Posted by: David Weimer | April 5, 2010

Seven Days in May

Written: April 99

What would possess a person to go into a cabin in the spring in the woods and fast for seven days and do nothing except stare at a candle?

In May 1993, I parked my car at the top of a tree-covered hill in West Virginia.  I was 26.  I lived in Pittsburgh.  In three months I would be married and I suppose mortality was whispering in my ear.  Something sure was.  I had never been alone for a complete day before.  You always see someone.  I had never gone 24 hours without eating, planning to eat or recovering from eating either.

I was running a student philosophy group at the University of Pittsburgh called the Self Knowledge Symposium, and had gotten into the habit of thinking a lot—a habit with no holding back.   I don’t care what anyone says; some people do this the same way a devoted alcoholic drinks.  We’re all looking for something in our own way.

Well, I sensed my life was going to be different after I got married.  Like the weather, a real perspective change was moving in.  That’s what precipitated this weeklong departure, I think.

A friend had a cabin he offered to let me use during spring break.  His name is Mike.  His cabin is perched on the edge of a ravine in a wooded, mountainous 300 acre ‘farm’ in rural West Virginia.

On the Sunday afternoon before the first day of spring break in 1993, I drove my ‘88 Ford Festiva to the farm.  It was really out there.  No pavement, no street lights at night, only the shifting whir of a coal mine exhaust fan in the hills.  I had a duffel bag of canned food and clothes, a notebook, a sleeping bag and a pillow.  I left my watch, wallet and everything from my pockets in the glove box of the car.  I shouldered my duffel bag and hiked down a two-rutted tractor trail that wound around the hilly terrain and eventually went by Mike’s cabin.

When I unlocked the door and dropped my stuff inside, I saw a wall of shelves lined with glass jars of pasta, dried beans and rice—all gray with age.  There was a box of plumber’s candles, an oil lamp, a woodstove, a raised bunk bed, a small table with a view out the back window and a padded chair.  I didn’t plan to do anything.  I remember that.  But I had a strong urge to do something.

From here on, I’ll tell you what happened.

Each night, I wrote in a journal so I wouldn’t lose track of the days and come back late.  This was [seventeen] years ago.

First day.

I came out here yesterday at noon.  None of the familiar things I usually do were here.  No music.  No TV.  No books.  No talking with people.  No seeing people.  No exercise.  No work.  No cleaning.

I’m out here, and my time will not be spent in vain.  Yesterday my mind was racing.  Songs, thoughts, playbacks of things people said, daydreams—all in a frantic, one-after-the-other pace.  My head was a faucet.  Today is the first full day.

I have never gone without food for a full day before.  So far, I feel fine, even after my excursion this morning looking for the spring.

One day at a time, eh?  As far as my essence, and my quest, I don’t know.

I hadn’t planned on doing any fasting.  I just found myself there in the silence of that cabin staring out the window as the sun went down and I had the idea whispered in my ear: what if…

If I was going to give up all my daily habits—exercise, working, reading—why not really do it?  Give up the routine of preparing meals, eating and washing dishes and getting rid of the meal a day later.  It was an exciting idea.  I didn’t know if I could do it.  It was like looking at a high cliff and wanting to go there.

When the fear is tickling your stomach in the coolness of a perfect, perfect morning and you look up, and that ‘I wonder…’ is bubbling inside—that’s what I remember about Sunday evening, the night before the first full day.  Instead of making dinner, I lit a candle and sat there.

Day 2.

Did I learn anything yet?  Yes.  One day I believe very strongly that my life must go this way.  Everything feels right about it, I make silent plans, and then either the next day or the next hour, the very thing I felt so strongly about is faded, or full of holes, and I have a new conviction, desire, or whatever, just as sharp as the earlier one.  More than ever I see how reliant on random air currents my strongest convictions seem to be.  A year ago I thought I would be practicing martial arts for the rest of my life, that it would be an incorporated part of my self, and now I never do.  What is the real conviction?

The other thing I learned is that isolation isn’t being alone.

I notice planes; I hear dogs barking and cows in the distance.

Man.  I’m in the middle of the woods and somehow the sounds make it in.  The harder I try to become solitary the more I am distracted.

I think I became somewhat dehydrated last night.  Woke up weak and faint.  I drank more water with juice and vitamins this morning.  Feeling better now.

