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The Presentness and Mindfulness of Robert Lax’s Pure Act (part two)

After traveling with the Cristiani circus family through Western Canada in 1949 and finishing a draft of what would become his first book, The Circus of the Sun, in 1950, Robert Lax felt restless.  His observations of the Cristiani acrobats and reading of St. Thomas Aquinas had given him a clear sense of how he wanted to live in the world and a name for it: pure act.  But he didn’t know where he should be living or what he should be doing other than writing his poetry.

Aquinas had written that only God was pure act, but Lax believed that people could come close to being pure act themselves if they were filled with love.  According to his definition, pure act was a kind of mindfulness–a practiced way of being in the world–and yet it was a presentness too–a spontaneous living-in-the-moment without self-consciousness or hesitation.  Having heard that Catherine de Hueck had started Friendship House in Harlem simply by moving into a tenement and addressing whatever need was right in front of her, Lax decided to do the same thing in  Marseilles, the French city that had scared him the first time he’d seen it.

Nothing lasting came from Lax’s months in Marseilles other than a strong belief that simply being a loving presence could be as much of a vocation as anything else.  That was enough.  Although he continued to roam restlessly in future years–traveling with another circus in Italy, editing a literary journal in Paris, and working for Jubilee magazine in New York–he had narrowed his true desires to three: living a simple contemplative life, writing the kind of poetry he wanted to write, and being a loving presence wherever he was.

It wasn’t until Lax left America’s commercialism and relentless ambition behind and moved to the Greek islands, however, that he found a place he could feel at peace.  On the island of Kalymnos he discovered a whole community of fishermen and sponge divers who seemed to live lives of pure act, singly and together.  The smallest gesture was both practiced and spontaneous, ancient and new.  Everyone seemed fully present and alive.  He settled among them to learn from them while writing his poetry the same way.

When politics forced Lax to move to the nearby island of Patmos, he was momentarily dismayed.  But he soon realized that a life of pure act could be lived anywhere: circumstances didn’t matter.  In time he drew people from the around the world to the island of St. John, where they experienced and learned from his loving presence.  His pure act.

 

 

 

First Review of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

The first review of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, from Publishers Weekly, was just posted:

Drawing on his friendship with poet Robert Lax (1915–2000) and his close readings of Lax’s writings, McGregor eloquently offers the definitive biography of a too often forgotten figure who influenced a number of writers and crafted spirituality out of his deep commitment to love, poverty, and justice. McGregor deftly and briefly chronicles Lax’s childhood in Olean, Penn. His family eventually moved to New York City, but not before the circus came to Olean and mesmerized the young Lax—with its performers who are “portals to the land of dusk”—so deeply that he traveled with a circus through western Canada in 1949 and wrote a cycle of poems that grew out of his experience and love. By the fall of 1943, Lax had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, inspired by his readings of Thomas Aquinas’s writings and by his ongoing discussions with Thomas Merton, whom Lax had met at Columbia University. Following his conversion, Lax embraced a life of poverty, combining his lack of desire for things with a passion for nurturing a love for those on the fringes of society. This detailed biography from a friend of subject is best for those already interested in Lax’s mission. The book effectively brings to life Lax’s “pure act”—naturally living out his God-given abilities without becoming mired in judging others. (Sept.)

The Presentness and Mindfulness of Robert Lax’s Pure Act (part one)

When Robert Lax was a student at Columbia University in the late ‘30s, he and Thomas Merton liked to go to jazz clubs late at night to watch jazz musicians jam. These jam sessions were more spontaneous than a regular performance, but they weren’t entirely freewheeling and they certainly weren’t chaotic. What gave them form and flow was a combination of the musicians’ training, whatever tune they were using as a base, and their presentness and mindfulness. The musicians were fully in the moment, listening and responding to each other.

