I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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In the first hour of morning, Henry David Thoreau writes in his transcendentalist masterpiece Walden, “some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.”
I’m sleeping in my clothes on Emily’s living-room couch when I wake to find her two-year-old daughter, Ariel, clutching her stuffed tyrannosaurus and staring into my eyes.
“Go for walk?” she says.
I point to the dark window and tell her it’s still dark out; she needs to go back to bed.
“Go for walk?” she repeats, as if I must not have heard her the first time. She runs into the kitchen and returns with a pretend cup of coffee. I pretend to drink it, smacking my lips and saying, “Ah.” Then I get up.
I’ve been baby-sitting Ariel on Tuesday nights in exchange for a sofa to sleep on when I’m in town for work. (I live a good distance from the community college where I teach.) Over the months, I’ve learned that if Ariel wants to go for a walk, that’s what’s going to happen. And on that walk, if she wants to sit on the curb and examine a dried-up earthworm, that’s what we’ll do. And if she wants to put the worm in my shirt pocket for safekeeping, along with some interesting twigs and dead bugs, well, what are pockets for?
She and I don’t talk much on our walks, and when we do, we speak in simple sentences: nouns, verbs, the occasional adjective — such as scary if we’re talking about dragons or raccoons. When I don’t understand what Ariel is saying, she sighs and turns her attention to something else: a row of ants on the sidewalk, a squirrel, a clump of thistles. (“Sharpies,” she calls them.)
In the condominium playground she goes down the slide headfirst, and I catch her at the bottom. I think of myself as someone who lives in the moment, but taking care of Ariel has revealed to me what an effort it is just to be for a couple of hours. When my mind wanders to my to-do list for the day, she pulls me back, pointing to a waning moon hanging above the first streaks of dawn. “Can’t reach it,” she says, holding her arms out. We climb the ladder to the top of the slide and stretch out our arms together, but it’s still beyond our reach.
A neighbor’s dog has been put in the yard to do his business. “Bingo’s pooping,” Ariel says. She wants to pet him, even though Bingo always knocks her down. An upstairs light pops on here and there as people rise from their beds and drift into their kitchens for their first cup of coffee. Emily’s light is on, too. “Mama’s up,” I say. In the glow of sunrise we pick a bouquet of dandelions and daisies for Emily. She and I had a brief romance a while back, and I’m still in love with her in a sleepy sort of way, but it’s not mutual.
“Robin,” Ariel says, pointing to a bird I hadn’t noticed.
“Two robins,” I say as a second swoops in.
“Want to hold them,” she says.
I tell her that robins don’t want to be held; they want to be free. Ariel runs after them anyway.
The college where I teach English is only a few years old and doesn’t have a real campus yet. Classes are held on the first floor of the Berkeley County Building in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Weather permitting, I find places to teach outside. This morning at nine I’m scheduled to teach a group of high-school seniors who are taking courses for college credit. I write a note on my classroom’s whiteboard: “American Lit in Norbourne Parish Cemetery; quiz on Henry David Thoreau.”
Waiting for the students to arrive, I poke around the old graveyard, home to many wealthy residents from Martinsburg’s early years. Some of the monuments are twice as tall as I am, but the names and dates have largely eroded away, as names and dates do. Many of the individual headstones stand at a severe slant, if they haven’t fallen over altogether. Nobody comes here anymore to put things right. Homeless men sleep in remote plots by the back wall. I see signs of their encampments: an empty bottle, some food wrappers. I catch a whiff of urine.
As I walk among the graves, I recall passages from Walden that I’ve known by heart since my college days in the 1960s: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, to see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” In my youth I thought there was no way I would die without having lived, but today I’m not so sure. Somewhere in midlife time kicked into overdrive, and now, suddenly, there it is on the horizon: the end of the road.
Oh, the acceleration of time! Thoreau died just two life spans ago, but the human population explosion — along with the explosion of our industries and material desires — has caused Mother Earth to age more in that 150 years than she did in the previous 150,000. She has become an old woman overnight. In 1845 Thoreau, within a half-hour’s walk of his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, could build a one-room cabin on a pristine lake (Walden is more of a lake than a pond) a mile from his nearest neighbor, catch fish for his dinner, cultivate a bean field for his cash needs, and keep his accounts on his thumbnail. Every day the possibility of living such a simple and elegant existence grows smaller. Earlier this morning, driving the back roads from Emily’s into town, I passed a construction site swarming with bulldozers and cranes the size of dinosaurs on what I swear last week was a cow pasture. Nature has been plundered, gobbled up, drilled, fracked, deforested, depastured, deflowered — you name it; we’ve done it and are doing it. We tell ourselves that Mother Earth, like banks and insurance companies, is too big to fail, or that, should She begin to fail, we can bail Her out at the last minute.
