ruled as a slave, but few, I’d guess, would want to be completely free either. Take away gravity from a man, and the first thing he’ll want is his feet back on the ground. I suppose what I’m getting at is that it’s utterly, undeniably human to seek safety and security, perhaps in the form of a stable job, a permanent home, or—in the case of our floating man—gravity. These are natural desires that should not be derided. Desires that I should not deride just because they do not intrigue me as much as they intrigue others.

I should also note that I feel somewhat awkward giving advice at the meager age of 27. As your senior by just six years, please forgive me for taking so bold a stance at so young an age when it might be more prudent to hold my tongue. Perhaps you ought to seek advice from someone who time has blessed with wisdom.

I’m writing this letter anyway because I feel compelled to speak to young people. Just a few years ago I was in a similar position as you: uncertain about my future, anxious about my next decision, and drawn toward a life that was not of my own making. I see young people all around me who are living lives of “quiet desperation.” I see young people living non-deliberately and without self-awareness. I see young people who are not cognizant of the many forces pushing us down certain paths and compelling us to make certain life decisions. If it wasn’t for some last second advice that I’d gotten from an unexpected source when I was 21, then maybe I’d be living a life of quiet desperation today, too.

I’m eager to respond to your father’s request because it tortures me to see young people who fail to seize control of their own lives—people whose fullest potentials will never be realized and who, as Theodore Roosevelt says, “neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

I’ve never had the chance (or the guts) to sit down with one of them and tell them something that they may have never heard before. So this letter is not really just for you, but for anyone who has felt how I felt when I was 21.

I remember myself at that age sitting in my car in a University at Buffalo parking lot, waiting for a spot to open up. My life, at the time, was far from ideal. Four days a week, I’d push carts at the Home Depot. Between long commutes from my parents’ home to school, a 30-hour a week job, an onslaught of papers and exams, and an ever-mounting dunghill of debt, I was starting to lose it. Throughout my undergraduate years, I picked up a minor case of Turrets. My hair began falling out. During class, I had to resist the inexplicable urge to jam the point of my pen into the back of my hand. To make things worse, I had no summer job prospects except more cart-pushing at the ’Pot. Summer after summer, I’d make excuses to not do what I really wanted to do. I wanted to drive to Alaska more than anything in the whole goddamned world.

In that parking lot, waiting in my car, listening to my stereo, out of nowhere a voice whispered four little words into my ear. I looked at the backseat to see who had snuck into my car. Much to my horror, no one was back there. I opened the door and looked beneath my car. No one. I got back in, sat back down, and thought about what was happening to me, why I heard this voice, and what those four little words meant.

Two weeks later, I turned in my orange apron and embarked on a journey that I’ve yet to return from.

So, Paul’s daughter…

I beseech you to do one thing for me: Imagine yourself as an 80-year-old woman lying on her deathbed, thinking about how she lived her life. How would you like to feel? Certainly you’d prefer—as we all would—to bask in the memories of a life well-lived. Should it not be our foremost ambition in life to give ourselves such solace in our last moments—not just so our last breaths are exhaled with peace of mind, but so that—with that moment always in our thoughts—we can live our lives deliberately, forever guided by the reminder to cherish this wondrous thing called life, and to carefully blaze a life path that leads from dream to dream and from happy memory to happy memory?

John Taylor Gatto , a public school teacher and historian, said, “Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are; whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important; how to live and how to die.”

I’m guessing that your education didn’t teach you these things, as mine didn’t for me. Schools, parents, and friends can show us certain beliefs and values, but it’s up to us—as unique individuals with our own particular needs, inclinations, propensities, and idiosyncrasies—to decide how to live and how to die in the way the best suits us.

So my advice is not to sell your stuff and buy a plane ticket to an exotic country; it’s to, as Socrates says, know thyself.

Know thyself better than anything. Write, think, read, talk. Question everything. Don’t just moan in your diary; figure out why you are the way you are. Analyze every emotion, every thought. Drop the texts and make you the object of your study. Play the detective and solve the mystery of you. Ask yourself why certain memories have embedded themselves in your mind, while others never stuck? What is it that makes you, you?

