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!

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.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Man Who Goes Alone Can Start Today

My tendency is toward perfection. Well, at least my own narrow, naive perception of perfection.  I like to have things "just so" before I venture forth to put them before the world and its scrutiny.  When this happens, however, dreams are delayed, plans are put on hold, and sadly, many projects never get off the ground.

I have been mulling over an idea for the past little while of beginning a blog devoted thoroughly to Thoreau; thoroughly to the man, his genius, his pithy satire, and mostly, his humble heart. As I have taken an interest in Henry David Thoreau, I have had a desire to share what I have learned.  I have become so excited to discover much more than the perfunctory facts necessary to get a passing grade on a literature assignment.

I'm way past learning for the sake of passing a class. I no longer read from any assigned reading list.  I study for the love of learning and growing and expanding and discovering.

So even though my blog is still wet behind the ears, lacking any finesse, suffering for want of many posts, I have decided to jump in with both feet.

As Henry reminds me:  "The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off."

Not going to happen. I am going to start today. Alone. Apprehensive. Ill-prepared.

But also full of vigor and enthusiasm and up for the challenge. I am not afraid to come across as a neophyte scholar. I have my books. I have my computer. I have a love and respect for a man that doesn't get the attention he deserves.

And I am going to do something about that.

I Left the Woods for as Good a Reason as I Went There

Why do we let ourselves forget?  Why do we become so focussed on distractions that sidetrack us from our ultimate goals?  We have so much potential to think and to do and to explore and to find and to wonder.  Why do get muddled down in the quagmires of mediocrity?

Life is not meant to be static, nor stagnant.  And yet, once again, I often find myself wearing footpaths into the soft and impressible earth that used to seem fresh and new.  Some daily habits are good; many are tired and exhausting and worn out, and their repetition puts us on a treadmill that goes nowhere.

"I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there." 

I return to Thoreau.  I find refuge in Thoreau's thinking outside the box.  I identify with his impatience with the status quo and his desire for freshness and new challenges.

"Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one."

"...how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity."

"...if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpect in common hours."

The common hours.  The expected.  The ordinary; the run of the mill; the unremarkable.  THAT is not good enough.  I want more.  I believe the seed was planted in me to expect more.  And hopefully to achieve more.

"He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary."

What am I ready to leave behind?  What lies beyond that self-imposed invisible boundary? What is preventing me from expanding my capacities?

"He will live with the license of a higher order...."

I think I am ready to move out of the "little shack in the woods".  It has been an important place.  I have learned much and reconnected with my past.  I have felt validated and cared about.  But it has become stifling and monotonous. It threatens to be consuming and common and commercial.  I cannot spare any more time for that.

I am reclaiming my time and my dream.

To Go Before the Mast and on the Deck of the World

It may come as a surprise; it may seem out of character. For many years I have had a love affair with historic tall ships; those that depend on the power of the wind to fill their expansive sails, those that were manned by accomplished sailors who navigated their courses by the nighttime skies. These ships, with their undisputed beauty, speak to me of adventure, of romance of times gone by, of courage, of stout-hearted men.

While certain that I am not hearty nor courageous enough to have sailed the seven seas in this manner, in my dreams I do long to take my spot next to the great captains which I read about in books. Indeed, I have already outed my obsession with Horatio Hornblower.
Last Tuesday, I had the unique opportunity to "go before the mast and on the deck of the world", to test out my sea legs and to feel the exhilaration of the wind in my sails. It fulfilled a lifelong dream, and despite the debilitating cold of our evening cruise, I will always treasure the experience.
We sailed out of the bay in Newport, Oregon, on the Lady Washington, an historically accurate wooden replica of the original Lady Washington, one of the first U.S.-flagged vessels to visit the west coast of North America. This beautiful movie-star ship has appeared in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" and "Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World."
I appreciate my family and their patience with me as I pursue the things I love.  They are very supportive and adventurous as well, and I love them.  Together, we could sail to the ends of the earth, or wherever we decide to go.
"I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now."
~Henry David Thoreau~

Sitting on Pumpkins

I am fascinated with the apparent fascination that Henry David Thoreau had with sitting on pumpkins.  During his time spent at Walden Pond, this issue came up on a number of occasions.  And his opinion on the sitting on of pumpkins seemed to vary on a whim.  For example:

"I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion."

