Who Does She Thinks She Is?

I am an old soul. It matters not my age nor my global position; my heart has made a connection with one of the literary greats and I seek to introduce a man that few bother to understand. Henry would probably see me as one of the sillies, caught up too much in the ridiculousness that is modern life, but I desire to take a page from his book and simplify, simplify, simplify!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

That's What Friends Are For

She got me through Junior High School.  There was a whole shelf in the school library devoted to Louisa May Alcott, and I read them all.  One after another, after another. I didn't stop at Little Women.  I met the whole gang. At the time, I just considered Alcott to be a clever storyteller who knew how to tug at the heartstrings of a lonesome girl. And that was enough.

I have since come to appreciate her in a whole new way. As one of Concord, Massachusetts' favorite daughters, she was a contemporary and comrade of the great Transcendentalists, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who were establishing themselves as some of the elite American thinkers of the Nineteenth Century.
Recently, at my daughter's suggestion, I revisited Louisa May Alcott's storytelling and buzzed through Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom. I enjoyed my visit with Rose and the boys.  It was interesting to approach the lovely stories from a different (older) perspective.  While I no longer held my breath with each twist and turn of the storyline, I still delighted in her well-drawn characters and portrayal of happy homes and familial affection.  These are feel-good stories.  They are what they are.

What did surprise me this time around was noting Louisa's blatant promotion of her neighbors.  In Rose in Bloom, which could be considered her handbook on how to be an exceptional, gracious, kind, charitable, virtuous, and noble young lady, she doesn't fail to give her suggestions on what well-read young people ought to be reading. In response to the suggestion that Mac seems to be generally uplifted and in good spirits, he credits his time spent considering the wisdom of Thoreau and Emerson:

"'It is the good company I've been keeping, if anything.  A fellow can't spend 'A Week' with Thoreau and not be the better for it.  I'm glad I show it, because in the scramble life is to most of us, even an hour with such a sane, simple, and sagacious soul as his must help one,' said Mac, taking a much worn book out of his pocket with the air of introducing a dear and honored friend."

Rose's response (which I can't help thinking would be Louisa's as well):

"I've read bits, and like them, they are so original and fresh and sometimes droll."

Then when his little friend expressed some uncertainly in her future, Mac prescribes more of that 'best medicine' that he had encountered:

"He felt a curious desire to help in some way, and could think of none better than to offer her what he had found most helpful to himself.  Picking up another book, he opened it at a place where an oak leaf lay and, handing it to her, said, as if presenting something very excellent and precious:  'If you want to be ready to take whatever comes in a brave and noble way, read that, and the one where the page is turned down.'"

He handed her a copy of the Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"'I never dared to read these Essays, because I thought they were too wise for me,' Rose admits hesitantly.

"'The wisest things are sometimes the simplest, I think.  Everyone welcomes light and air, and cannot do without them, yet very few could explain them truly.  I don't ask you to read or understand all of that, don't myself, but I do recommend 'Self-Reliance', 'Heroism', 'Love' and 'Friendship.'"

I must echo Mac's suggestion.  And Louisa's.

The combined writings of these two men provide enough wisdom for the ages.  They are timeless and offer a bit of sanity in a world that often forgets to stop and smell the roses.  I imagine that Louisa's time spent with her great mentors contributed to her boldness in pursuing what she loved. 

How could she repay them? 

Why, a shameless plug, of course!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Standing on Tip-Toe to Read

We've all done it.  We've all put our brains into neutral, often poolside, and purely for the sake of recreational reading, we pick up the latest of society's "must-reads" and pride ourselves on being current, up-to-date, cool.

No effort was required.  This was a no-brainer.  No problem.

Unless, perhaps, this is all we ever read.

Henry David Thoreau, in his century, had a bone to pick with popular fiction and its distractions away from more academic activity.  He argues:

"Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience...but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to."

Consider how often we read material which requires us to stand on tip-toe; which motivates us to think, to ponder, to slow down and grasp the beauty of language, to jump-start our intellects, to learn a new word.  It happens all the time when we are full-time students with pending grades, and honors, and scholarships.  What about when there are no external assignments?  What are we requiring of ourselves?

In Walden, in the chapter entitled "Reading", Henry gives a brilliant description of the limited merits of popular fiction, which he refers to as gingerbread; baked daily, ever present and ever mindless. I highly recommend you seek out what Henry has to say about "the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sophronia, and how they loved as none had ever loved before."

He chastises the limited attention given to classic literature. "The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers....Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men here and elsewhere have really little or no acquaintance with the English classics.... One who has just come from reading perhaps one of the best English books will find how many with whom he can converse about it....he will find nobody at all to speak to, but must keep silence about it."

I hope this is a rather cynical view and that in our society today, for the most part, we are stretching our minds and our intellects to read the most noble and timeless literature which comes as a gift from centuries past. I hope that gingerbread isn't our only fare and we are seeking to benefit from the great minds of the past as well as the great minds of our day.

It may occasionally require standing on tip-toe, making a little extra effort to understand, to grasp the meaning, and to lay hold upon a treasure that may be just out of reach.