You speak English because you’ve grown up around English speakers. Just as you’ve come to speak the language, you’ve adopted certain cultural customs, beliefs and values. But just as there are other languages to which you haven’t been exposed, there are other ways to live—other ways (depending on the sort of person you are)—that might be more agreeable than the standard “husband-baby-job” formula that has come to be considered “normal” by our society, but is not, for many, the surest route to happiness.

We’ve been told what to do since birth. We’ve been told to do well in school, get good jobs, buy a home, and start a family. Perhaps you’ve been told something else, but you’ve been told something. Our advisors seem to sing together as if part of a choir, which suggests to me that a lot of people believe that there’s a formula for happiness and a certain way to live. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Why should we take advice from our society in the first place? If I saw a society comprised entirely of enriched, happy, peaceful and healthy citizens then maybe I’d think society was on to something. And while I do not deny that there are many wonderful things about our country and our society, I will never accept its tenets as gospel so long as Wal-Mart workers are being trampled in Black Friday stampedes, so long as children are raised more by TVs and teachers than by their parents, so long as a huge chunk of our population has no access to affordable health care, so long as we thoughtlessly pollute the waters we drink and the air we breathe. I point this all out because—just as we shouldn’t believe the nut on the city street yapping that “The End is Nigh!” (even though he may have some reasonable things to say)—we should also be deeply skeptical about what our sometimes-deranged society expects from us too (even though it may have some reasonable things to say).

There comes a time in a young person’s life when I think she ought to detach herself from the ties that bind; to separate herself—if just temporarily—from family, friends, and society; to give herself time to wander in the woods, sit by a creek, walk in foreign lands, and to turn inward; to give herself a chance to begin to know herself.

While you may feel bound to your family, no human should be bound to think as they do. We are bestowed with different capacities, propensities, talents and faults—characteristics oftentimes far different than those of the people who birthed and reared us. So, to feel compelled to live as everyone else lives—even if such a lifestyle doesn’t agree with us—is a dishonor to the diversity of the human experience.

You must discover for yourself what is right and true. And what is right and true must come from you. Not the “you” that’s been indoctrinated in compulsory schooling, not the “you” that’s been told by TV that thin is beautiful, not the “you” that’s been told that a productive citizen is one that seeks riches.

I’m talking about the “you” that our culture has not been able to get its greasy hands on. I’m talking about some small piece of you that is pure and unalterable. Call it your nature, your soul, your authentic self, your genes. Call it what you will, but I believe there is a part of us that culture cannot reach. And when it speaks, it ought not be ignored.

Sometimes I think people cannot awaken the “sleeping prince” inside them. Or maybe the prince cannot be heard amidst the clamor of civilized life, drowned out by the billboards, iPods, TVs, teachers, parents, friends, politicians, gurus, and self-help books. Give yourself some peace and quiet and take to the woods or desert or mountains. Maybe then you’ll realize that his murmurings have gone unheard all this time.

I’ve received oodles of terrible advice from my seniors. I’ve been told that the things I’ve wanted to do couldn’t be done; that such and such a thing is “impossible.” Over and over again, I’ve proved them wrong. But the one line of advice that’s always stuck—which has always made perfect sense to me—is to, as they say—sometimes with wistful, nostalgic, and envious tones—“enjoy it while you’re young.”

Have you ever wondered why married people (excluding newlyweds) never seem to be dripping with happiness? Ever wonder why so many middle-aged men go through mid-life crises? Ever wonder why post-war-years housewives—who had all their needs satisfied—commonly suffered from depression? Ever wonder why almost ever older person says to “enjoy it while you’re young”?

