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The World in a Grain of Sand

Last week, I visited my hometown, Olean, New York, to attend my younger sister’s wedding. As I walked through the streets and returned to my old haunts, I found myself looking at them in a new light. Robert Lax was born in Olean and he died in Olean.

Until I entered college, I never had heard of Robert Lax. Why was this emissary to worlds of culture, literature, and the mind such a stranger to me? To my knowledge, Lax is not taught in the local public schools. Again, why? The abstract nature of his poetry might be difficult and challenging to teach. The spiritual imagery could very well be impermissible in public schools. The demands and restrictions of state and federal standards might offer the most simple answer.

Lax Photo

Robert Lax, date unknown (Courtesy of Friedsam Memorial Library, St. Bonaventure University).

Lax returned to Olean throughout his early adult life to recharge his body and mind, work on his writing, and spend time with family. In the summers between 1938 and 1940, a rotating cast of Lax and his friends, including Thomas Merton, lived a bohemian existence in a cottage just outside the city limits, reading novels, debating literature, listening to jazz records, staging writing contests, and hitchhiking to movie theaters and taverns.

Imagine yourself as a creative young person, styling yourself as an artist, musician, or poet. Now, imagine discovering that this intellectual band once lived in the borderlands of your town and then realizing that you belong to this rich cultural tradition. Imagine how wonderful that might feel.

Contemporary mass media, advertising, and the Internet conspire to deceive us that interesting people exist and important events occur well beyond where we live. You can only study poetry in an exotic locale or practice music in a bright, big city. These forces teach us to be dissatisfied and always grasping for something more, something “better.” That where we live is dull, boring, insufficient. Lesser. And that we are, too.

Robert Lax revealed that such thinking is anything but the truth. He found inspiration and his final comfort in his hometown. This isn’t to suggest that a person should never stray from home and seek out a different life. Lax didn’t live his whole life in one place. However, look for wonder and contentment where you are at a given time. You don’t need to escape to find happiness.

Whether you live in a small town or a big city, discover your own Robert Lax. Then, you might realize that you belong to a storied world. Wherever you might happen to live.


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