Slice of Life: Visiting a Friend

On the spur of the moment Sunday, I decided to visit Walden Pond and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, about 45 minutes away from where I live. It was a beautiful fall day, and I was hoping to see the leaves. This weekend will be too busy, and before long, it will be cold up here in Massachusetts. I took my son and daughter. We walked all the way around Walden Pond.

Dylan walking
My son marching to the beat of his own drummer

The trees are indeed beginning to change color, but they are still pretty green because we had a warm spell in September and early October, and I think it confused the leaves.

Walden

We visited the site where Thoreau’s cabin once stood, and my kids indulged my request to pose.

Thoreau's Cabin Site

It is quite a small space, which I suppose was the point, but I think Maggie, in particular, was surprised to learn Thoreau lived in a cabin only a little larger than her bedroom.

There is a marker where Thoreau’s chimney foundation was.

Thoreau's Chimney Marker

But perhaps most striking, next to the site of the cabin is this large cairn and sign.

Cairn and Sign Near Thoreau's Cabin Site

It looks a bit more haphazard in the picture, but there were several very orderly stacks of rocks. Of course, we left stones in remembrance.

Stone Cairn

There are two main paths around the lake. You can go through the woods, or you can walk on the beach. We tried both.

Wood Path around Walden

The leaves were gathering in the shallow water near the edge of the lake. It’s hard to capture in a photo.

Leaves in Walden Pond

We made sure to visit the replica of the cabin, which is near the parking lot and gift shop. Dylan found a friend. He’s got a huckleberry-flavored lollipop, which you can buy in the gift store.

Dylan and Thoreau

My children didn’t know who Henry David Thoreau was, which did not surprise me. I wonder if I knew who he was when I was their age. So I told them about him—why he lived at Walden and what he wanted to do there, about his act of civil disobedience, about his last words to his Aunt Louisa, who asked him on his deathbed whether he’d made his peace with God, “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt.”

He was two years younger than I am now when he died of tuberculosis.  But what an amazing mark he has left on the world. Maggie was particularly interested in Thoreau’s night in jail, as she had read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” this year in her English class.

I am not teaching American literature this year. I am sad about it in some ways because I loved teaching Thoreau, especially sharing “Civil Disobedience” with my students, and I always pair it with King’s Letter when I teach it. It’s the introduction to my favorite unit, which involves nonconformists and voices of the “other.”

We grabbed some pizza at a local place, and my children once again indulged me with a visit to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellery Channing, Louisa May Alcott, and of course, Henry David Thoreau are buried.

It’s quite a beautiful cemetery, and the authors’ graves are easy to find. The Thoreau family are buried in a large plot together.

Thoreau Family Marker

I was surprised by how moved I was when we saw Thoreau’s simple marker. I actually felt tears start.

Thoreau's Grave Marker

I love the fact that visitors leave him pencils. I left a stone behind, but it didn’t occur to me to bring him a pencil.

Thoreau speaks to me in some weird ways, and I’m not sure why because truthfully, I didn’t enjoy reading all of Walden. I like parts of it. Thoreau might actually frustrate the heck out of me if I really knew him. Even Emerson said, “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all American, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”

Oh, Waldo. But he was engineering for all America. You all just didn’t see it at the time. I don’t know that it’s true that Thoreau had no ambition. I think what he wanted to accomplish with his life was just different from what Emerson thought he should want to accomplish.

I have been thinking a lot about Thoreau’s wisdom as captured on the sign near the site of his cabin.

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.

Mainly because I am preparing to do something fairly big—and as much as I hate to be cagey, I can’t talk about it on my blog yet. I have been thinking a little bit lately about what I want to reflect on at the end of my life, what I hope to have done. One of the best reasons to try something you’re afraid to do is to think about how you might feel about not trying when you die. I don’t think that’s necessarily what Thoreau meant, but I do think he would approve of the sentiment that if we do not take risks and see what happens, we aren’t really living. I just realized this as I was writing, but I think I went to visit my friend Thoreau to obtain his blessing on my plans. I think I got it. There was a was a transcendent moment when the sun came out from behind a cloud and threw sparkles all over the lake, and I could have sworn I felt his presence. You can roll your eyes if you want. I know what I felt.

If Thoreau taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you really need to “go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” He might add, if we were in conversation for real instead of just inside my head, “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 unexpected in common hours.” After all, “there is no other life but this.”

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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This Post is Kind of a Downer

So don’t say you weren’t warned.

This week my family went to Tennessee for my husband’s grandmother’s funeral. She was a lovely person, and though I didn’t know her well and had only seen her a few times, she was well loved and will be greatly missed. Going to her funeral reminded me of my own great-grandfather’s funeral. I was only a little older than my daughter Maggie is now, and I remember feeling distinctly rotten because I was not sadder. I felt that I should be crying as all the people around me seemed to be, but I hardly knew my great-grandfather. I have one really good, warm memory of him. He used to whittle the neatest little things out of peach pits, walnut shells, pecan shells, and bits of wood. He made these tiny little owls perching on branches and little baskets. Out the side door on his farm was a tree with a knothole in it. He told me to follow him outside: he wanted to show me something. He pointed inside the knothole and there was a tiny owl he had made. I couldn’t have been older than eight, and I was so excited to be receiving personal attention from my great-grandfather and so impressed by the little owl. But I didn’t cry at his funeral. I got the feeling Maggie felt like she should be more sad than she was about her own great-grandmother’s passing and that she, like I did when my great-grandfather passed, felt bad about her inability to grieve. She looked down at her feet and said, “This is a sad moment,” as if asking me if she were supposed to be sad. I told her what I wish someone had thought to tell me: “Some of the people here are very sad because they loved Granny very much.”

On our way home, my husband took me by his grandparents’ old homestead. We were in the country proper and turned up a gravel drive so steep and narrow we would only be able to back out rather than turn around when it came time to leave. The maple trees he describes surrounding the house are all there, but the house itself is gone. It looked like no house had ever even been there. Can you imagine? You live in a house for decades, sharing laughter and tears and love, and it can just disappear with no indication it was ever even there.

We don’t have long, do we? And even if we are good teachers and parents (and grandparents), within about 50 years of our deaths, the folks that loved us will pass on, and those that remain won’t know who we were or remember us. As much as I would like to think that’s not true, it is at least more true than it is not.

Maybe it’s because sometimes I feel underappreciated (if you go into teaching thinking you’ll be appreciated regularly, please let me disabuse you of that notion—you will get the occasional kind message of thanks from students and parents). Maybe I’m frustrated with some aspects of this school year. I did juggle grad school, a new position, and family, and not too well, I might add. I don’t know exactly why, but I’m feeling right now like much of what I do will be so fleetingly remembered.

So I don’t have any grand solution or poetic thoughts, except maybe this lesson from Mr. Keating:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ppqb0t_B0KY

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