There are phases or—as Shakespeare says—stages to one’s life. Let yourself be the “lover/ Sighing like furnace” or the “soldier/ Full of strange oaths… seeking the bubble reputation.” Embrace the stages as they come, but do not skip ahead to motherhood just because you’ve been advised to or because it’s expected of you. Scratch your itches. Trust your instincts. Follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell says. Embrace the phase you’re in. Know thyself, and you’ll begin to learn how to live and how to die.

You may very well decide that to “finish school, get married, and have a baby” is what’s right for you—I’m not saying that it isn’t. I’m just saying, don’t commit to anything of that magnitude until every fiber in you aches for it; until you know you want it with as much clarity, certainty, and confidence as the starving man who knows he wants food.

I go to school with so many PhD students who have thoughtlessly surrendered their autonomy and sentenced themselves to a lifelong livelihood that often doesn’t befit their character or interests. They made their decisions hastily, acting before first knowing themselves. And now they're more or less locked into lives from which they cannot escape.

It amazes me how freely people surrender their autonomy. People get nervous when they don’t have a job, obligations, or things to pay for. Debt isn’t just something forced upon us; it’s sought so we have a game to play, a battle to fight, a life to live. But I feel our autonomy should be cherished, regardless of whether it makes us uncomfortable. Your autonomy gives you a chance to develop and mature and grow into who you really are.

If you’re not sure what you want to do, my advice is to not do anything that ties you down. Your revelation will come soon enough. Find odd jobs, take more classes, sit on a tree trunk, do anything but commit to a lifestyle for lack of other ideas. And travel for God’s sake! Your peregrinations with your family do not count as “travel.” Spin your globe and stop it with your finger. Once you point to a place that makes you squirm in your chair, you’ve found a suitable destination. Real traveling is a cold, hard business. It’s not about taking pictures next to iconic cultural relics or collecting National Park stamps. Real travel is about testing yourself; it’s about trudging through uncomfortable territories; expanding your horizons; learning new points of view; and developing your selfhood. When you’re traveling alone, you’re forced to turn inward.

Maslow says we have a hierarchy of needs. We can’t ascend to the top of the pyramid (self-actualization, creativity, purpose, meaning) until we have the necessities on the bottom (food, clothing, and shelter). It’s funny, though, how so few people choose to realize their true potential, electing instead to dwell on the bottom of the pyramid, widening their waistbands, buying flashier clothes, and building bigger and more expensive shelters. While these lower needs are satisfied, other needs are ignored. They will not learn the thrill of enrichment and the world will suffer for want of greatness.

I think it ought to be our sacred duty to cherish this rare opportunity. So few get to live in a place and age when we can easily satisfy our most basic needs. What a privilege it is to have the opportunity to think, invent, create, and overthrow. What a wonderful father you have who is encouraging you to do as you wish, and not as he wishes! We should frown upon the person who spurns this honor to self-actualize the same way we frown upon the person who wastes food or abandons loved ones.

Just as nature has given us legs to walk the earth and lungs to breathe its air, it’s bestowed us with eyes that can make out the faint glimmerings of stars so we can wonder, imagine and dream. Don’t let the foul cloud of civilization come between you and your innermost dreams. Know thyself and have a kid. Know thyself and live in a van. Know thyself and rebel or know thyself and conform. Whatever you do, know thyself.

As a young man, there was no one to give me the advice I really needed. In high school, no one talked about—as an alternative to going to college—traveling, working odd jobs, or walking across the country. No one spoke about voluntary poverty and certainly no one talked about saving money by living in a van.

The life prescribed for me, for reasons unexplainable, would have led to unhappiness, failure, maybe even insanity. But everything changed when I heard those four little words in that campus parking lot—spoken to me, not by “God,” my stereo, or another “personality” but by a voice so crisp and clear I can hear it as I type this letter. Sitting in that car, I found it interesting that the voice sounded like my own.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The fast: Epilogue

Time: 10:30 pm (fast ended two hours ago)
Hunger level: 0

The fast is complete. I ate nothing for three straight days.

