The Thomas Merton We Knew

Part 2

Rice has always lived like a hermit. This was so even when he was in the city, but at Sagaponack, on Long Island, it has been even worse. His old farmhouse sits humped over itself off a street that didn't have a name until recently, when overnight somebody turned up and left a little sign calling it Sagg Lake Drive; the "lake" probably refers to the water that collects across the pavement at Sagg Main Street every time it rains. Behind are the elaborate gardens of Robert Dash, painter and landscaper, a very decent man who like Rice is attentive to the beauty of the environment around him, with the single difference being that Rice likes things the way they are and Dash successfully gilds them. Nearby is the comfortable Hamptons house of Kurt Vonnegut. Now and then I see him on his way to the Post Office on Sagg Main, tall and thin and permanently bent from the waist from leaning over a typewriter. Seeing him one day on my way to Rice's, just after I had published my novel, that never got any recognition at all, I waved discreetly at him from the car; dear Kurt waved back at his fellow author. That little wave helped soothe me for the failure of my book.
     On the other side of Rice's house, a computer magazine publisher has had built a modern version of an entire Tuscan village in typical neo-Hamptons style whose only attractiveness comes from a large field of wildflowers adjacent to it; Rice hates this place, it is indeed unshapely, unwelcoming and pretentious; I expect Bob Dash dislikes it too. Rice looks over there and swears. He is probably unaware -- I doubt he would care even if he became aware -- that a lot of people in Sagaponack disapprove of his house too. It's straight up-and-down old wood, some of which is rotting here and there, unpainted for years and generally unattended. It is state-of-the-art Bonacker, plain and simple like the people who were here before all the others on eastern Long Island (after the Indians), and it sits in the middle of a pleasant orchard of peaches, apples, plums, quinces and blueberries; visited by a very large songbird colony, an occasional pheasant, wandering guinea hens, a colony of diseased Long Island rabbits, and a cross from outer space that Rice calls Sagghenge (he claims it just flew in from the primeval past one night, an object from some other universe, but we all know he installed it himself). The house and grounds suit him fine; he doesn't really care whether anyone approves.
     George Plimpton is not far away; other neighbors over the years have been Peter Matthiessen, Truman Capote, James Jones, Wilfrid Sheed and a number of regular staff writers for "The New Yorker," "The New York Times," "New York" magazine. Rice, true to his hermit's nature, has always been aloof from all these people, except for Sheed, with whom he has been friends for many years. When "Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton" became a best seller, and was reviewed on the front page of "The New York Times Book Review," one of his celebrity neighbors is reported to have exclaimed: "Oh, so that's who that guy is!" He says he also was a friend of Matthiessen, back when they both were travelling a lot, to some of the same places. "But right after he became a Zen Buddhist," Rice says, "he became an angry man. So what can you do with an angry Zen Buddhist?"
     The General Store and adjacent Post Office are busy on summer days with media-known people wandering blindly out on to Sagg Main focused on photo opportunities rather than oncoming cars; those of us who are familiar with the area, and not really a part of the General Store crowd, instinctively drive very slowly past the General Store. Rice sits in quietness in the midst of all this. He had the farmhouse moved from Parsonage Lane, not too far away, to its present site years ago, and then, as is his nature, allowed it to run down considerably, as he wrote, painted, took pictures, and travelled to the Middle East and to India and Pakistan. Then he married Susanna Franklin a few years ago; she left her own house in New Jersey to stay with him in Sagaponack; she got him to install a furnace and radiators (Rice, ever indifferent to creature comforts, used to sit there wrapped in blankets in wintertime, warmed on one side of his body by a woodstove). She also got the place cleaned up, as best as could be, and helped put some order in their orchard. All this wasn't as simple as it may sound; Rice has kept everything he has ever owned, produced from his typewriter, his easel, his camera, right back to the days at Columbia. The place is filled with old manuscripts (he has published a dozen books), photographs, correspondence, magazines (especially his own, "Jubilee"), clothing, furniture and travel mementos. A lawyer, Susanna put order not only into house, taxes and various property matters, but also into his relations with publishers, agents and editors; this came at a very useful time as "Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton" continued to sell well in the United States, and to attract attention abroad, especially in England, France and India.

