A Conversation with Thoreau on Simplicity

Reflection #2 for my American Renaissance class. I had to fast from some aspect of technology for awhile and then converse with Henry David Thoreau about living simply and deliberately.

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For the sake of this reflection, I’m imagining that I’m a time traveler visiting Walden Pond in 1846, during the second year of Thoreau’s experiment. Thoreau, in all his wisdom and understanding, does not question a world in which I am a time traveler, and in our many conversations, I’ve explained in-depth the progression of technology in the century and a half that separates us.

Thoreau and I sit in two of his chairs in his cabin at the pond. We each have a drinking cup filled with water from Walden Pond, and he sucks on a peppermint, one of those soft ones that everyone loves. With every trip, I bring him some small token from my present-time, and peppermints are his favorite.

I tell Henry that I gave up Facebook for most of five days, save for the occasional message requiring an immediate response. He nods slightly but remarks, “I still don’t understand the obsession of your society with Facebook and the internet. Are you not overwhelmed constantly?”

“Yes,” I state emphatically. “But, somehow, everyone is used to the constant overload of information. Henry, you’re seen as an anomaly in my world. You’re revered for your ‘living deliberately,’ and you’re admired, but most people, in reality, believe that living simply and deliberately is impossible. Even I believe that sometimes.”

“Do you think five days away from Facebook allowed you to live more deliberately?”

“In some ways, yes. I found that I didn’t miss reading about the trivialities of everyone’s day. Knowing what those hundreds of people ate for lunch or how they celebrated Valentine’s Day in no way improves my life. You worried about how the railroad would transform the world, Henry, but I don’t think you could have ever imagined how a keyboard and a computer screen could make our lives so mundane. No one has time to sit around and contemplate truth, or read classic works of literature written in Latin, or even listen and observe Nature. We’re slaves to a world of technology.”

Thoreau looks troubled. Though I’ve explained computers and iPods and the like to him, he can never truly understand. “You must fight this. You must simplify your life. What have you done instead of Facebook to simplify your life?”

“It’s hard, Henry, but there was one moment I wanted to tell you about. I sat on my front porch one day during my fast from Facebook. I was reading your book—the one you’re going to write about the time you’ve spent here. Though it was February, the day was one of those magnificent early spring days. The birds were returning to South Carolina, and I heard several chirping in the tree just behind my house. There was also a squirrel in one of the bushes in front of my house. I saw his tail twitching and heard his little chirps. In that moment, I was completely free from technology. I wasn’t listening to music, and I wasn’t reading status updates, and I wasn’t constantly check the news from other parts of the world. I was existing simply in that moment, with the breeze blowing and listening to the animals, and I realized that your simple living is incredibly beautiful.”

Henry smiles encouragingly. “How will you continue this?”

I pause, afraid of disappointing him. “I can’t keep that up forever, though. I don’t live in a world where that’s possible. In Walden, you will write about how your time at the pond is just one life among many that you live. Even you can’t sustain this life forever. I’ll have to live deliberately in other ways. I can enjoy moments of Nature, but I also find fulfillment in other ways of living.”

“Living deliberately will not look the same for you, and you need to realize that. I came to the woods because I wish to live deliberately, but you obviously don’t need to do that, too. Find those moments where life is truly sublime, where you fulfill the purpose for which you have been created. Work hard, seek adventure, and accomplish your goals. Seek truth and understanding in every moment, and cut out all the excess of life that doesn’t lead you to wisdom and a great knowledge of your world.

I nod. “I can do that.”

Henry slaps his hands against his knees and stands. “How long are you staying?”

I stand, too. “Awhile. Need some help in the bean-field?”

“Of course!” he says and strides to the door. Before I turn to leave the cabin, I pull a small bag of peppermints from my pocket and leave them on Henry’s table. He’ll appreciate the simple gift, I’m sure.

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On Living Deliberately

On my wrist is a green rubber bracelet that I bought at Walden Pond in August 2009. The bracelet says “LIVE DELIBERATELY” on it, and I never take it off. I need the reminder:

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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Currently, I’m reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden–in its entirety–for the first time. Though nearly everyone (myself included) is familiar with many of Thoreau’s ideas (such as the above quotation), I never realized how powerful this work of literature is. It isn’t enough to read Thoreau’s passage on living deliberately without understanding how he applied that concept to every moment of his time spent at Walden Pond–even the time spent plowing his bean-field.

Class on Thursday night was a glorious two-and-a-half hour discussion on what it means to live deliberately. Thoreau entitled his first chapter “Economy,” a chapter which composes about one-quarter of the work. By economy, he does not refer merely to financial matters, though that is a part of it. Economy is, in Thoreau’s world, living deliberately–making the most of every resource we’ve been given, particularly time.

We spent a portion of class adapting a definition of economics and applying it to life. We listed scarce resources (time, energy, health, passion, etc.), with restrictions (we must eat and sleep; there are only 24 hours in a day), and determined how we could best use those resources, within the confines of those restrictions, to fully achieve our wants and needs. We spent time reflecting on what we truly want in life and discovered that the 8 of us in the classroom essentially all want similar things: deep, meaningful relationships; health; knowledge; the ability to travel; sanity; etc.