This is near the beginning of the book when he is still feeling the need for isolation; seems to be craving some "alone time".

Further in the book as he is furnishing his shack and trying to remain within his limited budget, he ponders:

"None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin.  That is shiftlessness.  There is a plenty of such chairs as I like best in the village garrets to be had for taking them away."

Although I may not always agree with Thoroeau and his philosophies on acquiring home furnishings, I do agree with the following:

"Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."

Thanks, Henry.

And Miranda, How do you feel about sitting on pumpkins? ;-)

Hearing a Different Drummer

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
 Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
-- Henry David Thoreau

Individuality.  There has never been a greater need for it.  Why do we wrestle to keep step with the common cadence, when our souls long to be free?

I have come to understand more and more as I increase in age and wisdom (well, at least in age....), that our missions here on earth are varied and unique.  What a blessing.  I was sent here to accomplish my own set of achievements, and so were you!  And in the grand scheme of things, it then becomes necessary for us to have our own unique set of abilities, passions, and talents. WE ARE MEANT TO BE DIFFERENT.  Let us then rejoice in that.  Let us then not squelch who we really are. 

Let us then accomplish our special purposes and not try to hide them.  What does the Lord need from you to help build up His Kingdom here on earth?  Are you filling the measure of your own personal, matchless creation?

Elder John A. Widtsoe spoke of the importance of our divine callings:  "We need...a group of men and women in their individual lives who shall be as a light to the nations, and standards for the world to follow.  Such a people must be different from the world as it now is....We are here to build Zion to Almighty God, for the blessing of all the world.  In that aim we are unique and different ....  We must respect that obligation, and not be afraid of it.  We cannot walk as other men, or talk as other men, or do as other men, for we have a different destiny, obligation, and responsibility placed upon us, and we must fit ourselves for that great destiny and obligation."  (Conference Report, April 1940)

I am trying to evaluate my skill sets; trying to understand why I am different from you; trying to fulfill my unique purpose.  It is humbling.  It is enlightening.  It is liberating. 

I am trying to drown out the deafening beat of this worldly world, trying to align my step with my own drummer.  So if I seem to be losing pace with what is popular or trendy or current, well, it is because maybe that just isn't the beat I am stepping to, nor the music I am hearing.  I always knew I was a little odd.

Let Me Have a Draught of Undiluted Morning Air

My kindred spirit, Henry David Thoreau, would have gotten up early to walk with me this morning.  He understood the unparalleled virtue of that time of day, and the fleeting nature of its benefits:  "Morning air! If men will not drink of this at the fountainhead of the day, why, then, we must even bottle up some and sell it in the shops, for the benefit of those who have lost their subscription ticket to morning time in this world.  But remember, it will not keep quite till noonday even in the coolest cellar..."
One of the best habits I have acquired over my lifetime is being an early riser (and a subsequent early-to-bed-er).  And a brisk walk on a beautiful morning does more for the soul than just a little physical exercise.  I love the smell of the fresh flowers.  I love that I can sing along with my iPod and not worry if folks will think I am a little crazy, for I am nearly the only one out taking advantage of this recurring gift.

Another benefit of enjoying the dawn alone is that tears go unnoticed, as well.  This morning my "shuffle" gave me a great gift, two songs in a row from my favorite recording artist.  Her name is Erica Haws and she has the voice of an angel.  She has been on my mind a lot lately, as I am in full gear planning her wedding.  So when her lovely voice began to accompany my walk, I could not hold back the emotion I felt.  What a gift she has been her whole sweet life.  To see the lovely, compassionate woman she has become makes my cup runneth over with gratitude.  Having her in our family has been one of our greatest blessings. 
Have you "lost" your subscription ticket to the morning?  I recommend you look for it.  You may have to go to bed a little earlier to find it.  It's worth it. 

