Category Archives: Thoreau Quote

The Day(s) After

By Corinne H. Smith

“Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? – in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or to the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. … The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” ~ Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”

Like fellow blog poster Sandy Stott, I too am an introvert and am not the biggest fan of crowds of any size. Over the years though, I have set my discomfort aside to attend a fair number of Major League Baseball games, NFL football games, and stadium rock concerts. I even went to a Farm Aid gathering in Illinois farm country in the late 1990s. And, as events unfolded, I knew I had to participate in the March on Washington last weekend, even though I figured the crowd here would be sizable. I was prepared to walk among thousands of people. Naturally, I was somewhat shocked but downright heartened to end up sharing a personal space with HUNDREDS of thousands of people.

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The crowd, with the Washington Monument in the background, in low cloud cover. Photo – Don Jewler

My two companions and I began the day at the Metro station near their suburban Virginia home. The first two trains that stopped were already packed solid with people, many of whom were wearing pink hats. The doors opened, but there was no room left for more passengers. “I’ve never seen it like this,” said one of my well-traveled friends. “It’s worse than Calcutta!” We decided to take a train going in the opposite direction, to ride through a few stops, and then to get off to board an emptier train heading toward DC. The plan worked. But soon enough, we too found ourselves fully immersed in a mass of humanity, cushioned inside a fully-loaded Silver Line bullet zipping toward the Mall. Every seat was taken, and every other inch of every car was filled with someone standing. We proceeded in fits and starts. The train came to a stop for seemingly no reason, and we groaned. After what seemed like an eternity, it started up again, and we cheered. Even in such close quarters, everyone was merry, kind, patient, tolerant, and respectful. We were going to the same place. We held common beliefs. We could be polite to every stranger and to every fellow traveler who had come from various parts of the country. Why couldn’t our government officials behave as politely?

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Sitting in the train, surrounded. Photo – Don Jewler

From the Metro station at L’Enfant Plaza, we walked toward Independence Avenue. We quickly became part of the sea of people, stretching as far as we could see. Some folks had even climbed into the trees to get a better look. We waded through the crowd to find good places to stand. We weren’t anywhere near the stage, but we could hear and see the speakers through several Jumbo-trons and stacks of audio equipment. We got to hear Michael Moore, Ashley Judd, and some of the others before we waded again toward the edges. After what seemed another lifetime, our mass began moving down the street. No one commanded us to start marching, but march we did. With so many people, we could go in only one direction. A woman named Mary Ann from St. Louis chuckled from behind me, “This isn’t as much a march, as it is a mingle.” So it was. We chanted, we laughed, we marveled at the sight and the feeling and the sheer power of being among a large group of fully committed people. When my companions and I decided to cut out and head back to the train, we saw that the parallel streets and the Mall were also filled with people marching, heading toward the Washington Monument. Independence Avenue couldn’t hold us all. What a stunning sight!

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The March. Photo – Don Jewler

“When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour – for the horse was soon tackled – was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.” ~ Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”

Henry Thoreau’s act of civil disobedience constituted one small experience in his life. It was personally meaningful, but it was just one night in jail. When he was released, he could return to the schedule he had set before his day had been interrupted by the sheriff. He didn’t want or expect the government to take any more time out of his life than it already had.

Our experience today is different in terms of both scale and duration. These Marches were held in hundreds of cities worldwide and involved millions of individuals, not just one. This commitment constituted just one day in our lives, and it was spent in a different kind of environment than we were used to. But unlike Thoreau, we know that our work is far from over.

On Sunday, January 22, the Day After the March, my friends and I went back downtown to do some sightseeing and to see a gallery exhibit. Independence Avenue was empty now, without the hundreds of thousands filling it. I could see the buildings and the streets that I couldn’t see, 24 hours earlier. Birds had returned to the trees. Nearby pussy willows – ironically enough — were fuzzing out in the gallery gardens. Life had returned to normal. But only in a way.

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Alone, on Independence Avenue, the Day After, with room to spare. Where is everyone? Photo – Don Jewler

Our March is hardly over. Yes, we have all returned to our homes and to our own schedules and lives. But our One Day Among Others marked just the beginning of our collective involvement in this particular resistance. This new government will continue to demand much more time and energy from us than it already has. Thoreau’s personal brand of civil disobedience was the once-and-done kind. Ours seems as though it will become infinite. Yet, like millions of battery-powered drum-beating bunnies, we and the movement will keep on going, with no clear end in sight. At least we can take comfort in knowing that we’re not going the path alone.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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