This week, our class is challenged to live deliberately, to fast from some aspect of our lives that does not enable us to live simply. Mostly, we agreed that technology is one area that has a total hold on our lives, that is freeing to give up. So until Tuesday, I’m staying away from Facebook. I’m making an effort not to be enslaved to my email and cell phone (though that is harder than leaving Facebook), and I’m attempting to think about each moment of my day through the perspective of living deliberately. In each moment, I have a choice in my actions–I could waste time in an activity that isn’t productive, that results from boredom; or I could choose to live each moment.

One thing about Thoreau’s idea, however, is that he isn’t Christian. Yes, he gives evidence of knowledge of biblical truth, but he does not espouse it. (For example, he feels that men have “hastily concluded” that our chief end is to glorify God. I tend to agree that this is our chief end, though I have not hastily concluded this premise.) This isn’t a problem for me. As a Christian and a scholar, I recognize that all truth is God’s truth, and even when an author writes from an opposing worldview, I can recognize the pervasiveness of my Father’s glory. For example, after leaving class Thursday night, I passed a church with a marquee imploring me to love the Lord my God with ALL my heart, soul, mind, and strength. And in that moment of thinking about living deliberately and reading the Scripture as I drove past, I realized that this commandment is the very essence of living deliberately for a Christ-follower. Loving God with everything I have is intentional and deliberate and the only way to live fully and completely.

My LIVE DELIBERATELY bracelet isn’t a reminder for me to sell my possessions, move to a cabin in the woods, and plant beans. Instead, it is a reminder that life is a choice. I can choose to fritter it away with meaningless pursuits, or I can choose to deliberately seek the will of my Father in every moment.

A Dialogue on Poetry between Emerson & Poe

For my grad school class on the American literary renaissance, I was assigned to imagine a dialogue between Ralph Waldo Emerson and another poet on the role of the poet. I had fun imagining what Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe would talk about, and I thought I’d share it here.

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The setting: a darkened restaurant in Boston, circa 1845

The characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe

The scene: Waldo slowly drinks a cup of hot tea and munches on bland crackers while Edgar hurriedly downs cups of black coffee, frequently checking the time on his pocket watch. We join in the middle of a heated conversation.

* * *

POE: You have no idea what real poetry is, Waldo!

EMERSON: No idea, Edgar? Whose poetry is imprinted on a monument commemorating the birth of our nation at the Old North Bridge in Concord, within view of my grandfather’s house? Meanwhile, you were paid a mere pittance for that ghastly poem about a bird!

POE: [swigging from his coffee mug, only to realize it is empty before slamming it on the table] “The Raven” is a brilliant poem! Perhaps I have yet to make much money off my work, but at least I have realized the process involved in writing a great poem.

EMERSON: Process? Poetry isn’t about process. Poetry isn’t about rhyme or meter! A poet should convey truth to the masses. A poet should find in Nature all of the experiences of humanity, and his poetry should reveal our shared connection with the divine. The content matters far more than the form of a poem.

POE: The content does not matter at all if the form—the rhyme, rhythm, meter, every word contained therein—is not worthy to convey such truth. And as for your “Nature.” Waldo, nature is not perfect and divine.

EMERSON: A true poet would disagree with you, Edgar.

POE: Oh, really? What, then, would a “true poet” find perfect and divine about a young boy, orphaned and unloved? About a young wife withering away from a heinous disease? Where is the perfection in that, Waldo?

EMERSON: [sitting thoughtfully] “Everything in nature answers to a moral power,” Edgar (214). This darkness you’ve experienced is because you haven’t really understood poetry yet.

POE: I understand, Waldo, that a talented poet realizes that darkness and melancholia can evoke that which is truly beautiful. I’m not lacking an understanding of poetry. I have, in fact, transcended to the level of finally portraying a true picture of humanity.

EMERSON: By inviting a bird of death into your chamber?

POE: I didn’t invite him in. He invited himself into the chamber of my narrator. Besides, is a raven not part of nature?

EMERSON: Perhaps in its natural state, but inside a darkened room is decidedly unnatural. [Waldo patiently sips his tea.]

POE: Contrary to what you Frogpondians espouse, a poet need not always seek to reveal nature. Through a properly constructed plot, rendered in an acceptable length, a raven able to speak only one word may be both terrifying and beautiful.

EMERSON: [thoughtfully] It seems we agree on one thing at least, Edgar.

POE: [sneering] What is that, Waldo?

EMERSON: Poetry should be beautiful. A poet should convey beauty to the world.

POE: Perhaps so. But how would you define beauty?

Edgar tosses a coin onto the tabletop, sweeps his jacket off the back of his chair, and strides toward the door without a second glance at Emerson, who turns toward the fireplace and continues sipping his tea.