No hunger pains really; the gurgling and other noises are fading.  My body is more quiet than it was in the beginning.  But my head is not so quick to join.  Songs play on a repeating track in my head.  Last night I itched and scratched forever.  Then there was the storm.  What a storm.  Strong showers and nearly continuous lightening.  I kept counting the seconds to see how far away the strikes were.

I remember deciding after a day of fasting that I couldn’t do what I was planning.  I had planned to hike every day, clear the deadwood around Mike’s cabin and clean out the storage end of his cabin.  When I went to look for the spring Mike told me about, for drinking water, I couldn’t find it.  That was the first full day, and I hadn’t eaten for 18 hours.  I was noticeably weaker and light-headed from stomping over those hills along a stream.  There was no way I’d be able to keep active.  But I wanted do something.

So I lit a candle that first Sunday night and got in the habit of keeping one going.  I’d sit in the chair at the desk and my eyes would naturally settle on the flame.  A resting place for my attention.  If I couldn’t apply myself physically, I’d by God do something.  Why not stare at a candle?

Third day.

The bed bugs didn’t bite last night, thank God.  I think the spray did it.

Woke up in the middle of the night.  I had the feeling I was supposed to be doing something.

I found out this morning I must pace myself.  I’ve taken in nothing but water, juice and vitamins, and I still try to move like I’ve eaten.

Threw up.  Probably a combination of the fumes [from the portable camp stove Mike loaned me for the week] and my wolfing down water, juice and vitamins.

The weather is nice.  Warmer, with a breeze.

Why am I here?

Because I’ve got no proof for anything.

I notice my body fat is disappearing from my stomach, shoulders, butt, legs—everywhere.  Today is 84 hours without food, and I can feel my spine.  Though I’m weaker, my muscles seem chiseled and more pronounced.  I’m trying to not to become dehydrated.

Having never fasted, I deliberate over how much water I should drink.  Drink every time I have to go?  And then, am I doing one because of the other?  Which is easier to stop?  How about being a slave to body functions?  Too bad I can’t stop drinking water.  Nature is a distraction.  And I, fair body, am the embodiment of distraction.

Here is a daydream I just had:

I was ‘signed up’ to take part in an experiment.  It involved going into a giant complex, a school-like setting.  I was supposed to meet my ‘experimenter’ in a certain classroom.  I remember getting a little lost, but finally finding the place.  An old, rushed man was the only one there, and he was mumbling angrily.  When I asked him where to go, he indicated a certain way.  I followed him and was eventually with this group of seven or eight.

We were led up through a series of steps, turns and elevators.  Music played, and I remember hearing an Elvis Presley song and opening my eyes to see an old Elvis singing passionately.

Yes, during this upward journey my eyes were closed.  Bumping into the others in my group, I just went along.  Music played continuously, though the songs changed.  When the last elevator stopped with a lurch, a certain nostalgic hillbilly semi-country song was playing in my head.  When my eyes opened, everyone was gone except for me in this open catwalk place high in the superstructure of the complex.  I became angry.

I found stairs, passages, whatever I could, to get down.  Then I looked at my hands and discovered I was an old man.

I asked some ladies at a secretary station the quickest way out.  They were slow to answer, so I found my own way.  Outside, I was disoriented for a while.  Then it struck me:

I was still inside the cabin, with my eyes closed, daydreaming and listening to some music playing in my head while I went from youth to old age.  Old age; time-wasted.  Wasted by time.  Bitter regret, felt this old man, me.  The last song is still playing in my head.

I was staring at the candle full time.  Sometimes I would go outside for fresh air.  I would stand up real slow, and walk carefully into a world of shifting light, breezes and green.  I simultaneously felt despair and great peace.  Despair at the days stretching ahead I wouldn’t let myself think about.  Peace from the serene surroundings.

One thing about focusing for a long time and not eating is that everything tends to reduce to a single eventful moment.  That’s how it was.  Things happened but nothing changed.  The closest thing I can point to is when I went to the aquarium in New Orleans (before Hurricane Katrina).  In this one big room, there was a giant wall of glass and dozens of sharks and rays and exotic fish in motion.  The room was dark and carpeted in blue and the fish swam above and all around in silence.

Fourth day.

I woke half way through the night again. I was dreaming about a young woman in the days before electricity.  She was an expert seamstress and there was a complicated process going on.  Something to do with sewing or weaving and I understood this process completely as she did it.