I chose “three days” because I figured that would present a formidable challenge. I pictured myself—with just a few minutes to go on Day 3—writhing in pain on the floor, gripping my stomach, and dragging my body to the fruit bowl. Upon putting the apple to my mouth I’d have a true test of will power—should I break the fast or should I not?

Or maybe, while watering the plants, I'd collapse over one of the straw bales from exhaustion. David would run out and start feeding me water with a moist cloth.

"Ken, you have to eat!," he'd say, startled by my jaundiced complexion.

I'd open my eyes, look at him, and whisper with my last ounce of energy, "never...."

The truth is, though, the fast wasn’t difficult at all. And I’m not bragging about my will power because I think we'd all deal with a fast in much the same way. Our bodies are probably little different than the bodies of our hunting and gathering ancestors who likely had to endure hunger for long periods of time when food was scarce. I should also point out the obvious: every day millions of people go without food or not enough food. My little experiment is nothing (same goes for living in a van).

I decided to fast primarily because I have a weakness for food. I have trouble turning food down, and I have difficulty cutting myself off when I know I should stop. Sometimes I’ll gluttonously eat plates of food, then go jog to burn it off—little different than teens who binge and purge. The fast was a personal test—a test that I gave myself to improve how I eat.

At exactly 8:33 pm this evening, David served a mushroom pizza, a spinach salad with garlic, tomato, and cucumber, and an apple pie. I smiled throughout the meal, even giggling jubilantly during the first few bites. I didn’t hold back—I stuffed myself till I could stuff myself no more.

Unfortunately, this little series wasn’t nearly as entertaining or dramatic as I had hoped it would be. But, at the very least, I got a little closer to knowing how the poorest of the poor feel on a routine basis. Plus I learned that I will not curl up and die when I’m foodless and struck with throbbing hunger pangs. Instead, I'll just remind myself that waiting a few more hours is no big deal because, hell, one summer I went three full days without food.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The fast: Day 3

Time: 10:30 pm (Hour 50 of 72)
Hunger Level: 2

Some minor side effects to report: an ever-so-slight headache, tightness in my chest, significantly-reduced physical energy, my muscles are a little tingly, and I’m experiencing some minor cognitive defects. Otherwise, I’m A-OK.

Some atypical experiences: When walking to the mailbox (a good quarter mile jaunt) I made myself take slow, careful steps, wary of over-exerting myself in the 100 degree heat. When I went to go water the rhododendron (that’s been shriveling in this ungodly weather), I was startled to see a 50-foot long black snake coiled in the grass, but relaxed upon realizing that it was just the hose that I was looking for.

Meanwhile I had a great idea: I thought it would be highly entertaining for readers if my blog updates became more and more incoherent. More deranged. I’d begin messing with my punctuation and spacing; my “hunger levels” would begin shooting through the roof. Hhahaaaha. (# 43 ^^sdf sd.,, !!. I’d start to share my darkest fantasies. I’d tell you that David’s calves were making my mouth water. You’d become worried, disgusted, sickened, but you wouldn’t be able to look away. What’s he going to do next, you’d wonder? Maybe he’s been crazy all along? And of course the hoax would culminate with pictures of me eating a ketchup-smattered David with a side of fava beans and a nice Chianti.

When I told David my idea he looked at me concernedly and told me that I looked “glucose deprived.”

I asked him what he planned on making for dinner tomorrow (after my fast) and he laughed maniacally and said, “chopped celery and cucumbers.”

When he turned around I sent him an icy glare, then looked at Lily’s belly as if it were a Christmas ham.

At worst, I thought the fast would be an interesting biological experiment and would, at best, give me the sort of heightened state of consciousness that I experienced in the canoe with Christian (described in fast entry #2).

But the truth is that the past two days have proceeded ordinarily. I got some good reading done this morning, watered the plants, and David and I watched No Impact Man this evening (which I enthusiastically give two thumbs up to).

My hunger has actually been quite tolerable. And while I can’t wait until I can eat tomorrow night, something tells me I could continue fasting for a lot longer before I begin suffering from serious health issues.