Susanna died suddenly and tragically five years ago; a severe attack of asthma sent her rushing alone in her car toward Southampton Hospital in the middle of the night; the attack was so bad she didn't have time to wait for Rice to dress, slowed down as he was from Parkinson's. She crashed fatally into a tree at Water Mill; the strain of the asthma had led to a heart attack. Rice still is not even close to getting over his grief; at Christmas and Easter, especially, or any other occasion that exemplifies togetherness, he quietly goes to pieces; his doctor recently lashed out at him: "Why the devil are you still grieving? It's been three years, that should have been enough." But it wasn't, and still isn't.
     Rice has an excuse this time, as the house begins going back to the old ways of decay; Susanna is no longer there to run things. Also, Parkinson's controls and transforms his life; the disease had appeared a year or two before Susanna died, and since her death has got much worse. In his present state he wouldn't be able to keep the house up, even if it had suddenly become his nature to do so.
While we were at Columbia, Rice became the editor of "Jester", the college humor magazine, and I was one of his writers. Robert Lax, the poet; Robert Gerdy, later one of the better editors at "The New Yorker"; Charles Saxon, later a "New Yorker" cartoonist, Bob Gibney, Seymour Freedgood and Ad Reinhardt, the painter, were there. Most important for Rice and for me, and I daresay for a number of the others, Merton was also there. He was an illuminating presence in all our lives. This is especially true of Rice, of Lax, and, as I am now discovering, of me too. We are the only ones left -- Rice at Sagaponack, Lax on his Greek island, Patmos, and Knight in Manhattan. Merton is with us every day. And that is the way we want it; we don't ever want to lose him.
     I don't believe, either, that Tom wants to lose us. He had a deep love for friendship; in his eternal mind I don't think he ever lost touch with any of us.
Rice remembers the first time he saw Merton; it was in the student center where most of the undergraduate activities took place -- this was in John Jay Hall, where the college newspaper, "Spectator", was put together, and where the "Jester" staff hung out. "I heard this extraordinary piano music," he reminisced recently, "loud and rhythmic, sounding as though three or four people were at the keyboard at once. 'Who are those guys making all that noise?' I asked a friend. 'It's only Merton," the friend said, 'playing barrelhouse.'
     "He was my friend from then on," Rice said. "We never lost track of each other, and since his death not a day goes by that I don't think of him."
     Rice, who sponsored Merton in his conversion to Catholicism, is at odds with many aspects of today's Thomas Merton cult. "It presents Merton as a plastic saint," Rice says, "a contemporary Little Flower, a sweet, sinless individual who has a direct line to God. But the God some people see Merton communicating with is not the God that I think Merton would have been praying to. I am not comfortable with the plastic saint image of Merton; he was no such thing. I see Merton as an individual in the grand scheme, and it makes no difference whether he is approached as a Roman Catholic monk or a Buddhist lama. He was Merton, and he has his influence as Merton."
     In Paradise with Merton, Rice says, are Lao Tse, Isaac the Blind, Ibn el Araby, Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Charles de Foucaud the Keeper of the Pass, Teilhard de Chardin, Rabia al Alawiya, the Original Sai Baba, Susanna Flying Feather (his own Susanna), Ahmad al Alawi --"an endless number, hundreds, thousands of saints of all faiths, some with no faith at all."
Such are the people Merton is associating with," Rice says. "He's a world figure. He's a man who fits into the scheme of the universal holy man with an appeal to everybody. His most important characteristic is that he is universal; anybody can approach him, pray with him, denounce him, love him; he is there. He's part of the grand scheme, helping us on the way to that mysterious summit we are all searching for."
So here we are, the two of us at at the age of 82, with nearly all our lives behind us; Rice, with his religion unique but still intact, and I, an active Protestant at a young age, having a long time ago stripped away those beliefs. Thinking of Merton. Hoping Merton doesn't forget, pretty sure he won't.
When the lights go out and the spirit streaks off into the dizzying and frightening darkness, Merton will be there. I'm counting on him to reach out for me; then I'll leave the rest entirely up to him; he'll know where to go and what to do.
I hope you have quick hands, Tom.
And strong wrists.




back / next page