Most of the philosophers I have ever met have been from Maine. I am not sure why, but they seem to crank them out up there. Perhaps it is their cruel winters, or the rocky coastline, or the vast expanses of open space, or the lack of company. Whatever the reason, they sure are fun to talk with.
Robert is from Maine. He is down here for the winter to help friends in the East End with various projects. He’s currently repairing their deck, destroyed in the December storm. I run into him all the time because that is the path my dog and I take to the beach. While I have a hard and fast rule not to interrupt any working person for more than 10 minutes, Robert is decidedly interruptible. So, we talk, while my dog waits patiently.
Robert is neither tall nor short, neither young nor old. His hair is longish and beginning to gray, as are his somewhat bushy eyebrows. I think his complexion is ruddy, but it is hard to say because I see him only outdoors, in all kinds of weather. He says he has “a proclivity for inclement weather.” I have never observed him in anything like a coat. He usually operates in a heavy knit sweater sprinkled with sawdust, sturdy jeans, and high boots: he is a Mainer. He regularly gives out a nice chuckle. There is a twinkle in his eye, as if the next thing coming out of his mouth will be funny, or what he just said could be taken as funny if you just think about it for a minute.
And I do think about what he says. Because he is an original. He describes himself as an iconoclast and is skeptical of all mainstream narratives, all established beliefs. He is intensely reflective and challenges me to be the same. He is “a bit of a dissident,” but with no sharp edges; he is gentle in his proclamations and not worried if he does not find agreement. He delights in irony.
Robert is an autodidact. He was kicked out of high school, finished up in a vocational school, and did not pick up a book willingly until he was 35. Now he reads voraciously. Conversations with him range from the novels of Thomas Pynchon (unreadable, in my opinion) to history (“a way to manipulate time,” he says) to biology. Today we talked about genetics, behavioral science, and the endocrine system.
“You can get lost in this world,” Robert says. He has removed himself from the system as much as he can, with as few attachments to relationships and possessions as possible.
“We are born into a narrative,” he says. And this is his: to be free and to express himself through his work. He acknowledges that this freedom comes at a cost, and he bears it.
The work in front of him as he speaks is an old, ravaged deck. He is replacing the destroyed structure with scavenged, reclaimed, and repurposed boards. Each one has been studiously — you might say lovingly — examined and put into place with an artistry that is as old as humankind. It is a challenge, but he says that he has become “bored with working with right angles” and delights in the nonlinear. He envisions the end result and at night works on drawings to bring order out of disorder.
“We are all stewards,” Robert says. “We have to honor what we do.” That is just what he has done all his life. He started working when he was 10, in an auto-body shop, house construction, boat building, lobstering, and commercial fishing.
And so, we talk, this master craftsman and a guy who does not know which end of a hammer to pick up. From wildly disparate backgrounds, we pass back and forth our ideas and opinions, our hopes and our doubts. It is a respectful sharing as holy as anything I know and as ancient as the evolution of speech itself. It represents a kind of intimacy that I cherish and do not want to live without.