Walden Pond. Living Deliberately. Long revelatory conversations with significant friends talking passionately together while perambulating the pond; deeply immersed in the details of whatever we were deliberately making of our shared and individuals lives. Tourists speaking animatedly in a number of languages. People walking quite deliberately by themselves; often with a book in hand and a special passage within it marked by a careful finger. Looking around. Looking Within.
In the image above the right hand side of the background features a long tiered wooden structure where people sit, talk, and ease themselves into the water for a bit of swimming. My son learned to swim in that spot as a young boy. We were inner city dwellers at the time and summertime weather could get stifling despite the harbor breeze. Looking back at my small but mighty family's shared root system, I often reflect on the innumerable times we'd pile in the car and arrive at the pond just in time for the magical early evening glow's debut.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.
My interest in/appreciation of Thoreau began in childhood. My grandmother used to read me Walden Pond any time I got upset and couldn't find a way to calm down again. That's what it used to be called, especially for children: calming down. But now I see what I needed to do was nothing short of totally re-rebooting my emotional barometer. I'd be spinning out emotionally in a very unquiet way and she'd firmly open to the bookmarked page and begin reading in a loud unquestioning tone from where-ever we left off the last time this happened. She wouldn't stop until I'd long since stopped out-bursting emotionally and was actually listening. Had been listening for quite a number of minutes. Because she was reading me something other than the bible. That alone gave this book and whoever wrote it very special status, indeed.
Whenever we reached the end of Walden Pond we'd begin again on the heels of fresh Upset. This went on straight up until she went in the hospital and, eventually, died there from stage 4 lymphoma cancer. I was seventeen and it was the literal eve of Nixon's resignation. My mother came home said well it's over, and asked me to give her the name of somebody she could call to be with me while she devoted herself to calling relatives and friends. I blurted out the name of a 21 year old guy I knew through church and community theater. Once, about a month earlier, I'd gotten tipsy on beer in his back yard and boldly sat on his lap unannounced and uninvited. She called him, not knowing what else to do. And he in turn had notknownwhatelse showed up with a six pack and willingness to drive us both around town barely speaking until we settled-in at his newly married buddy's house.
It embarrassed me tremendously to be in a married couple's house when the people involved were just 3 and 4 years older than me and we all knew all sorts of weird and mortifying things about each others parents due to being from the same church group. I didn't know where to look or what to say but fortunately I was largely ignored. There was a single bookshelf with mostly high school 70's english class novels sitting on it. Walden Pond was there. I stared at it for a long time, wondering if I should be worried that I had no desire or ability to cry and couldn't really remember my grandmother as she'd been when she read to me. It took her a long time - well over a year - to waste away to death without once knowing why it was happening. Her doctor and my mother believed if she knew she'd stop wanting to live.
[no comment. Which of course means I actually have several in mind I'm all too prepared to share but this is neither the time nor the setting.]
It really bothered me that she didn't know why she was sick and unable to ever be well enough to return home. If she couldn't get home, to her bible and various representations of her faith, would she be able to move on to where-ever?
On the first evening of her passing I abruptly stopped worrying about whatever might or might not happen when I got back home and whether or not Pearl would be able to make her way towards St. Peter and her deceased siblings without her bible. Because the newly married couple had weed in addition to seemingly endless beer. Had I not reached out to accept the joint I would have become the focus of the entire evening. I didn't want that. They were leaving me alone because they thought I was numb with grief and it was fine with me to not-realize they were absolutely correct in that assessment.
Nobody wanted to talk about The Whole Nixon Thing. They talked instead about camping at the Delaware Water Gap. I'd smoked before but not effectively. My grandmother was dead. That left my mother in charge. The only other time I've felt that specific combination of terror and dread with such intensity was later in the evening on election night 2016. At that time I thought not so much of Thoreau but of Emily Dickinson. I'm nobody who are you. We'd all be nobodies soon. That was so clear to me I'd been clinically depressed since the previous summer. I might have remained in that condition if closed head brain trauma hadn't shifted the narrative in so many unexpected ways just a few days later.
Back in the Nixon era thread of this post I effectively got high for the first time on the night of the day when my grandmother died. That's how one of the assembled Old Friends in that living room put it. I was effectively stoned which in my case meant sitting stock-still and silent. Looking around with enormous eyes. Our hosts had a land tortoise. Sometimes it was on one floor of the house and other times it was lumbering in an excruciatingly slow way in a quiet corner of the other. I once saw it climbing up the stairs. On that night the weed was stronger than usual and an enormous need to speak instead of Just Sitting There suddenly overcame me. I stood up with dramatic pointing of fingers on both hands and shrilly announced the reptile's laborious movements.