I think if my next meal was in two hours, I’d feel like I was starving. Yet, if it was a week away, I wouldn’t be hungry at all. The human mind is so delusive. Your mind lies to you and we lie to it. It says, “You’re hungry” and I say (even though I feel hungry), “Actually, no I’m not.” It says, “You’re tired of running” and I say, “I'm just fine.” It has good reason to lie. Better to stop me early, it thinks, before I go ahead and push too hard. But how can we ever know our true limits until we test ourselves? What talents and capacities in us have gone unused and undiscovered because we failed to intrepidly explore the fringe of our faculties?

We oftentimes feel that we “absolutely must have something” whether it be food, clothes, things. But when you don’t get that “something” and you’re still alive and well (and oftentimes better off without it), you begin to bring your whole world into question. If my mind is lying to me, who and what else is?

I think it’s good to be skeptical and critical about everything; to never believe anything until you’ve confirmed it through you own experience. So many times in the past have I felt like I was starving in between meals when, really, I should have known that I could have gone two full days without food and been no worse off.

Time: 3 am (hour 55 of 72)
Hunger Level: 3

Okay--trouble sleeping and starting to get hungry. I'm craving eggs and biscuits with butter. Either that, or a pizza. Mmmm. Apple Pie. We had a power outage from a thunderstorm, leaving me with no computer so I had nothing to distract my mind away from food.

Time: 12:30 pm (hour 64 of 72)
Hunger Level: 3

I had a slight headache after waking up and was a little woozy at the farmer's market this afternoon. When David asked me how I felt this morning I said "awful," while rubbing my head. "You're not feeling spiritual?" he asked, mockingly using the term. "Fuck spiritual," I said. But in all honesty, the fast has been remarkably easy, far easier than I anticipated. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the human body can be an impressive thing sometimes.

Time: 5 pm (hour 68 if 72)
Hunger Level: 3

My hunger isn't overwhelming, though I can't seem to make myself do anything worthwhile. I can read, but I don't want to. I can write, but I don't want to do that either. For a while I just sat in a chair and watched the minutes pass. Currently, I have no ambition to do anything. Except eat, of course. David's making a mushroom pizza and an apple pie for a late dinner tonight. My fast officially ends at 8:33 pm this evening. I am going to enjoy this meal.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The fast: Day 2

Time: 9:30 pm (hour 25 of 72)
Hunger Level: 2

Until today, I’d never gone a full day without eating. As a boy, my parents always had the kitchen cabinets and fridge well-stocked with food. On Alaskan hikes and during even the poorest phase of my van experiment, I always managed to find something to eat. I think it’s great that most people in our country can go almost their entire lives without feeling real hunger. Yet I think it might be a good exercise to every so often check in and feel what the poorest fifth of the world may routinely feel. For them, going a day without food probably isn’t experimental and novel, but a fact of life.

So far, I haven’t experienced anything unexpected. There’s been a snarling, crawling hunger in my belly. Sometimes it feels like there’s a snake slithering from the depths of my innards up and out of my esophagus. I’ve had trouble reading, concentrating, and have been a little wobbly-kneed, but other than that, the fast thus far has been quite tolerable. Sometimes I’ll feel “waves” of hunger, in which the pangs are strong one moment, but are quickly replaced with a soothing and serene mental calm the next.

There’ve been a couple days in the past when I nearly went without food. One of those days occurred three summers ago. I was in a birch bark canoe on the Ottawa River in Ontario-Canada. For that whole summer, me and three others lived like the 18th Century voyageurs—gear, clothes, and diet included. Each day, we ate what the voyageurs used to eat: salt pork and pea soup, plus bannock. It wasn’t as bad as it may sound; in fact, most times it was quite good. But one day—after almost two months of eating the same thing from morning till night—I couldn’t look at the stuff without gagging. It was either I man up and eat, or go hungry. I went hungry.

