Running to the Mountain: book by Jon Katz

A midlife adventure many men could learn from

This is a gem of a book: an autobiographical tale which is deep, touching, funning, and relevant for a lot of us.

JonKatz (1)Our hero, Jon Katz, is a guy in suburban New Jersey, who at fifty is struggling with familiar issues, including debts, uncertainties about work, sustaining a long marriage, and alongside all these, the big deep midlife questions of what life’s about, now.

Katz falls in love with a shack atop a mountain in deepest rural upstate New York.  It’s rundown, tastelessly decorated, overrun with mice and bugs, and he can’t afford it.  We know he’ll end up buying it, but his debate with himself, his long-suffering wife, and best mate is a profound, moving example of the midlife crisis.

This story has a second hero: Thomas Merton, the great American Christian philosopher, who is Katz’s inspiration, a mentor from beyond the grave.  One of the gripping storylines in this book is the way Katz has to deconstruct his hero, recognise his failures as well as his genius, for Katz to find his own happiness.

We share vividly Katz’s life on the mountain, with his dogs, the locals he meets, and…piles of Merton’s writings.  As a teenager, Katz was electrified by Merton’s account of the happiness of being a monk, along with God and nature.  But the fifty-year old Katz realises that Merton at fifty was deeply unhappy.  He had fallen in love with a young woman, renounced this chance, but bitterly regretted it.

So Katz, doing the crazy buy rightful thing in following his heart and buying the shack, is guided by his hero’s failure.  Likewise he realises that whereas Merton detested technology and sought complete solitude, his own truth is to integrate and alternate.  He can shuttle between the mountain and his family life, he can revel in wild nature on a morning hike, and spend the afternoon writing on his laptop.

Although Katz writes of finding a spiritual dimension; for him this is a deep part of himself in connection with nature on the mountain, not with a being he would call God.  He concludes that his past differs basically from Merton’s: He chose not only solitude but loneliness, and I have chosen family and friends.  He left the world behind, the better to seek God, and I had left God behind, the better to deal with the world… On the mountaintop, I came to see my own life in a deeper, richer, and more useful way than I’d been able to do elsewhere.  But I would learn that stepping outside oneself was a matter less of geography than of state of mind.

If this snapshot is even halfway appealing, buy the book.  It’s beautifully written, and Katz’s story has a kind of everyman appeal in the way his spiritual progress grows from grappling with septic tanks and hanging out at the recycling centre, as well as the mountain itself.

Tags: Literature, Ageing