The tortoise - about whom I never once asked a single question although I was even more painfully curious in those days than I was shy - was, ultimately, pretty much the most interesting and tenderhearted aspect of that elongated moment from my past. I was intensely curious about the creature and wanted badly to get to know it better but I never indicated any such thing in the months I dated That Guy and therefore spent more weekend evenings than not sitting in that specific living room. Smoking just enough weed not to be noticed and then potentially questioned by the group; abstinence of any kind at any point in the proceedings was viewed as subversive rather than sensible. Or inhaling with clear intent to keep going until the last seed popped whenever my mother happened to be Acting Up.
Nearly everyone who gathered there in that plaid-upholstered '74 living room of Young Lives/Anytown USA had at least one parent who Acted Up on the regular. All I had to say upon arrival was that tonight it was once again happening at my house. I learned how to relay the information breezily and without the slightest inner feeling. Managing a smile at times, almost, and oftentimes while UNawkwardly accepting the proffered joint that hovered closest to me once Acting Up was mentioned . Then I was free to get back to watching the tortoise because everyone involved accepted that's what I did once I smoked. My grandmother remained dead. She'd been the one who raised and cared for/about me. She was gone with a finality that for me befitted the way she'd lived. So I kept that in mind in place of grief expressions that 'wouldn't bring her back.' It seemed likely she'd be proud of me, if she was able to know about it, for holding that kind of line as she'd worked diligently to teach it to me.
Be sensible. Have a bank account into which you unfailingly put a solid half of everything you earn. No use in crying over spilled milk. One way or another pretty much everything in life boiled down to spilled milk and I'd see that for myself once I was Old Enough. Respect the president of the country no matter what he does. Never LOOK at a hippie let alone become one. BE. SENSIBLE. Always be clear about what you love and don't let anyone take it away from you, ever.
Everyone I knew fully realized she'd been my lifeline. Everyone, including That Guy and his friends who all understood I was even more transient from their point of view than I felt myself to be, kept eyeing me nervously waiting for me to lose it in some spectacular wreckage of a Way.
Maybe I never did - then, or any time since, because my grandmother was no longer available to read Walden Pond to me until I pulled myself back together.
I went to the woods.
The above image was taken from an outlook that's either two or one third(s) of the way around depending on whether you proceed clockwise or counterclockwise at the pond's beach-based entry point. I used to walk the perimeter paths a lot during the year when my son was learning to swim in the company of his father and, oftentimes, a family friend with a loud hearty laugh. T. would laugh as loudly as he could in imitation of the sound. I'd hear them both as I walked no matter how far away they were; their joy amplified to ambient status thanks to water's sound conduit properties
In my own case I initially 'went to the woods' because it was there in a way the civilized world was not and could never be. And because I thought dominant culture was based on absolute insanity borne of shortsightedness. (Plus the way our culture arranged itself with our complicit acceptance if not approval into contortions so toxic or soul-numbingly petty and trivial in comparison to what society could be). I didn't see how I could possibly live well or even at all with the hurt and apprehension that conventional living evoked in me. I started reading Thoreau for myself as a young adult for much the same reasons. More than once I've found my sense of personal equilibrium and resolve through the words I do indeed at times read aloud to myself. I sit bolt upright when I do it, holding the book and my uncompromising tone of voice just like my grandmother would. But I never really thought about that until just now.
Above is my favorite outlook point at the pond's perimeter. The first picture in this post features the view Thoreau might have seen when he ventured out of his cabin and took in the new day's air. Once, back when the second bush-president had declared the official opening of the second gulf war, my moments of peak despair were interrupted by news of an impending release of Faith in a Seed. Just thinking about that (and a fresh out-loud re-reading of On Civil Disobedience) kept me going until J. gave me the book as a Christmas present. I read it with such tender love and gratitude that each sentence took root in my soul. And grew outwards embodied within my own faith in seeds of many kinds.
Ever since children and babies started living in cages at the pleasure of our federal government - like that's a perfectly okay thing for an even partially civilized nation to do - I have been thinking about the stability and grounding I know I'd get from reading Faith again. All the same I have been totally unwilling to give a book that means a great deal to me a connotation of this particular magnitude. Maybe it's time for me to learn how to change my mind about these kind of things. It's now. It's happened and continues to be happening. And yet. When has faith in seeds ever been more relevant and meaningful?