Trust me, that never hurt anybody.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Let the Bells Ring and the Children Cry

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Those may be some of Henry David Thoreau's most familiar words. Like many passages fromWalden, they have become engrained in our minds, but have we let their true directive become engraved in our hearts, sending us out into our modern world with a renewed course, deliberate determination and stronger resolve?

What did Henry mean when he said he wanted to live deliberately? As I write this I cringe a little. Can you possibly imagine the millions of writing assignments given by harried teachers trying to offer a few Thoreau pearls to indifferent students? And can you imagine most of those dumbstruck students struggling to come up with the requisite paragraph about what it means to "live deliberately?"

But I digress.

Do I live deliberately, with purpose? Do I use my time and resources consciously, or do I allow myself to get carried away by the whims of society, not bothering to think much for myself?

"Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails."

That's the problem.  Every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails are what seem to trip me up and cause me to lose my deliberate focus.

Life is not perfect.  It comes with blips and bumps and challenges that threaten to throw us off the tracks of our best-laid plans. Instead of trying to learn from those challenges and carry on, I tend to view setbacks as catastrophic (when they are not), and feel defeated (when I am not).

Henry seemed to be able to keep these inconveniences in perspective.

"There was a dead horse in the hollow by the path to my house, which compelled me sometimes to go out of my way, especially in the night when the air was heavy, but the assurance it gave me of the strong appetite and inviolable health of Nature was my compensation for this....With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it.  The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence.  Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal."

Accidents will happen.  Inconveniences will arise. They will derail us only as we give them permission to.

"Let us rise early...; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry"—I, like Henry, am "determined to make a day of it."

Regardless of the dead horses.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Methinks We Might Elevate Ourselves a Little More

My mind goes instantly to a mouse.  In a maze.  Seeking the cheese with limited resources.  Relying upon his sense of smell, he tries and fails, tries and fails, tries and fails. From the casual observer, the solution is easy.  Climb.  Climb up and maximize your view, your perspective.  Utilize all of your senses and dramatically increase your chances of success.

How often we do the same thing.  We settle into the our small little world, our small little predictable routine, limiting ourselves to what we already know, failing to expand our perspective by elevating our position.

Henry David Thoreau perceived that we limit ourselves to familiarity and safety, and found a solution to increasing his vision.

"We hug the earth, how rarely we mount!  Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more.  We might climb a tree, at least.  I found my account in climbing a tree once.  It was a tall white pine, on top of a hill; and though I got well pitched, I was well paid for it, for I discovered new mountains in the horizon which I had never seen before--so much more of the earth and the heavens.  I might have walked about the foot of the tree for threescore years and ten, and yet I certainly should never have seen them." (from Walking)

What is it about a vista?  What is so stirring about a distant horizon that awakens something inside of us? How does our becoming smaller, in relationship to our view, draw us closer to the immensity of God? Could it be we are reminded of the miracle of His love for even something or someone as insignificant as ourselves?

Henry's neighbor and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, joined him in his appreciation for the therapeutic nature of, well, nature.

"To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone.  The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again.  In their eternal calm, he finds himself.  The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.  We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough."

We must embrace this idea of searching for horizons.  When is the last time you climbed to the top of a mountain?  When is the last time you climbed a tree?  When is the last time you read a book that challenged your mind and your intellect, or endeavored to solve a puzzle, or a riddle, or a persistent annoyance? When is the last time you tied on your walking shoes and set out to breathe in some air not being clamored for by stifling crowds?

I am the first to admit that I spend too much time indoors, and even though I am engaged in productive pursuits, I am limiting myself to the same, the same, the same.

Perhaps it is time, once again, to climb a tree, or a mountain. 

Despite the chance of getting "well pitched," I can't bear the thought of what I might be missing.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

To Be Awake Is To Be Alive!


Wake up!

Yea, you!  Are you awake?

How adept we become at sleepwalking.  We go through our days taking care of the same old business with such frequency and repetition that tasks no longer require our full attention.  We go through the motions using as little gray matter as we can get away with.  Why think when it rarely becomes necessary to do so?

Henry David Thoreau suggested that "only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion."

Ouch.  Can this be so?  I know my college student children would contest that theory--but perhaps active students are those few living contrary to the millions that regularly sleepwalk without exerting themselves.

I know as a homemaker I am very skilled at doing laundry mindlessly.  Dishes, too.  In fact, I have gotten so expert at regular household duties that I could do them blindfolded.  And sometimes it looks as if I do.  Because I take very little interest in my day-to-day tasks, my mind shuts down and settles into power-saving "sleep" or "hibernation" mode.

My best days, then, are when I do unlock the passion and creativity that yearn to be utilized and maximized.  "Little is to be expected of that day...to which we are not awakened by our genius."

Genius is not often given the attention it deserves.  It takes a backseat to fad and fashion; it suffers from underuse as society carries us down the path of least resistence.  Why read a challenging book when mind-numbing pulp fiction floats us down the popular stream, lulling us into a stupor?  Why tap your own reservoirs of thought through meditation and study when it is so much easier to pop in a video?  Or surf the web?  Or check in on facebook?