When I woke up, this dream, with the young woman and her sewing-like task, was still going on.  It did not seem out of the ordinary until now.

Yesterday was something else.  I made a pact to stare at a candle until it burned down so far.  Pitting myself against the world.  I don’t know long how this went on, but a little battle ensued.  I was at odds with bodily functions.  After an intense hour or so, I gave up and went outside.

This afternoon I thought about belief and purpose and death.

I watched the last of the sun’s rays through the leaves bring a glow to the amber-colored oil in the lamp on the window ledge overlooking the gorge.  I’d come to think this isolation was the most terrible thing I’ve been through, but in that moment, staring out at the forest, I knew I would look back on this time from some removed time in the future.

It’s like a tropical rain forest out here, with an upper canopy that shades the ground.  Most of the ground is covered with sparse vegetation and the terrain is steep and rugged.

A stream cuts through a gorge behind the cabin and I follow its shale and moss length until the small waterfall.  With plastic jugs and a handkerchief to strain the water, I squat on a flat rock and collect two gallons.

I stand slowly, and watch my feet carry me up the hill from rock to root and finding footholds.

I boil the water by the pan-full, and pour it into a clean jug after it cools down, straining it through a handkerchief one more time.

This morning I smelled the wheat bread going sour in my duffel bag, so I went outside and flipped each piece like a Frisbee away from the cabin.  There were a lot of birds around.  Two full days left.

At this point, I was just trying to get through.  The fasting had become acceptable and normal.  My body had quieted, and I was content with its inaction.  No meals, no dishes—it was another place.

I was starting to get a little shell shock, too.  At this time, it was four days staring at a succession of candles.  I was out in the middle, far from land, and right or wrong, I was focusing my attention on that flame while the days flowed by.

Inside, the voices were ganging up for an assault.  They’d already made several runs at the gate.  Read-a-book; Eat; Leave-this-place; Get-out.

Their names were legion.

The terrain reminded me of Panama.  I had gone there on annual training (AT) with the Florida National Guard 153rd Engineer Company of Lake City one year.  The rain and the layout seemed the same.

I had dreams during the day.  Sometimes, anytime—my mind would slide into a dream.  And when I woke up I’d be in both places for a while.

Every day, at least once, I would stand up quickly and hold onto the back of the chair.  Like stubbing a toe, it would take about three seconds, and the world would dissolve into a wash of blackness and high-pitched ringing.  Sight and hearing and almost touch would go away.  By the end of the fourth day I stopped doing this.  It had become obvious that I should just stand up slowly from then on.

Fifth day.

My stomach was grumbling like crazy this morning.  Not with loudness, but with persistence.  Yet I feel no discomfort.

Why do they call it fasting when everything moves so slow?

Yesterday I got two more gallons of water at the little waterfall and back to the cabin.  I was kind of surprised I made it.

It didn’t rain yesterday.  In fact, it was a beautiful, windy sunny day.  Whether I looked out the window to recapture a moment of peace, or, when I stood outside for ten minutes in the sunlight, there was no sparkle.  Everything simply was.

Mike stuck a piece of tape on the window facing the gorge.  “Don’t waste this precious time,” he wrote on it.  Easy for him to say.

I’ve discovered that the exercise of will comes with a price.

Yesterday, I came to the determination to pit my will against time and everything and meditate until a full candle burned out.

I would not move or take my attention away from it.  After the first attempt two days ago, I though I wouldn’t do this again, but something in me took the bit in its teeth.

Focusing my attention on the flame, the thing started.

After a couple of hours I had to pee, of course.  This time, there would be no compromise.  If I could do this, I could do anything.  If I failed, I would never be able to do anything again.

Towards the end, I couldn’t take my concentration off the flame.  I was stuck.  I found myself counting the minutes by the second, five minutes at a time, 300 seconds, using my pulse as a counter.

I told myself I’d go nuts.  And if I lost my mind out here, where would I end up?  What would happen?  Still, I drove on, and the damned thing about it was, this candle, this particular candle, burned longer than any of the others, as if to say, ‘huh-uh, you’re not getting off that easy, son.  You wanna race?  Fine.  Here’s how it’s done.’

The last few minutes were hell.  And I really believe, maybe a drop in the ocean in terms of what can be experienced.

When I finally saw the flame drop and snuff out, I moved outside slowly as quickly as I could.  When I got back inside with relief, and shut the door and looked at the desk, the candle was still burning!

