22 November

Emotionally Speaking: I Will Sing My Song

by Jon Katz
Exhaustion And Gratitude

Be not simply good, be good for something.” – Henry David Thoreau

I came to the country for the same reason Thoreau went to Walden Pond, to face myself, make my own mistakes, and learn what I needed to know to go forward with my life. I was nearly 50, I wanted to think about the rest of my life, not simply live it out and stockpiling my IRA.

I wanted to live a considered life, not simply move through one day or another. In that time, there was no social media, not smart phones I was up on a hill in a cabin with two dogs, and there was no advice from anyone. It was one of the seminal experiences of my life. i explored my spirituality, I learned to be alone, I learned to plan ahead and improvise, stack wood, maintain fires, even to mark trails in the woods.

I had to do it by myself, that was the point.

I wanted to be independent, I wanted my life to be about more than making money (as it turned out, that was the easy part.) Like Thoreau, I moved out of my comfort zone, and like him, I was never really far from comfort.

“How vain it is,” he wrote, “to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” That’s the point for me. To be any good, a writer must have some life to write

Thoreau is often ridiculed because his mother often brought him dinner and he often came home to visit – home was pretty close. But for me, that does not diminish the power of his writing or the power of his words or his fierce determination to be honest and make up his own mind about things.

Thoreau hated unwanted advice, he considered it a violation of self, and so do I.

Social media promotes the ideology of intrusion, of unwanted advice from strangers. For many people, that is the point of it. Everyone gets t be a saint, a seer, a doctor, soother,  or shrink, at no cost and often anonymously. So sorry for your loss.

Every day I get a message – more than one – that begins with these words: “I know you don’t like advice, but..” I mistrust advice from strangers. I get most of my advice from books, and through my own mistakes and stumbles.

This need of people to give advice always puzzles me a bit. I am wary of giving advice to anyone, but when I know someone doesn’t want it, I never do.

Many people just blow right through that boundary, as if it were meaningless chatter or nothing to be respected. I’m seeing that people are addicted now to telling other people what to do.

Thoreau wanted to build his cabin by himself, he didn’t want other people to tell him how to do it, or to crap on him or get into his head about how he did do it. It was enough for people just to read him, they didn’t have to tell him what to do.

The whole point of Walden was for him to respect nature, and do as much of it by himself as he could,  and thus know that he could do it.

I also had friends on my journey, help and grocery stores nearby. And some people did laugh at the idea that I was alone and vulnerable. I was not, I am sure, but I sure felt like I was.

I was challenged to rethink the way I lived my life up on the mountain, and I did.

But I have to admit that sometimes the messages of advice and consideration I get are profound and very useful to me. Yesterday, I experienced what was, for me, a shocking level of exhaustion, so complete and deep I thought I might be seriously ill, even dying. Since I have  heart disease, it was not an impossible thought.

I lay down by the wood stove, I listened to some music. I knew I was not dying.

I didn’t feel sick, just profoundly tired, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. So I wrote about it, as I often do when  I’m stumped, and I will be honest with you, for all my railing about advice, I knew someone out there would help me to understand.

Lynne was the person.

Dear Jon,” she wrote, “Emotionally speaking, what you went through with losing Connie and participating in two services honoring her, allowing the feelings, is a “masterpiece” in its own right..and takes a lot of energy. Grieving takes a lot of energy. Being tired is so normal after the loss of someone you care about, connected with. And simultaneously you gave, and gave, and gave, not only to the Mansion residents and to Connie’s family, but also to those of us  you fondly call  “The Army Of Good.” May God’s blessings always be with you.”

Lynne hit the nail on the head, I think, it rings true. I think she must be a therapist.

It was also what Maria had been telling all week – to take it  easy, to be careful of the emotion.

This is a difficult message for me, and not only because I am dumb and often oblivious to myself and others. Connie was not my mother, not my brother or sister, not my son or daughter. I was not her nurse or aide.

I reject drama and narcissism, this is really not my loss to co-opt, it belongs to others. I only knew Connie for a year, and I was not conscious of being terribly close to her beyond the work Red and I were doing in the Mansion. I was a voice between her and the many big hearts out there who rushed to help.

We were just doing our jobs. I don’t see myself as central, but as on the periphery. This, perhaps, explains my confusion.

I’m not being falsely modest, my ego is strong and busy, you can’t write without one. But for all of my shortcomings, low energy is not one of them. I slept well last night and I feel stronger today, but still weak and drained.

And it is true that there are all sorts of ways to bond with people. Taking photographs of them is one way. Helping for them is another. Writing about them is another. Connie and I were definitely close to one another.

When all is  said and done,  Lynne is right, I think. There is really no other explanation. I know the difference from being drained and being sick.

One of Thoreau’s primary ideas for me was that we should be ourselves, not somebody else’s idea of what yourself should be. Most men and women live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. Like Thoreau, I set out into the unfamiliar because I wished to live deliberately.

I am doing that, for better or worse. Joseph Campbell wrote that the core of the hero journey is to know where you are in life. I was watching some of the awful news this week, and then stopped.

I care about my country, I wish to do good, but at the same time, I need to step out-of-the-way and let the next generation sort out just what kind of country they wish this to be. I know where I am, I don’t need to carry all that weight on my back any more. That is where I am in life.

I will just do my good, and learn how to love. And this week, get on with gratitude.

And yes, I am singing my song.


  1. I don’t know what other people are trying to tell you, but it sure sounds like your body is trying to tell you something. 🙂

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