I was paddling with Christian, who is Métis (half Native American, half Anglo). As the day wore on, time began to slow. I remember I watched my shadow in the water to the left of me. I was now part human, part water: my water-shadow colored in with a deep, dark blue, striped with the water’s spiny ridges. I watched the shadows of my arms and paddle moving rhythmically, hypnotically, circling my body with each stroke. I listened to the watery gulp the river made with each plunge of the paddle and observed, with each pull backwards, the two tiny water twisters spinning in our wake. A scattering of water droplets flew from the paddle’s tip as I brought it forward; the blade lightly, with a surgeon’s precision, skimming the water’s crest.

Christian began talking about his “gift.” He said he had the ability to “see” into people and that, in his head, he could see as wide and clear as the horizon in front of us. He added that—in certain settings—he’s had the power to view people’s dreams while they slept.

Between the heat, the exertion, the conversation, and, most of all, the hunger, I’d attained a heightened state of consciousness. I began seeing and hearing and sensing things I’d never sensed before. It was as if someone removed my eyes, then jammed two new balls into my sockets. This is how a writer sees, I remember telling myself.

Christian told me about how young people in tribes long ago used to go on vision quests. Supposedly, they went into the woods on their own with nothing and waited for a vision—brought on, in part, by a hunger-induced hallucination. I wasn’t close to that (nor am I now), but I knew that my hunger was giving me entry to unexplored spiritual realms.

There is something clean and purifying about an ascetic act, whether it be on a long hike, a fast, or sleeping in your van at ten-degrees Fahrenheit. Sure, there’s a lot of struggle, strain, and pain, but after a while you come upon the “eye” of your desire—when just for a fleeting moment the tempest of temptation breaks open and you’re afforded a flash of something sublime.

Time: 3 am (hour 32 of 72)
Hunger level: 1

Just shat myself. I know you're dying for details and pictures (and--to be honest--I'm sorta dying to give a vivid account), but prudence is nudging me to leave it at that.

Time: 9:30 am (hour 37 of 72)
Hunger level: 0

Woke up with no hunger at all this morning. In fact, the very thought of food is somewhat off-putting. This fast is turning out to be a lot easier than I expected.

Time: 3 pm (hour 43 of 72)
Hunger Level: 1

I've wanted to fast for a couple years now. I've put it off because I thought it be would too debilitating. And because I haven't had three straight days during which I wasn't obligated to work, study, attend some social function, or expend valuable calories, I've put it off until now.

Now's the perfect time for me to fast because it's too damn hot outside (100+ degrees) to do any work, I'm unemployed, and I don't have any papers to turn in anytime soon.

Today, however, besides watering the garden, I had one other--and rather tragic--duty to perform. Yesterday evening I was napping during David's typical cooking hours until he woke me up, saying, "Ken, I think we have a chicken down. I may need your help." He said the chicken's head was lolling strangely and that it had collapsed in the corner of the chicken house.

When I caught up to David, he was crestfallen. "I think we've lost her," he said. He pulled one of our four chickens out and began pouring cool water on its head and legs. When it didn't wake up, we put it in a bucket of cold water. "You poor little thing," David said, while pumping its chest. I felt its skin, which was as hot as asphalt.

Our attempts to revive it ended soon after. We'd lost a chicken.

We left it within the confines of the fence, and I hoped that it would have been up and scratching around by morning. Instead, when I woke up it just laid there stiff, in the same spot we left it, now with ants crawling over it.

This morning I took the pick-axe and a spade and dug it a little grave. It's been inhumanely hot these past few weeks, and I've recognized that I can't do much out there without getting a throbbing headache. The air here is heavy, thick, and oppressive. Walking across the lawn feels like walking in a swimming pool.

The fast has been a breeze so far. And while I'm beginning to see how well my body deals with one type of strain, it's clear to me that my limits aren't so broad when it comes to a North Carolinian summer.

A comfortable, air-conditioned home has been essential for the fast. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't last much longer than the chickens.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The fast: Day 1

[I thought I’d mix things up for the next few days and “twitterize” this blog by giving several updates throughout the day on how I’m progressing with the fast. Instead of making many mini entries, I will just continually add to each day’s post.]

