Michael Maruti Projansky’s autobiographical memoir I Don’t Know…I Love (Epigraph Publishing, 2019) might have been restricted to the literary technique of episodic collage by the unique conditions of its writing. A genuine exit project, I Don’t Know…I Love finds the well-known New Paltz patriarch, psychologist, world traveler and spiritual seeker in his own words, “progressively disentangling from being human,” in his late 70s and five years into a struggle with a rare form of ALS that will claim his life – within half a year, by the author’s own estimation at the time of publication.
The debilitating physical effects of the disease required Projansky to dictate much of this memoir to his peer Fred Mayo and to a much younger friend, Zachary Rausch, as well as to call on the expert eye and steady editorial hand of newspaper publisher/executive and friend Jim Ottaway, Jr. Whether it is a desultory and multi-texture book perforce or by design matters little, however. I Don’t Know…I Love works exquisitely well as a richly woven, shapeshifting narrative, both acute and broadly world-embracing. It comprises episodes that vary dramatically in scope and level of detail, but the whole is unified by the coherence of Projansky’s simple, feeling, playful language and by the deep philosophical consistency of his “take.”
Whether by serendipity or design, the styles and storytelling modes and their allocated content work rather perfectly together. The dictated segments of the book tend toward short, imagistic episodes connected in time and place, but also allowed to stand freely, each with its own koan- or haiku-like resonance. Their themes are implied but seldom called out – that elusive, suggestive “I’ll just leave this here” reportorial style so often favored by poets, journalists and spiritual teachers. Most of these evocative micro-stories concern Projansky’s experience traveling and seeking in India or consorting in America with his friend Ram Dass and other well-known teachers and thinkers. It reads a bit like a chatty scrapbook of stories from the heart of the spiritual movement of the period, and a bit like a complex expose of values, philosophies and habits of mind encoded in a series of evocative snapshots.
The center of the book is given to two blocks of stout, serious memoir that Projansky had completed earlier in life: two meaty chapters that constitute the bulk of the book’s literary claim. First comes what is perhaps the most fully realized and emotionally compelling storytelling in the book: Projansky’s accounts of a series of hospice visits that he made in New York City, accompanying Dr. Fred Schwartz on some visits and Bonnie Weissberg, MSN, on others.
Not surprisingly, the section of the memoir that has the least to do with Projansky himself is the one in which his values and his nature are most clearly distilled and substantiated in action. With his two professional guides, he visits all manner of socioeconomic settings in the City, finding everywhere acts of extraordinary love and service committed by the caretakers of the dying – their wives, children, parents and hired hands. Projansky observes it vividly through lenses Buddhist and humanist. This span of nearly 40 pages is rich in characterization, studies in the minute offices of love and duty, chilling evocations of place and a welling sense of humility and compassion.
The other broad block of content written long ago is a kind of sailor’s diary, chronicling Projansky’s years spent in somewhat exotic global sailing adventures, crisply described with, as always, an eye for both character and spiritual resonance. Also present in the sailing section is a sense of bildungsroman: Projansky’s own delayed-onset, middle-aged schooling at the hands of the big wide world and its dangers. Both the Hospice and Sailing sections (III and IV) lend themselves to freestanding publication.
Projansky is adamant that this is not a book of spiritual teachings or encoded lessons, but rather a collection of life stories told by a person with a spiritual bias. In fact, his very thesis, encapsulated in the title, discourages any kind of didactic design. On numerous occasions in these pages, Projansky rues the years he spent caught up in cleverness, self-doubt and the pursuit of status and material/intellectual achievement. His life’s progress is the shedding of that pretense and those concerns in favor of an uncritical, open-armed acceptance of being and the call to love. There is no spiritual braggadocio here; he does not claim to have reached that pinnacle except in fleeting glimpses and, recently, via the divestments of age.
The book is overwhelmingly positive and accepting. It presupposes no mountaintop wisdom, but possesses a good crop of it just the same. It is a work of value, obviously, to the community that has known the man; but beyond that, it stands as a lively contribution to the history of Eastern spirituality in America and as a work of genuinely warm literary value in this, the age of memoir and oral history.
Find I Don’t Know…I Love at https://amzn.to/2k7XuMd.