You see, I am chastening myself.  I cannot point a finger at others without feeling my own guilt.

It is time to wake up; time for me to wake up.  Henry would have us all "learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake."

"To be awake is to be alive!"

Am I alive or merely biding my time?  "Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour."

As we contemplate our stewardships, is our full potential being realized, or are we still asleep?  Do we even bother to pinch ourselves to try and stay awake?

Do we even remember what we did yesterday?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

How Near to Good is What is WILD!

Of all of Henry David Thoreau's frustrations with society, perhaps the one that makes me smile the most is his obsession with Wildness.  Our generation envisions those "born to be wild" as certainly anything but unpretentious, solitude-seeking, civilly disobedient poets and naturalists.

Henry's essay entitled "Walking" explores his fascination with and attraction to what is wild.

"Life consists with wildness.  The most alive is the wildest.  Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him."

The problem seems to lie in the subduing then.  It is all in the taming and the controlling and the corraling. In fact, he suggests that "who but the Evil One has cried 'Whoa!' to mankind?"  Do we settle for less when we gravitate towards those things that are modified, tamed, groomed and manicured to fit into our uptight, prim and proper lives? Do we go to the seashore and watch the waves from inside the safety and warmth of a beach house?  Do we observe wildlife from outside the fences and enclosures of a carefully built zoo?

Perhaps he is right.  We imagine ourselves as adventurous when we travel in packs as tourists, being led around by the nose by tour guides, keeping us within the safety of the tame.

Ah, tameness.  The antithesis of wild.  Henry sought to find where the wild things are in every facet of life.

"In literature it is only the wild that attracts us.  Dullness is but another name for tameness.  It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in schools, that delights us....A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wildflower discovered on the prairies of the West or in the jungles of the East." 

Perhaps that is what has drawn me to this unique, eccentric freethinker.  He isn't willing to be confined within the limits of society-imposed manners and acceptable behavior.  He isn't afraid to offend with his outrageousness.  He isn't content to settle for the safety of observatories.

He spent his life getting his feet wet, searching for the Wild.  "I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild.  Approached from this side, the best poetry is tame.  I do not know where to find in any literature, ancient or modern, any account which contents me of that Nature with which even I am acquainted."

We all should crave a little outside-the-box wildness.  Conformity and passivity and coloring within the lines are stifling. Let the wind blow our hair.  Roll up our pantlegs.  The Wild won't come to us; we need to seek after it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Art of Living Well

He was a strange little man.  At least by the world's standard, that is what Henry David Thoreau came across as. I struggle with the self-appointed task of introducing a friend that I have never met.  Why is it possible that I feel like I know him though he died a hundred years before I was born?  Perhaps this gives us a glimpse of the power of journal keeping, of writing, of recording one's thoughts and observations.  One can become immortal in the sense that generations to come can grow to feel as strong a connection as friendship and even kinship.

All I have with which to know Henry by are his own writings, and the observations of those that knew him well.  I have an obituary; I have a comprehensive eulogy written by the gracious Ralph Waldo Emerson, a long-time friend; I have the expert and irrefutable resource of our own modern-day Wikipedia.

Here is what Henry could have been:  He could have followed his father into the family business of making pencils. Indeed he did apply himself for a time to the craft of manufacturing lead pencils with all the energy and focus that he gave toward everything he did.  Always up for a challenge, rather than content himself with merely learning the craft, he determined that he could make a better pencil! "After completing his experiments, he exhibited his work to chemists and artists in Boston, and having obtained their certificates to its excellence and to its equality with the best London manufacture, he returned home contented." (RWE, Eulogy, 1862)

That was enough.  The challenge having been met, he commented to friends that he should never make another pencil.  "Why should I? I would not do again what I have done once."  That was obviously not the life that Henry had imagined for himself and he knew that the easy way would be to assume a role and a life that was expected.  "...it required rare decision to refuse all the accustomed paths and keep his solitary freedom at the cost of disappointing the natural expectations of his family and friends." (RWE)

He was not slothful.  He never expected to live off of the generosity of others that he might spend his life tromping around in the woods.  He took seriously the task of living independently and held every man to the same duty.  He simply chose to be rich by making his wants few.  What followed was a life of a handyman, doing odd jobs long enough to buy himself the time to do what he really wanted.  He was an expert surveyor, and thus found that he could earn what little he needed by tromping around in the woods that he loved.

As Emerson eloquently describes:  "He declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well."

It was a gamble, but Henry believed in himself and in his dreams and left us with the timeless challenge:

"...if one advances confidently in the direction of one's dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpect."

He knew there would be sacrifices in following his dreams, but he also knew that it could surely bring glorious rewards. He stepped to the beat of the music that he heard, and he didn't expect others to join his parade; he wanted them to make their own kind of music too.

Henry David Thoreau found that by passing the invisible boundary between the expected and the unexpected he was able to "live with the license of a higher order of beings". 

We should all be so courageous and so blessed.