“When you have gone so far that you can’t manage one more step, then you have gone just half the distance that you are capable of” –Greenland Proverb

Time: 11:30 pm. (Hour 3 of 72)
Hunger level: 0 (I will grade my hunger based on a 1-10 scale. “1” indicates mild, painless hunger. A score of “5” indicates that I am suffering from substantial and painful hunger pangs. A score of “10” means that David’s calves are making my mouth water.)

The last supper: Sautéed zucchini and tomato, oven-baked taters with ketchup, two warm homemade biscuits with a square of butter jammed inside, and three scrambled eggs (donated by four of the prettiest darn chickens Stokes County’s ever seen). For dessert, I added two more biscuits and drizzled—no—smothered them with the gooey strawberry preserves David and I made last month.

This past evening, at 8:09 pm, I began the first fast of my life. Twenty-three minutes later, at 8:32 pm, I accidently finished the half-ounce of wine that had settled into the bottom of my glass during post-meal conversation. At 8:33 pm I began the second fast of my life.

My goal: To go three full days without eating anything. The only thing I’m allowed to ingest is water and ice cubes.

For good reason, you might be wondering why I’ve decided to fast. It’s difficult to say. I suppose I have lots of reasons, but I’ll get to all that later. Until then, I have just this to say:

The human will ought not be neglected. The will must be trained, just as we exercise our minds and bodies. If the will goes unexercised, it turns soft and weak, like a balloon that’s shrunk from its birthday party glory to the size of shriveled, black-market kidney.

My will has gone untested for far too long. And I feel it withering away inside me like an orange left to dry in the sun. When one loses his will, he loses his ability to concentrate, his attention span is reduced, he no longer goes on his routine jog, and when he does, he shortens it by cutting corners. He begins eating too much, and studying not enough. He spends too much time reading about how the Buffalo Bills are progressing this offseason. The will functions on all levels: the physical, mental, and emotional. And when it weakens on one level, it weakens on the others.

I’m fasting, in part, to send a shock to my system; to inject it with a squirt of steroids; to bulk it up so I can begin to function again at full capacity.

So few know what the human body is capable of. Thoreau was right when he said, “Man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.” Bodies, capable of performing dazzling feats, and minds, capable of making great scientific discoveries, have probably gone wasted more than we'd like to know. Without an ascetic’s will, we cannot embrace our true potential. What a sad way to go through life—never knowing what life you could have lived; never knowing what glories you could have reveled in; and never knowing—not just who you could have been—but who you really are.

Time: 11 am (Hour 14 of 72)
Hunger Level: 1

Normally, I would have drank one of David's famous banana-nutmeg smoothies by now. Or had biscuits and gravy with a side of scrambled eggs. Instead, I feel the beginnings of an angry, petulant hunger that's stirring in my gut.

Here's a fine quote from Seneca (4? B.C - A.D 65) that describes, in part, why I've decided to fast:

“It is the mark of a noble spirit not to precipitate oneself into such things [the life of voluntary poverty] on the ground that they are better, but to practice for them on the ground that they are thus easy to endure; when, however, you come to them after long rehearsal, they are even pleasant; for they contain a sense of freedom from care—and without this nothing is pleasant. I hold it essential, therefore, to do what great men have often done:

"Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence…

"You need not suppose that I mean meals like Timon’s, or ‘pauper’s huts,’ or any other device which luxurious millionaires use to beguile the tedium of their lies. Let the pallet be a real one, and the cloak coarse; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby….

"There is no reason, however, why you should think that you are doing anything great; for you will merely be doing what many thousands of slaves and many thousands of poor men are doing every day. But you may credit yourself with this item—that you will not be doing it under compulsion, and that it will be as easy for you to endure it permanently as to make the experiment from time to time. Let us practice our strokes on the ‘dummy,’ let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard. We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden.” (Taken from the fabulous book of quotes, Less is More.)