But enough already. Here come the students filing through the gate, texting on their phones and snapping pictures of themselves, happy to be outside with the birds and the bees on a spring morning, even if they are in a cemetery. Skylar arrives ahead of the pack and whispers to me that I’m getting a reputation: people are calling me the “graveyard professor.”
As she and her classmates settle in among the tombstones, using them for desks or backrests, I ask them to take out a piece of paper for the quiz. They protest almost in one voice, but I begin anyway. Number one: How big was the cabin Thoreau built with his own hands at Walden Pond? Number two: Why didn’t he make it bigger? Number three: On what day did he move in, and why did he choose that day?
As the quizzes trickle in, I see that only a few have read the assignment. Skylar, whose mom died last year, and Minerva, who’s from the Dominican Republic, get their usual perfect scores. The males largely fail. Disappointed, I try to get my students to view Thoreau’s themes of independence and freedom through the lens of their own lives. Thoreau saw a farmer as being owned by his farm, rather than the other way around. I ask them what possessions they are “owned” by: their smartphones, maybe? A few roll their eyes, but I press on: A phone has a monthly bill. If your parents don’t pick up the tab, you need a part-time job to pay for it, and then a car to get to work, and maybe a second job to pay for the car.
“Maybe we like our jobs,” one young man says.
OK, I reply, but what about the workers in China who made those phones: Do they like their jobs? Thoreau took up his life on Walden Pond not only to live simply but also to make sure he wasn’t enjoying a comfortable existence on the backs of others who labored for little or no wage.
Several students talk at once, asking what they are supposed to do: give up their phones?
I tell them I don’t have a cellphone. Or the Internet. Or a TV.
“No TV, Mr. Ralston?” Minerva says. “That’s like not having a toilet.”
There is laughter in the graveyard.
As the class winds down, I go over the answers to the quiz: Thoreau moved into his ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin on July 4, Independence Day, 1845. He chose that day to make the point that political independence is just the beginning. We’re not completely free until we also throw off our inner masters: greed, laziness, ignorance. I gesture to the cemetery around us. “People hope there’s life after death,” I say, “but for Thoreau the right question was: Is there life before death?”
On that note I send the students on to their next class. As they exit to the street, texting while they walk, I want to call out to them to watch out for cars. All this finger chattering! I remember my hour with Ariel this morning, how aware she was of her surroundings. I’m also reminded of Thoreau’s acid remark about the laying of the Atlantic telegraph cable in the mid-1800s: that the first message we received from the other side of the ocean would be that Princess Adelaide had the whooping cough.
In my head I hear Howard, my friend and upstairs neighbor back home, telling me to ease up on the kids. Howard is a healer, a spiritual counselor, and an adherent of various Eastern practices: qigong, tai chi, acupuncture. He corrects me when I focus only on how dire humanity’s situation has become. For example, if I tell him about some problem I perceive in others, Howard might reply, And your tendency to judge people — that’s not a problem?
He and I have been sparring like this for years, and he lands a good blow now and then. I’m always seeing danger ahead for the human race, and his response is always Name a time when there wasn’t danger ahead.
Howard likes to quote from another famous transcendentalist, Walt Whitman, who writes in his poem “Song of Myself” that there “will never be any more perfection than there is now, / Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.” Howard says Whitman was a giant soul — and Thoreau would have been, too, if not for his penchant for carping about humankind.
It’s a habit that I, a follower of Thoreau, have obviously picked up. And we go back such a long ways, Thoreau and I. Indeed I was once one of those poor students he envisioned when he addressed Walden to them. Like him, I was a member of the first generation in my family to go to college (in my case, a small private school in Alma, Michigan). Like him, I was an undistinguished student. On top of that, my farm upbringing made me old-fashioned and uncool. I still woke at 6 AM — not to milk cows but to work the cafeteria breakfast line, one of several part-time jobs I needed to pay my bills. Sometimes I could barely stay awake in class. But my weary eyes snapped open when we read Walden. Cock-a-doodle-do! Before I discovered Thoreau, I’d studied only to stay eligible to play sports. To me, doing schoolwork was like dying for a short time. Then, in my American Literature class, studying and living suddenly became the same thing.
