After a painful divorce, Altschuler decided he needed to heal his heart and work hard on his writing. That’s when he accepted an offer to pay nominal rent for that unpowered cabin on the side of a mountain in southwestern New Hampshire. But, he said, his grand dreams of long hours devoted to nothing but writing turned out to be unrealistic.
“(T)his was no idyllic writer’s colony … No, with water to fetch, wood to haul, cut and split, and food to store and prepare without gas or electricity, earning a living became much different from punching in and getting a paycheck every two weeks.”
Tough as it was, Altschuler wound up staying in that cabin for three years. His fellow meditators, soul-searchers and nature lovers will find much to cherish in “Into the Woods … and Beyond,” which echoes Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” the early American classic about living solo in the forest.
Altschuler draws life lessons — and life riddles — from the smallest, plainest incidents and outdoor challenges: how to defeat thieving woodchucks and nibbling mice, how to dislodge a boulder when digging a root cellar, how to socialize satisfyingly with uncaring cats, how to keep heavy snow from breaking down your door.
And, how to deal with solitude. Like Thoreau, Altschuler never intended to be a total hermit, and “Into the Woods … and Beyond” outlines his many forays back to civilization — to shop, to visit friends, to help raise a neighbor’s barn, to try night-shift jobs and even work as a golf instructor at a nearby resort.
(The state of your golf game is the perfect indicator of the state of your psyche, Altschuler said: “If you’re doing well with your golf game, you’re probably satisfied with life.” And if you screw up one shot, are you fated to carry that failure around in frustration so it ruins the rest of your game — or can you bounce right back, stay in the present, return to form?)
After overcoming serious health challenges in recent years, Altschuler said his whole approach to life is a mindful, Zen-like cultivation of gratitude and appreciation for everything — even misfortune and disease.
Without cancer, he said, he never would have retired from a demanding social-work job that probably would have killed him. Instead, his diagnosis prompted him to move to Vancouver with his wife and focus on his health and his writing. In addition to spiritual takes on life (and golf), Altschuler posts his photography and a fiery, left-leaning political blog at www.stephenaltschuler.com.
“I’m 75 years old and I still have hopes and dreams,” he said. “I’m excited about writing, I’m excited about my other goals, and I’m still having fun.”