Castles in the Air

One of my favorite quotes from Henry David Thoreau talks about castles in the air.  I love it.  I can identify with it.  It seems to describe my life.  Part of it is as follows:
     "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them."

I have spent my life as a dreamer.  As a child I always imagined what I could do; as a youth I spent more time within the safety of my imagination than in the starkness of reality.  As an adult, I think I woke up to the demands of real life; well, kind of.  I have taken my responsibilities seriously and tried to accomplish the things that were asked of me.  But I have always held onto dreams.  I have always imagined what could be.  I fear, though, it has often been without setting the goals necessary to achieve them.

I used to envision myself in cap and gown, surrounded by my family overflowing with pride in their mother.  I never graduated from college.  I chose to work full time to enable my husband to complete his degree.  I don't regret that decision.  It gave us full health insurance benefits to start a family, and the security of beginning our lives without student loans.

Several years back I decided to chase this castle in the air and I went back to school.  I loved it.  I have always loved learning.  That is the real joy of school for me.  I took several classes for a couple of semesters.  When it came time to register for the upcoming semester, I somehow didn't feel like it was the right choice.  I didn't know why.  I just didn't. I received my answer a short time later.  I received a phone call from the Stake President.  He asked what I had going on in my life.  I explained that my days were mostly free as my children were all in school then.  What was I thinking?!  He then extended a request for me to teach full time seminary at one of the local high schools.

It took me years to return to the goal of a college degree.  When I did, I found that my credits were too "old" to account for anything, and that I would have to start from scratch.  Somehow that didn't appeal to me.  So I decided to become as self-educated as I could.  I love to travel, so I have accompanied travel with learning as much as I can about the places I wish to go.  I have begun watching lectures by college professors on DVD.  I have not been afraid to try my hand at new skills.  All of these things are putting the foundation underneath the dream of being well-educated.  The dream may have received a little tweaking, but it is becoming a reality.

Legends of Sleepy Hollow

Last year I took a step backwards in time.  At least that is what it felt like.  And I found a circle of friends which I would have wanted to be apart of.  I would have hung around their perimeter until they would have had to invite me to join them.  I saw where they lived; where they read, studied, and wrote.  I saw where they pondered and communed with nature.  And finally, I saw where they were laid to rest; all within yards of each other, in a peaceful spot on one of the hills of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

You see, I was in Transcendental Central, to borrow a term coined by my daughter, Miranda.  I was in Concord, Massachusetts, the lovely little tranquil spot outside the bustle of Boston; the place where the Revolutionary War began, where first rang the shot heard round the world.  Historians delight in the significance of this important place.  Literaries delight in its significance as the birthplace of the Trancendentalist Movement.

I went to Walden Pond.  I really did.  And it was as peaceful and beautiful and inspiring as Thoreau said it was.  I walked the pathway he regularly took from the pond to his little shack.  I saw the replica shack that has been built in the spot of the original.  I sat on his doorstep, and looked out to see the things he saw.

I'm pretty sure he would not have looked favorably upon the extensive parking lot, the gift shop, or the bikini-clad swimmers in his pond.  But they didn't really detract too much from the spirit of the place.

The real monuments to their greatness don't reside on the shady hill of Sleepy Hollow.  They rest on the bookshelves of homes and libraries all over the world.  Their lasting impact can be felt as one explores their revolutionary thought.  They believed religion can be a personal thing, with spirit touching spirit.  They were missing a few critical pieces of truth which their contemporary, Joseph Smith, just a state away in New York, was restoring to the world.  I believe they were ready to hear and would have been receptive to the restored Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and would have welcomed Joseph into their circle too.