The burning wick had melted through a dome of wax and fallen within the jar, lighting another piece of wick down there.  Oh irony, oh fate!  Would I have made it to the real finish line?  I don’t know.  The lesson I got is that any exercise of will has its price.

Last night I woke up half way through again.  This time, it was the silence.  No far off fans, no rustling leaves, no wind.

I stood outside.  No insects bounced off my legs.  It was another world.

Putting myself against that candle (and the need to pee) was probably the worst thing I did.  I learned to pick my future battles carefully.  I don’t remember much from that day other than it was traumatic.  I guess I remember enough.

I woke every night at the same time.  Not because I was thirsty or had to go or anything.  Most times, I’d go outside and stand.  And the bugs would bounce off my legs and I’d scratch and go back inside, and sometimes sit and think.  The first time, I felt like I was supposed to be doing something.  Like I was up at bat.  I never found out what I was supposed to be doing.  I never did anything, really—just stood there for a while and went back inside to sleep.

As far as the battle of will versus the candle.  Shakespeare, in one of his plays, said life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

That isn’t always bad.

Last full day.

I don’t have as much water as I though I would.  I’m going to have to go for some more.  That’s going to be fun.  My head is clear and my body is slowed down and distant, and a bit unreliable as far as working or walking.

The last whole day, and I have to go for some water.  I could cry.  It’s that funny.

It’s probably in my head, but I was queasier than ever this morning, especially downing the vitamins.  The camp stove fuel is low, too.  I can boil the water I get, but that’s about it.  No cat bath.  My beard is coming in nicely.

I’ve lost about all the excess fat I had, and some muscle too, I’m sure.

In the morning, first thing, I’m the weakest.  Later, my energy level increases gradually.  My battery is low.

This morning is cool.

I used to believe we could change.

I think my understanding of the motivations that drive me and my actions has increased.  I’ve identified some of the source of my ‘do it because I want to’ impulses.

Will I make it until tomorrow afternoon?

I want to.

Sometimes I get tired of being on my toes.  Just when I think it’s getting easier— Dizziness, queasiness, weakness; you name it, it happens.  Those damned vitamins sure as hell upset my stomach.  Christ.  The old stomach doesn’t like variety.  Just water, please, thank you.

Last night my knee was bothering me.  I had to adjust my position until I found one I could sleep in.  I woke up in the middle of the night like always.  This time, the bugs jumped all over my legs and the coal mine fan hummed and the wind blew.

The sun warms me through the window behind the chair now.

It helps.

Yesterday was hard.  This whole ‘keep the mind focused on nothing’ thing is like holding back a river with two hands.

Like a horse straining at the gates, my mind races with:  what’ll I do when I get out of here, what’ll I eat, who will I see, what shows I’ll watch, what things I’ll say, and so on.

Even though yesterday was tough, there were corresponding extremes of peace.  Between storms, the quiet is profound.

That last full day I was sort of reduced.  Like a pot on the stove with all the water boiled out—only me was left.

Six and a half days of no eating at that point.  It’s not something I would do again.  Not like that.  Next time, I’ll read books, go for slow walks, sing to myself, write poetry, pray to God, laugh, cry more, and so on.

Final day.

I’m sitting in the passenger seat of my car a little before noon.  Haven’t eaten yet.  Yesterday was not a day I’d like to relive.  This morning is cool, like a week ago, and I woke before the birds started their morning insect hunt.  Yesterday afternoon I took a nap.  That was probably a mistake.  Last night was the worst night’s rest I’ve ever had.

It was long after dark before I got to sleep.  I woke in the middle of the night and drank some water and sat in the chair.

This morning, I got up and watched the sun light the world outside.

I stood slowly, put everything in the cabin back like it was, and packed and shouldered my duffel bag and locked the cabin door and got a stick to lean on and left.  Not an easy thing to do, just leaving.

*

When I came out of the woods on the seventh day, carrying all that canned food weight, it was a mile to the car.  I stopped a lot to rest on the way.

I can feel that walk to the car like it was today.

Looking back, I can say those seven days were necessary.

Everything was.

Even my marriage to Katherine three months later, our becoming friends while married, and our divorce.

Why did I do it?

I honestly think it was the best thing to do at the time.

Would I recommend fasting or isolation to anyone?

Yeah.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. In the 80’s, I did a couple of one-weekers… I recognized many of the same thought patterns and physical impacts as those conveyed in your story.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: