By Jon Katz
Published by Broadway Books – New York
ISBN 0 7679 0498 2
Stay at home father Jon Katz, married with one daughter, is a journalist who faces a crisis upon turning 50.
His wife Paula has a career of her own. When his daughter leaves for college, he buys a dilapidated house in the mountains, in spite of the fact that their New York home needs fixing up, and he should think about saving for retirement. In a writer’s wobbly financial life, the only predictable thing was that nothing was predictable.
He takes the plunge, for the “new” house was a writer’s place.
On and off from 1997, he spends time there with his two Labradors and many books of Thomas Merton. Since his youth this controversial monk was Jewish Katz’s spiritual inspiration, as he searches with Merton’s for truth and his faith in God. In the end he comes to the disappointing conclusion that the monk didn’t find an answer to his many questions after all.
“At the peak of the mountain that looks from New York State across a rural valley carpeted with farms into the green hills of Vermont”, describes the location of the wreck of a house.
We meet Jeff, Jon’s peer, writer-brother and friend. Writers really need friends, for they are perpetually in crisis, spend a lot of time alone – a state in which crises loom especially large, according to Jon.
In coming to the mountain he hoped that change, spirituality (we would call it faith in God) and idealism weren’t only “up there”, but also “down there” in the details of his daily life, work, friends and dreams.
“Journeys of the soul” are key moments or passages in our lives that often ask for spiritual decisions. Jon stopped, stepped out of routine, and took the trouble to think. For him it wasn’t a luxury, but an obligation; he forced himself to make deliberate decisions, not on impulse or fear.
As he began to discover himself he realized that he had a choice: change or not. People who choose for change often were happier than those who didn’t.
Jon takes us along on his journey of buying the house, the struggles renovating it, how he dealt with undrinkable well water and had to dig a new well, and the mice that seemed to have taken over.
We meet his neighbors – one loans Jon his dog, “Lulu”, who kills more mice than ten cats; the village people who are so helpful and so different from the big city folk he is used to. After Jon had been stupid enough to stand outside while a thunderstorm passed by his house, his closest neighbor, each time a new storm blew in, called to check on him.
Being a web-editor turned out to be very difficult without internet access. He only had a party line to use.
Katz saw turning 50 as a milestone that needed to be recognized and marked, celebrated as a passage, not as a birthday.
50 was the time to take stock. He asked himself how he wanted to spend their remaining years, decided to seize opportunities, and tried to reckon with both past and future. He wanted to spend the next 20 years in a joyful way, not rushing towards aches, pensions and retirement.
He began to realize that publishers, readers, agents and critics could make his life easier or harder, but in the end they couldn’t determine what he should be doing and how well he could do it. He decided to stop allowing others to define him, have faith in himself and do better work. Instead of hop scotching across several avenues he would only work on one or two. Writing was what he loved and was meant to do.
For Jon, change (buying the house) had been a clarifying experience. It had been like buying a new pair of glasses with a better prescription. Fuzzy things became clearer, perspective sharper and his focus changed – he rearranged himself.
Through the house and the interactions and friendship with the local people, Jon learned to live life with less fear and more freedom; he realized that he had a worthwhile place in the world and important things to contribute.
Turning 50 for Jon became an exhilarating kickoff to life after 50. His new life motto was: you have to give change the chance to happen, and don’t overlook one of life’s basic tasks: to have a good time.
His dreams, hope and faith were inextricably linked. He pursued his dreams, believed in them and miraculously, they materialized.
Although it’s a secular book, you can glean a lot of good insights and “food for thought” from it.
“We have to weave our spirituality (faith) and idealism into every day tasks and obligations, if we are to know them at all.”
“No one can find faith simply by wanting to. He must receive grace, and actual light and impulsion of the mind”, Merton wrote and described a being “born again” experience.
“Tragedies and shocks can be gifts as well as setbacks. Life is sometimes an interval between sorrows, marked by journeys and experiences that deepen and alter us.”
While Merton sat in his lonely hermitage and searchd for God, he asked himself: Who am I? The straight, instinctive answer was: a son of God.
I kept hoping Jon would find God on his mountain, which he didn’t, although he came close.
He resolved to give himself to those around him; he got rid of his negative self image, dared to step out and chose for change.
He challenges us to dare to stop and think about our life. He tells us that a life without dreams is the absence of hope. Dreams need to weather and age.
Aside from enjoying the journey with Jon Katz, there are many good things we can take away from this book - even when we’re not turning 50 (yet).