Category Archives: News and Events

Shift

“Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” Henry Thoreau, Resistance to Civil Government

On this trip to Boston, I have, among others, Henry Thoreau in mind. We are going in protest, in to protest the needy turning of a new machine, and we are not alone. Each single I is intent on being we.

Henry Thoreau’s love of paradox rises before me. A route to truth is sometimes elusive. He had to leave town to see it for what is was; I must go to the city, to join what will turn out to be 175,000 new friends to become my singular self.

The day, curiously warm for January, deepens; the slate of cloud rolls back to blue sky. We gather on Common ground.

IMG_1572

A good while later. My focus is immediate. Yes, there are helicopters a thousand feet overhead, and I’ve seen a large drone, and they have been incessant – round and round this Common they fly – but my concerns are more pressing. It has been 30 minutes since we moved, and unused to so much unknown, close company, I have been talking myself toward calm for past few minutes. “No need to worry, you’re in no hurry,” I’ve said at the same time noting body pressure from the back and both sides. I have nearly a foot free in front; it is my breathing space. The granite gate that anchors the black, wrought iron fence and issues on to Beacon St., with Charles visible beyond, is about 50 feet away. Still 50 feet.

IMG_1578

A young woman arrives at my left ear. “I’m sorry,” she says, anxiety pitched in her voice, “I’m trying to get out. “We all are,” three of us who inhabit a single space say. “O,” she says, and takes up position leaning on my left shoulder. “O.”

To our back right, a vibrato voice still sounds from the ginormous speakers facing the Common. Nearly an hour ago, Elizabeth Warren ended her brief speech, which featured, “Me, I choose to fight,” with a resounding, “Let’s march!” “YEA,” we roared in thousands, “YEA!” Still the speakers arrive; still we go nowhere.

And yet…and yet…it works – I feel my shoulders drop, I lean a little on my new left-shoulder companion; the tall man who has been serving as our scout – “No motion, nope, no one’s being allowed out on to Beacon” – smiles; the nearby 7-year-old who must feel he’s lost in a human forest looks stoically at the small of a back before him; to my right someone tells a bad Boston joke: “What happens if you take Trump off the T,” he asks. You get what’s left, a rump. We all groan tolerantly. We go nowhere. My wife and I look at each other from time to time, but each of us is clearly trying not to alarm the other; mostly we talk with others. Or scan for motion.

A sudden call goes up, “Medic, medic,” and hands point over to our right. “Medic, medic!” And then, “give her some room,” and the whole crowd sways like underwater kelp with the ripple of nearby emergency, and some unseen rescuer presses in from the gate, parting our human sea. Is he a Medic? No one knows. We settle again; the swaying stops.

Crowd literature, or disaster literature, is full of stories of panic let loose in such tight-packed spaces, where fences contain any possible spillage. But this crowd is different. It’s as if, after two months of individual despair and angst at the election (sort of) of a repulsive man, who is so needy that he can’t even let us despair quietly, we have suddenly been given knowledge of citizenship and family we didn’t know we had. Close family, very.

I am crowd-averse, with an American’s need for wide personal space – Don’t fence me in – and yet, even as I work to contain anxiety at being immobile, I keep smiling. To myself, I whisper, “I love these people. I love what they mean, what they hope for; I am not alone.”

IMG_1581

Comments Off on Shift

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Hearing Drums – NMP 1/20/17

The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. They seem as solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever. Thoreau, Reading, Walden.

For weeks, I’ve heard the pounding. Sometimes it’s the sudden pick-up of my heart, when a new vulgarity arrives from our president-(sort of)elect; other times, it’s the full-throated narcissism of another me-ist intent on unmooring us from any collective will to do good. Such drums have kept me awake at night, distracted me from the day’s work. Even when I walk to the woods, as I do daily, their thrumming sometimes insists.

When in search of larger wisdom, Henry Thoreau, it seems to me, turned often to the ancient Greeks, famously keeping, for example, a copy of The Iliad by his bed while at the pond. When it comes to apprehending the pulse of human behavior, they’ve not yet been surpassed. And in this loud run-up to Friday’s inauguration (I note the word “augur” embedded), I’ve found myself returned to the strangeness of a play I’ve read many times, Euripides’, The Bakkhai.

The_bakkhai-210

“No more drums,” cries Pentheus, the newly-crowned, 17-year-old king of Thebes, in this ancient play about madness. Here, the king (inexperienced and untested) gets a visit from Dionysos, himself a new god and intent on gaining followers, but one who already knows the power of impulse in human affairs. Dionysos assumes the disguise of a 17-year-old priest, and so joins Pentheus in a late-adolescent contest for control. It is an unequal match-up, young authoritarian versus god of impulse, and everyone but Pentheus can see that the priest is something else, something otherworldly. This, the people of Thebes can see, will not end well. For their king, and so, for them.

