“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.” ― Marcus Aurelius
Frank didn’t understand it either. A purposeless activity, he called it, a waste of time, maybe, but like picking your nose, it’s not what you’ve got in the end that counts. Everybody needs something, he said. He himself continued to write, scribbling furiously through the pages of his next book as though racing toward a deadline – only to destroy it.
The first time, years ago, was the burning of Brazil. She’d tried stopping him then, grabbing his arm – Frank? What are you doing? Wait… – as four years of manuscript fell into the flames. She’d cringed as the white sheets curled and blackened. She hadn’t understood. He was mad, surely, caught up in the moment, encircled by darkness beneath those wilderness stars, that full moon dancing on the lake, the campfire flickering shadows, frog songs rising from the shore below. That moon – la luna, luna, lunatic.
But there was nothing maniacal in the way Frank moved – calm, deliberate, without ceremony or fuss. He skewered two wieners on a sharpened branch, held them over the fire. And then he asked, Did we bring mustard?
The last one, Papua New Guinea, was dropped in the sea. It wasn’t his choice, he said, as though his actions belonged to somebody else. It was the way it was, a prescribed course, a bad habit, maybe – or maybe not. Nevertheless, he felt no remorse in disposing of his books. On the contrary, each time it relieved him, as though he’d returned something stolen to its proper place.
The above vignette is an old writing, inspired by someone I knew. Frank was a Czech immigrant, part of a Czech community of artists (painters, writers, etc.) who’d made their home on the east coast of Canada. Frank was part of that group but not; although bound by a common culture he lived outside its circle, knocking on its doors now and then for a shower or a meal. And no one expected anything of him because, with Frank, you never knew what to expect.
The last time I saw Frank he was living in a bare boarded, one room shed in a small fishing village in Nova Scotia. He invited me in. It was the middle of winter and he was fretting because he’d had to buy a wood stove. He despised possessions and he felt a stove tied him down. I don’t know how he’d lived there without one, or how long he’d been there, but he’d always lived on the edge.
A single, worn mattress lay on the floor with a sleeping bag spread over it. No pillow. No windows. No bathroom. I’ve got an outhouse he said … You need to go? I didn’t. On a rough wooden table, his old pink typewriter, plastic and portable, sat with a sheet of paper rolled into it, dense with faded words – he needed a new ribbon. What are you writing these days, Frank? He smiled nervously with chapped lips. Ah y’know, I write always about life. He offered me the only chair and sat himself down on a low wooden crate. Did I want tea? he asked, and poured me a cup from a pot on the stove. A single light bulb dangled from the ceiling and we talked, perhaps, for a half hour or less. He told me he was eating only yogurt. Yogurt had everything the body needed, he said, and occasionally he would get some French fries at Jack’s. He made enough money doing odd jobs here and there, hammering nails, lifting stuff, helping out all the old people who’d hire him. In the summers, sometimes, he went out on the fishing boats.
Throughout his life he’d sailed on freight ships and worked in mines. He’d clubbed seals somewhere in the far north and traversed the jungles of Brazil on some sort of mission. I don’t know what he was doing in Papua New Guinea but it was a place he wanted to return to. He craved adventure. His favourite book was The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. He’d also been a great fan of Jungian psychology and in particular, the process of individuation. But that last time I saw him, he talked mostly about yogurt. But whatever the subject he spoke intensely. That was Frank.
From time to time I’ve googled his name and, not surprisingly, he leaves no trace. I can’t imagine him sitting behind a computer, addicted to Facebook or Twitter. No… although a man of surprises, that would be a massive stretch. I’d like to think he’s in Papua New Guinea, or wherever he wants to be, sitting behind his typewriter with an endless supply of ribbon to tell his tales – if just to himself.
He needed no audience. His life was his own. And I’d guess it still is.