Friday, December 9, 2016

A Dark Night in the Forest

Christopher Thomas Knight after his arrest for burglary

Christmas 2016.  It is an uncertain world, as it is always an uncertain world.  I’m also skeptical about this as a season of peace and light.  There is desperation in the air.  On the commute home, people fly by me as darkness falls.  Drivers swerve and change lanes without a backward glance.  Everybody’s frantic; everybody’s impatient, in a rush.

I went to a Christmas party last week where the hosts actually worked off of a script timed to the minute.

“I want to welcome you all to our annual Christmas party,” the host said.  “We’ll have a half hour for small talk and then we will eat.”  And exactly 28 minutes later, we ate.  “The main course here is barbecue,” she gestured with a Vanna White wave of her hand.  “And over here we have our vegetarian entrees and our gluten-free options.”  They had covered all the bases.

Forty minutes later:  “we will now play holiday-themed games.”

Thirty-five minutes after that:  “now it’s time for dessert.”

I felt like I was doing one of those Olympic events where contestants run so many miles, then swim, then shoot rifles at targets, and then bicycle.  If this constitutes the holidays, let me off the train.  I’m not in shape for this.  I left the party exhausted.

I cannot get into the mall parking lot.  The lot for my mailbox at the UPS store is overflowing with angry people trying to get at their mail.  The car wash is full.  Even gas stations have lines.  Where is everyone going?  Did Armageddon come and I missed the warning signs?

Yesterday, I read a story about Christopher Thomas Knight, who lived undetected in the Maine woods for 27 years.  He was known as the North Pond hermit.  Before he was caught and arrested, he committed 1000 burglaries of cabins and houses in the area, stealing only food, kitchen utensils, and books.  He did not need anything else.  He was tried and convicted, spending seven months in prison.

Over the course of almost three decades, he lived in a campsite just a few hundred feet from someone’s cabin yet he was undetected.  He met only one other person in all those years:  a day hiker with whom he exchanged greetings.  When he was taken into custody, his communication skills were so rusty, he had trouble answering basic questions.

When he walked into the woods in 1986 at the age of twenty, he did not say goodbye to anyone nor did his parents report him missing.  “We’re not emotionally bleeding all over each other,” Knight said.  “We’re not touchy-feely.  Stoicism is expected.”

A psychologist who evaluated him thought he might be autistic.  He comes off as rather emotionless and blunt.

It’s weird how some people simply fade into the shadows completely off the grid.  In Knight’s case, no one can figure out how he survived on his own for so long, especially in winter.  He said he slept from 7:30 PM to 2 AM.  If he stayed awake and moving during the coldest part of the night, he could survive the subzero temperatures.  Otherwise, the steam from his own body would freeze him in his sleeping bag.

Suddenly, the irony is real.  Sitting in gridlocked traffic, thousands of us in our metal cocoons inching toward home, we are surrounded by the disappeared, the invisible.  They are tucked up under the concrete buttresses of the freeway in their cardboard shelters.  They are above the angst and frantic energy of all of us in this holiday season, but they are tortured as well.  For many, the trauma of everyday life brings back memories that are overwhelming, debilitating, full of images of war, violence, and loneliness.  Like Christopher Thomas Knight, they walked off into the wilderness of their lives and chose to live in the urban jungle in anonymity for reasons known only to them.  They all have stories, but very few get to tell them.

For many people in this season of anxiety, dropping out of the rat race is a romantic notion.  Some of us long for Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.  But we must be careful; Thoreau’s cabin is just a version of Ted Kazcynski's shack in Montana.  A respite from civilization can all to easily become something dark and sinister, even murderous.  The homeless of Los Angeles might have something in common with Knight:  they have no need to text or email or post their status on Facebook.  They stay huddled in their cardboard, castoff, makeshift rooms and try to escape the cacophony hammering inside their skulls.  This is the parallel universe of Christmas, the darker twin of the season of peace and light.  It is unsettling, and much too real, but it exists, and we must bear witness.

Christopher Thomas Knight's campsite for 27 years in the Maine woods

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