Someone Has to Go

All sorts of men come to the Cattle-Show. I see one with a blue hat*. Thoreau, Journal, 9/29/57.

There are days…when it pays…to break routine. Yesterday the light came to the window…just so…and I said, “someone has to go.”

The sea is only a few miles away, and yet, when I arrive, I see it is enjoying a very different day. Yes, the air has a familiar translucence – it is so-clear September – but a quick check of the water shows there’s a torrent of air in motion above. White-caps wash the bay, and there’s the always sound of restless water. The wind, still from the summer-south, insists, driving the water up bay; I will go the other way.

And that occasions a moment’s hesitation – do I want that work against this wind? But then I consider also that I can “hide” in the lee of an island chain for part of the way, and I know too that, a few hours from now, when I turn back, I will hitch a ride on the tide and the wind and waves will be at my back. Work to get out; glide home – good division of day. And now the water is simply “live”; I like live water.

Here then, because someone had to go, is a small photo gift from a midpoint of this day away – it is only the view of and from Little French Island and a few late-season beach roses; you will have to imagine the osprey-keenings, the loon-calls and the seals who grumbled their indecision about whether to give up their sun-rocks for the thin yellow boat a hundred yards away (I kept my distance and they stayed put).

May you be the next one to put on your blue hat and go.

* Note from Jeffrey Cramer: “When Thoreau presented his “Succession of Forest Trees” before the Middlesex Agricultural Society at the Middlesex Cattle Show and Ploughing Match on 20 September 1860, he began: ‘Every man is entitled to come to Cattleshow, even a transcendentalist.'”

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Are You Okay?

Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star. Thoreau, Walden.

“Are you okay?”

The two ten-year-olds pause, balanced on their bicycles, as I recover my stride and footing.

“Yes, thanks,” I say…”just caught a toe on a root.” And then I keep on down into the woods, and they remount and ride on the other way.

As I run, I wonder about this little moment and its concern.

Here in the woods, away a bit from the everyday setting of streets and homes, have I just met two boys trained in empathy by their parents? Or was that question involuntary, simply automatic concern for a fellow two-legger, who has stumbled, a white-haired two-legger to boot?

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All of this has been much in mind as I’ve read through Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe, whose subtitle reads, On Homecoming and Belonging. In it, Junger takes as primary subject and example the difficulty modern soldiers experience rejoining our society, and how this experience differs from that of warriors in tribal societies. Those warriors, who bore with them the horror and trauma of combat, returned to groups configured to receive them, to help them readjust, to help them be okay. Junger points out that our soldiers return to a society designed for the individual, one where need of aid is often seen as weakness, one where isolation is rampant. In such a world, healing, which requires social context, gets delayed, or doesn’t happen at all. Disability takes over instead; life dissipates.

Having been trained in individuation and individualism, having learned to think that hope arrives one person at a time, I find myself wary of groups, or tribes, where the expectation is that a person subsume her or himself to the group, for its good. And yet, it feels as if we – country, world – are wheeling out of control, as individuals fly off at all angles in pursuit of self(ies?) So much self regard; so little group regard.

Here, I think also of Henry Thoreau, seer of the singular, urger of self-realization, of making the self real. Thoreau set out for Walden in pursuit of “I.” But, more importantly, I think, once he’d discovered that “I,” he returned to the group – both to town and to the larger world via his writing – to see what effect he might have in advancing that group.

“Are you okay?” he might have asked rhetorically as he watched his town and country stumble, lose stride in a time whose troubles seem resonant with ours. Would it recover balance? Regain stride?

Walden ends famously with the image of the morning star, with “more day to dawn.” Okay, it posits, through experiment, you know something of yourself; that’s a beginning, but only that. Now on to your allotted day/life – what will you make there? with whom?

By now, I am deep in the woods, and, if you have read along to this point, perhaps you are too. But I realize that as I return from this daily foray, I come back to the extended and extensive self of a town that is itself nested in a larger group.

And I need to keep asking of people I meet, whether in stride or knocked from it, are you okay? Are we?

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The Road from Walden

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Beyond the small tribe of relations and friends who greet me by name, it can be tough to find the lovable. On my way to work today, a cyclist snarled at me because I rolled up to a stop sign and then, seeing no one, pulled out on to the road; the cyclist, who was riding against traffic, and so, was on the wrong side of the road, took umbrage at having to brake as I turned onto the street. My heart rate shot up, and I was tempted to turn and follow him, give him my 3 cents worth for his 2. A few minutes later, an impatient fellow motorist honked twice when I wouldn’t accelerate through a yellow-light-going red; beside me as I fumed was a truck with a spent muffler and a confederate flag flying behind the cab. I was pretty sure whoever was driving behind the tinted window was chronically angry.

Once in the little room where I write, I thought it wise to avoid reading the news sites I also frequent. Aside from occasional visits to the apparently tiny land of Altruism, most of the copy there features a mix of trouble and small-fisted posturing. Where to turn?

One tough-minded place is a section that many skip over at the end of Walden’s long first chapter, Economy. After laying out his sense of the state of the world and asking his readers to examine how they configure their lives, Thoreau turns to the problem of how to love his neighbors, or how to be among them: what joins the “phil” with “anthropy?” he asks. Is it even possible, you may ask.

Predictably, Thoreau dismisses the most common philanthropy, giving money or others resources to someone in need. He pays particular attention to a system of giving, to ongoing support that one might offer to a poor family, for example; we would call it welfare. What, other than dependency, does this accomplish? he wants to know.

Already, early in my reading, I have left liberal-land, or left the left and its redistributive government.
I am among the free-range libertarians now. Out here in I-land, one form of love is leaving, leaving others alone, letting them “be.” Perhaps then that “being” is the route to “becoming”; perhaps then each can become self according to individual “genius.” Perhaps.

Having passed through and then worked in the liberal academy, I am suspicious; I fear an anarchy of “I,” which means I fear the loosing of our worst tendencies, which I must see as central to who we are. And yet, as is amply clear, the current order has been bent to those tendencies anyway.

“What have you got to lose?” I say to myself, and my flesh crawls at unintentional quotation. Is there really overlap between the life of someone I revere and the most narcissistic candidate I’ve ever seen?

But then, when I consider Philanthropy’s question – how best do I love other people – I find solace: Henry Thoreau saw it as serious question; it informed all his writing, as he sought and succeeded in bringing us news of the universe. In the narrow mind of the candidate whose name I will not mention, the question seems subverted into this one: How best to love myself and have others do so too? I’ll leave that question in little hands.

I return then to Thoreau’s final pages of “Economy.” There, he writes,

If, then, we would restore mankind by truly Indian, botanic, magnetic or natural means, let us first be as simple as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores. Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.

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