And it doesn’t, as Dionysos chooses the particularly cruel avenue of Pentheus’ desires – scarcely understood by the king – as a way to lure him into a trap, where he is torn limb from limb by a pack of women, led by his mother. Pentheus is such a hothead, so intent on being (becoming) “the man” that one has to work at finding sympathy for him. Still, to be shredded by mother…well, at least a tear or two there, if not a primary fear. And Dionysos is implacable force, intent on being worshipped; little else matters, including his own followers, who have left their homes for the promise of joy and a better life, and now find themselves stranded in a foreign land.

It has taken me some time to sort all these drums and drummings, but now I see that Euripides has fashioned a play – his last, some think – that cautions against ungoverned impulse (within and without), and it has returned to my mind because we seem to be entering an era where such impulse is the loudest of tweets, a form that is all impulse. The president-elect (sort of) seems a joining of both 17-year-olds in The Bakkhai, a colossal neediness for control and regard.

The play does not end well for Thebes either. Shorn of its governing force by Pentheus’s death, it is open to the rest of the world’s ill will and predation. And Dionysos, intent on himself, is ready to move on – where can I go next to spread the joy of me, and get worship in return?

Henry Thoreau used to listen to celebrations of independence and self in Concord village at a distance; from Walden, the volleys of expressive cannons sounded like “pop” guns, or toys. Thoreau also revered the Greeks, though I’ve not found indication that he read The Bakkhai, even as I suspect he must have. But I wonder if any metaphorical pond lies at enough distance from today’s distant tweets and the roar of self-worship? Or, if, unlike the Thebans, it’s time to plunge in and roar back at this odd amalgam, this president of impulse?

Reader’s Note: This play repays reading many times over, and Robert Bagg’s translation is very fine. When I checked a while ago, it was out of print, but I have found it in used bookstores. Also, new translations continue to appear; it is truly a timeless, or well timed play.

Comments Off on Hearing Drums – NMP 1/20/17

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden

John Thoreau and the Rusted Edge

By Corinne H. Smith

It’s one of the tragic stories in Henry Thoreau’s life: the loss of his brother John to lockjaw on January 11, 1842. John had been sharpening a razor when he cut his finger. Tetanus quickly set in. And he died a painful death of lockjaw in his brother’s arms days later. Henry was devastated to lose his brother and best friend.

How can we not think of John Thoreau anytime the possibility of tetanus comes up? Here’s something that happened to me a few years ago. It hardly matches the horror of John Thoreau’s death. But it was no less real to me.

I like lighting candles, especially for creative inspiration. The only trouble is that the little glass globes I use end up with unmelted wax at the bottom. That’s when I get out my trusty flat-head screwdriver to dig the wax out. Soon the wax pops out and the container is ready for another candle.

Careful work

Deliberate work

A few years ago, I was digging out the last wax from one of these globes when I heard a crack and felt pain at the same time. The globe had broken and the screwdriver had dug right into the palm of my hand. Yikes!

This screwdriver is my all-purpose tool. I use it for everything. My father gave it to me when I was young, so that I could “help” him with light maintenance around the house. So yes, it’s old and, yes, it’s rusty. My immediate thought was that I hadn’t gotten a tetanus shot in a long time. My second thought was of the image of John Thoreau dying in Henry’s arms.

I picked as many pieces of glass out of my hand as I could. I cleaned up the blood — although with this puncture wound, there wasn’t too much of it. And I made a phone call to my general physician.

When I got into the doctor’s office, he asked the usual, “What brings you in today?” I told him about the candle and the screwdriver. I said I needed a tetanus shot. I lifted the bandage, and he looked at the wound. Then he walked over to the supply cabinet to get the shot ready.

“I have to tell you, whenever patients come in here, it’s not usually to get a tetanus shot,” he said.

That’s when I started blabbering. I told him the story of John and Henry Thoreau: the cut finger, the tetanus, the death by lockjaw. The doctor listened quietly to my rambling; then he dug the needle into my arm. I turned my head away so that I wouldn’t see it. The whole process took only a minute or two. Soon he was back at his counter, cleaning up.

“So, I’m not going to die of lockjaw?” I asked.

“You are not going to die of lockjaw,” he said.

“Does anyone die of lockjaw anymore?”

“In the United States? Probably not.” Good to know.

I thanked him and walked back out to the reception desk. I didn’t have health insurance at the time, so I started digging out my checkbook, expecting that the bill would be at least twenty or thirty dollars.

“That’ll be five dollars today,” the receptionist said.

“Really? That’s all?”

She looked down at the chart again. “That’s what he has written down,” she said.

I was amazed. Did the doctor cut me a break because I was seemingly traumatized by something that happened more than a century and a half ago? I half-think that he did. And I have a feeling that if I had had health insurance, the bill would have been a lot higher. I was grateful.

Eventually I had to have minor surgery to remove a leftover piece of glass from my hand, and I can still feel a tiny piece of wax that’s in there. Naturally, I think of John Thoreau every time I do. I feel sorry that John and Henry had to go through their tragedy. I welcome the medical advancements we’ve achieved since 1842.

But I’m a bit more careful these days, whenever I take my trusty (and still rusty) screwdriver to the remainders of my candles. In an odd sort of way, I have John Thoreau to thank for making me more cautious.

Comments Off on John Thoreau and the Rusted Edge

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, News and Events, The Roost