An Interview With Richard Smoley
The inner Christian path, as I understand it, involves walking a fine line between the two extremes. You face all your inner issues rigorously and impartially; you want to see everything there is inside the teeming ocean of the psyche. But — and this is an important but — you are not identified with it. At the back of your mind there must always be an awareness that you are not your “passions” (to use the traditional Christian term), that there is something in you that is awake and alive and, incidentally, immortal. This is the true “I,” the pure consciousness, the “light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” It sees everything in you impartially and objectively — but also with profound compassion.
Vera piled the thin, silvery black fish on my plate. Their beady little fish eyes kept staring at me. As a distraction, and for revenge, and because I was hungry, I focused on the technique of eating them: first pinch the head between my finger and thumb; then take two precise bites — one on each side — and a few nibbles to steal all the meat from each.
The story of my life is the story of the Tao Te Ching. I first discovered this book, by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, when I was twelve years old. At that time I was in the smartest class at P.S. 152 in Manhattan. In fact, I was one of the smartest youths in the smartest class. I commonly received grades of 98, 99, and 100. I was also president of the class, and captain of the monitor squad. I planned to become a doctor.
When the doctors told us Jeff was dying of leukemia, he and I began to fight. Jeff was twenty-nine, I was twenty-eight, and we’d been building a sixteen-by-twenty-four-foot timber-frame cabin on a small hill of hard ground in Vermont’s Green Mountains.
My first day on the job, Uncle Pat teamed me with a wiry little bricklayer named Shotty Montileone, who had learned the brick trade at Thorn Hill Reform School. Shotty talked like a gangster, syllable by syllable, in that halting, mannered clip, so you never really knew when he was finished.