When the time came for one of them to solo, he knew it, not because a leader gave a nod but because the music shifted his direction, an opening invited him to shine. In that moment, as he blew his horn or strummed his bass, he did it more intensely and more soulfully than he had before, playing, as George Clinton once said, like his mamma just died. He didn’t do it to outplay the others but because playing his best, expressing what he could best express, was the best way of both respecting and encouraging his fellow musicians. Each one playing his best brought out the best in the others.

A worrier by nature, Lax longed to be as present and as mindful, as disciplined and yet insouciant and spontaneous as those musicians were. His relationship with Merton and their other college friends gave him a taste of how a constant jam might feel: the free exchange of new ideas and views, the playing off of one another, the applauding of creative accomplishments. But college ended and his friends scattered. Merton entered a monastery. Jazz musicians were still playing, of course, but the world offered few other models of the concept Lax would come to call pure act, and his understanding of it remained more theoretical than actual.

Until, that is, he met the Crisitani family. Performers since they were young, the family’s eleven brothers and sisters were the world’s leading equestrian acrobats. Catholics all, they shared a faith and an understanding of each other built from countless hours of practicing and performing together. Each had his individual talents and personality but all were serious and sober, happy and playful, graceful and skillful, as Lax would describe them in his poem cycle Mogador’s Book.

About the skill of Mogador, the brother Lax felt closest to, he wrote:

Like the highest art,
it is a kind of play
which involves
responsibility
and control;
An activity which involves
awareness and appreciation;
Its own symbolic value.
Like the prayers
of the old in wisdom,
it has the joy
and the solemnity of love.

Lax’s first book, The Circus of the Sun, was an attempt to show the relationship in spirit between the performers in the Cristianis circus and the Creation story:

“We have seen all the days of creation in one day: this is
the day of the waking dawn and all over the field the
people are moving, they are coming to praise the Lord:
and it is now the first day of creation…

He succeeded wonderfully in portraying the grace and beauty of both circus and creation, but the writing of the book did not come easily. And after writing it, he still felt far more anxious than he wanted to. To live and make his art as freely as the Cristianis did, he’d need a deeper understanding of himself and what he meant by pure act, a phrase he’d borrowed from St. Thomas Aquinas. He’d need to make a move, too: from overly commercial and distracted America to a tiny room beside the waterfront in dangerous Marseilles, and then an island far from anyone or anything he knew, in the middle of the vast Aegean.

(part two to come…)

A Gyroscope on the Island of Love

by Michael N. McGregor—originally published in Image, no. 70, Summer 2011

I’d been meaning to call him for days and hadn’t, but that afternoon something made me search for a phone. The same something, maybe, that had led me to Robert Lax in the first place fifteen years before. My wife and I were walking through a small Turkish town where all I could find was a cheap payphone halfway up a dirt alley. Connections between Turkey and Greece were bad in those days and this phone looked especially dubious, but I pushed my coins into the slot and dialed his number. The usual clicks and beeps filled my ear, then the low, drawn-out brrrrrs as his line rang. Continue reading A Gyroscope on the Island of Love

Turning the Jungle Into a Garden

by Michael N. McGregor—originally published in Poets & Writers, March/April 1997

There is no easy, efficient way to reach the Greek island poet Robert Lax calls home. A nine-hour flight from New York leaves you less than halfway there, subject first to an adrenaline-draining, needle-threading, joint-jangling taxi ride from the Athens airport to the harbor at Piraeus, then a nine- or twelve-hour (depending on the seas – everything in Greece depends upon the seas) passage on an aging, noisy, smoke-filled ferry that might not even make its scheduled stop.

That is, of course, if the ferry is running that day at all – and if you haven ‘t had the misfortune to arrive on a day when the ferry is traveling to Piraeus instead of away from it, or when the engines have gone out, or when the ferry workers are on strike.

By the time you arrive on Patmos, usually at 1:00 or 2:00 A.M., the New York world of instant gratification, instant communication, instant everything seems strangely, almost painfully, remote. Continue reading Turning the Jungle Into a Garden