I’m fascinated by nature and solitude (I’ve written a few books to prove it!) and am curious about people who live on life’s edges: I’ve asked my book club to read Walden this year. Count me as a fan of John Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Mary Losure’s Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron. So when I stumbled on The Stranger in the Woods, I knew this book would push all my curiosity buttons.
At twenty, Chris Knight walked away from his life to live by himself in the Maine woods. Over time, he became known as the North Pond Hermit, a mysterious stranger who withstood near starvation and freezing each winter and who broke into unoccupied cabins to steal food, reading material, clothing, propane tanks, and even a mattress or two. Twenty-seven years after disappearing, he was captured. This book is a deep dive into why some people have chosen to leave society (are they pilgrims? protesters? pursuers?) and Knight’s experience in particular. I found it fascinating and sad. Toward the end, I was a little uncomfortable with the author’s role in Knight’s life: was he acting responsibly or being meddlesome? Was he kind or out of line? Also, Chris Knight was no fan of Thoreau, which makes my future reading of Walden all the more interesting.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman
It was interesting to pick this book up right after The Stranger in the Woods, which was such a stark contrast to our normally overly busy lives. Four Thousand Weeks is more philosophical than prescriptive, and I really enjoyed it as a person who loves to schedule and plan and follow a routine (and sometimes gets a bit too wrapped up in those things). In other words, I don’t need any more “how to” advice. The title is a reflection of the number of weeks we’ll have lived if we make it to eighty and is an interesting and comprehensive way to view time management (because, if we make it to eighty, do we really “have” that time to do with as we please?). Burkeman reminds us we really can’t manage or possess time (though we often behave as we do). We’ll never get everything finished in this lifetime. Every choice we make is a decision not to do something else. These are things we all (probably) know, but don’t always acknowledge.
My only quibble had to do with the author’s conclusions about religious people who believe in an afterlife. His stance was that such people have a pretty casual approach to time since they believe they have all the time in the world (and beyond). Maybe he leaned too heavily on the conclusions of scholars who studied the mindsets of the typical European in the middle ages (which he mentions several times), and perhaps some religious people feel this way now, but I know no one in my circles who views life with such little regard. For me, my faith helps me see my time as a gift I want to use well. (Though “using time” is an idea Burkeman tries to steer readers away from. Time, he would say, isn’t an instrument we can control to benefit some future outcome.) I’m intrigued (and liberated!) by his ideas. Lots of great food for thought.
No Cure for Being Human: (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler
And right after Four Thousand Weeks, I picked up this book, which in many ways took the philosophical ideas laid out in Weeks and and applied them to a life in real time. At thirty-five, Professor Kate Bowler of Duke Divinity School was diagnosed with stage iv cancer. This is a collection of her reflections as she processes the idea that no life is ever truly finished. Strangely, this book filled in the spiritual side I’d wanted in Weeks. I loved how the books complimented each other.
A couple of quotes I’d like to remember:
“No matter how carefully we schedule our days, master our emotions, and try to wring our best life now from our better selves, we cannot solve the problem of finitude.”
“Someday we won’t need hope. Someday we don’t need courage. Time itself will be wrapped up with a bow, and God will draw us all into the eternal moment where there will be no suffering, no disease, no email. In the meantime, we are stuck with our beautiful, terrible finitude…How lucky, then, that we are not failing. Our lives are not problems to be solved. We can have meaning and beauty and love, but nothing even close to resolution.”