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Being A Monk @16

July 10, 2017


This is an evolution of a piece at the behest of a friend, who read the first piece and noted that I had become a monk for 6 weeks: I went with it

“I’ll see you in August.”

My mother shut the door of our 1968 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon, yet another time, after three years of serial withdrawal, returning to Westchester County, the bosom of New York City Suburbia. I was remoted up north, so she could serially remote herself from her marriage.

It was June in downtown Buffalo, 1972. It was hot. I was 16. It was a couple of weeks into the summer after 11th grade. The previous fall I had been voted one of the 2 captains of my high school football team, that had, again, won our very small private school league championship.

I had become self–sufficient, really only requiring my parents money to survive. Coming to Buffalo, my life had ceased to have its weekly island of church. Even when my mother was visiting, about half-time, being a mid-century Low Church Episcopalian simply ended. My guess is that those weekly jaunts, without my father, were the micro version of my evacuation.

Once gone, I was out of sight and out of mind to who was left south: just as was my father when my mother was in Buffalo. This was an unspoken, largely irrational gesture of accommodation of my family’s dysfunction (my father drank). But it’s real impact for me, largely unknowable for 20 years or more was that my four years in Buffalo were a situation facilitating sanctification.

I only realize this now, 45 years later, because Mockingbird has given me the perspective to understand beyond a self-help manual. Unlike a 10 Step Program, my “self-actualization” had a “spiritual” basis. I just thought I was surviving.

I knew, even at the time, in the absence of parenting, but with extreme edges of devotion, that I was left to be a monk in downtown Buffalo. Mockingbird defines my summer of 1972 as a “sanctification” :

“The concept of “sanctification” is taken from the Latin word sanctificare, which is a combination of sanctus “holy” and facere “to make.” Sanctification, then, refers to the process of becoming more holy/righteous/good/etc, of growing or maturing in faith.”

But to a 16 year old who wanted to play, it was the last chance to crush it. I had played some on my football team, less as the year went on. Not being a natural athlete I had played in the fall of 1971 because I was ready, because I worked out the summer before. I also played because I focused on the thing I cared more about than anything else – being good at football. This summer could command my full measure – to give me the benefit of the doubt.

My other focus, my best friend, was leaving, too. She was a classmate, and she summered in the Adirondacks. My co-inhabitant of our house was my 21 year old brother, who worked – and never said much to me if he was around – and when around he was often remotely in the hands of mind alteration.

So, this time when my mother left, I was alone, again.

In the previous spring I had discovered that the University of Buffalo had a program for rising high school seniors: if in, you could enroll in any undergraduate course. Including summer courses. Heaven. I applied, and got in.

I did odd jobs on my block for expense money, but my parents agreed to pay for any courses I could enter: remarkably inexpensive at a state school 45 years ago. I entered two 400-level, max credit courses. Both courses were 5 days a week, for 6 weeks, I wanted to do this because I was into school: grades were a thing I could do.

One course, reading and discussing about 24 Shakespeare plays, met from 7:45 to 9:15am. The other was about the history of Britain from the Magna Carta to The Bill of Rights and met one building away from 9:30 to 11. The professors were remarkable, the topics fascinating – it was a complete immersion.

But I was immersed in football too.

I was slow of foot, so I had worn 5 pound ankle weights for a year when I was not working out or sleeping. I had no driver’s license, so I rode my bike everywhere, rain or shine or dark of night. For several years I rode to the Downtown Buffalo YMCA where other high school athletes, off duty police and interpersonally ambiguous middle aged men were. The kids and cops worked out – the others seemed to watch.

So there was my summer: mornings cycling 10 miles up Main Street to classes, then cycling to our house, changed, had a large shake of protein powder, 6 raw eggs, vanilla extract, honey and skim milk, back on the bike cycling down Main Street to hit the track and weight room for 3 hours: then back home by 5 to study, sleep at 10 and wake to do it again. Weekends were working out and studying.

Six weeks seemed like an endless sea of time. I had 24 hours a day to do what was necessary, and only what was necessary. It was bliss. Letters from my friend, living with Cromwell and Shakespeare, sore and crushing it in the gym.

I had no friends, no family, no hobbies, no social life. But I had two things to do as hard as I could do them. In rotation: Mind, Body, Mind, Body. School, Gym, School, Sleep. 24 hours a day for 46 days. I went to bed exhausted. Mind racing, thinking of the next day

I never said a word before 7:45AM or after 11AM, and I was largely silent on weekends. There was no questioning: This was Right. I could do this. My grades were good, the class discussions intense and fun. My Leg Press on the old Universal Gym Weight Machine as completely maxed out, and my bench press was finally approaching my weight. I came to run, with the ankle weights, for an hour without distress – pushing to go faster on the 1922 banked track around the basketball court.

I could do this.

I may not have a family, I may not have straight A’s, I may not be the best player on my team – but I could get better.

I could get better.

Like those monks who have remoted themselves from the here and now are, I was intentionally pursuing sanctification. I fully immersed myself in dedication. I meshed with oblique academia for 4 hours a day, then I immersed my mind and body, completely, to do what I knew was right and good – to completely control my young life.

I had rejected distraction in the noise of the world to create an all-consuming day of maximum application of my mind, body, and yes, spirit. If you asked me if I was a Christian in 1972, I would profess confusion. There was no confusion here: I had created narrow perfection: I was in a place of sanctification: albeit with worldly means and motives.

But clearly, somehow, I had faith. In denial, control, focus, – in extreme limitation I fully launched into silence.

I was, for a short time, a monk. There were few questions. There were some answers. Those before me on the practice field in August paid a terrible price.


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