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!” Thoreau writes. To that I would add: For how many men and women has that book been Walden? Thoreau was my portal into the world of thought — and not thought for thought’s sake, but thought that shaped how I lived. “Economy” is the first chapter of Walden for a reason. Simplify, simplify. The spirit grows strong in a lean, disciplined life, a life that appears impoverished by the world’s standards. “Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”
In the first flush of reading Thoreau, I quit that breakfast-line job and saved money by eating one less meal a day. Goodbye, barber: I would cut my own hair. So long, shampoo: bar soap would do. If I thought about money, it was not how much I needed but how little. If I thought about my future living quarters, it was how small they could be — a room over a garage, a VW van, an all-weather sleeping bag, a hollow in a tree if it came to that. If I thought about women . . . well, so much for early-onset idealism. I’ve read that a young man thinks about sex once every ten seconds, and that sounds about right. Could such a relentless desire accommodate itself to simple living? When I looked closely at the young women sitting next to me in class or in the commons, I couldn’t imagine any of them being attracted to someone who lived in an attic or a tepee.
Writing a term paper on transcendentalism, I came across a remark by American artist N.C. Wyeth: “Thoreau is the springhead for almost every move I can make, except in the intimate matters that transpire between a man and a woman. . . . Here he is utterly deficient . . . on account of his lack of experience.” Utterly deficient! I was ready to argue with that. I already knew that Thoreau in his youth had fallen deeply in love with Ellen Sewell, who’d rejected his marriage proposal. So he’d at least experienced heartache. But Wyeth was on to something. How does one simplify the mating instinct, which by its nature is so overwhelming? And how well was a guy going to do with women if one of his life’s goals was to be poor? Nor did it help that I was attracted to young women who had stylish (read: expensive) tastes in clothes, makeup, and so forth. I would have to take a step back from Thoreau for a while. This was the sixties, the decade of the so-called sexual revolution. Thoreau almost certainly had died a virgin.
Lucky for me, I wasn’t as shy as he was. And though my serious, nonmaterialistic side set me apart somewhat from my classmates, I could shoot a basket. I could catch a pass. And I was aware of the young women rooting in the stands while I played. To make myself more attractive, I started going to the barber again. I went back to working the breakfast line so I could afford new pants and some after-shave. I spent my meager savings on a cheap used car, mainly for the back seat. In French class I sat next to Connie, who’d grown up in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. I asked her out, and we dated for the remainder of my college years.
Before graduation I proposed, and Connie said yes. We set a date. In the meantime she stayed in Alma to finish up her senior year while I took graduate classes at Wayne State University in Detroit. I was living in an apartment in the suburbs, working the graveyard shift as a welder’s assistant to pay my bills, and thinking about Connie every ten seconds. But my passion for Thoreau started to awaken again. One day I added up my expenses and discovered that half my salary went toward gas and upkeep on my car. In a second burst of “simplify, simplify,” I quit my job, junked the car, and rented a room in a tolerable inner-city boardinghouse within walking distance of the university. By limiting my expenses to ten dollars a week, I could pay for everything, including tuition and books, with just a single day of yardwork in the suburbs every weekend. Thoreau’s formula: work one day; rest six. He saw his life as a series of experiments. Here was an early one for me: How little did a student need to survive?
Once again I found I had a gift for getting by on a tight budget. (Howard says I was a monk in a previous life.) Soon word was going around school about the “city Thoreau.” One of my professors said I should write up my experiment and publish it. So I started keeping a journal and writing down every penny I spent: Rent was $5.00 a week. Food averaged out to $2.35. (Yes, $2.35 a week. Eggs, which were my main source of protein, were sixty cents a dozen.) There were a few miscellaneous items: Stamps for love letters to Connie. Seeds for a window garden. Bus fare to the suburbs for my Saturday workday. On a roll, I reduced my wardrobe to two changes of clothes and washed the ones I wasn’t wearing in the corridor bathroom. I gave up tea and coffee. I didn’t want them anymore. My plug-in teapot was now what I boiled my morning egg in.
My twelve-by-twelve-foot room (a few square feet smaller than Thoreau’s cabin) was ample enough for me, but what about my soon-to-be partner? I wrote to Connie and suggested we interpret “spacious living” from a new perspective: one bed for sleeping and making love, two desks for reading and writing, and the whole world on the other side of the door for everything else. Connie was fine with my doing an academic experiment on frugality, but when she came to visit me over spring break, she saw nothing charming about my living quarters. She had brought gifts: a toaster she’d picked up in a secondhand store and a couple of glasses. (I’d mentioned in a letter that I was drinking out of an empty peanut-butter jar.) Thinking about that passage of Walden in which Thoreau threw three pieces of limestone out his window because they needed dusting daily and the furniture of his mind “was all undusted still,” I said something insensitive and hurt Connie’s feelings.
After I wiped away my fiancée’s tears, we made up on my single bed, which was roomier than a car’s back seat, and perhaps a tad less exciting for that. My experiment in simple living should have alerted both of us to troubles ahead (beware, young readers, if your beloved is carrying around a copy of Walden during your courtship), but Connie was already having her grandmother’s wedding gown altered.
After my teaching day is finished, I drive my Dodge van to War Memorial Park and park within eyesight of a collection of cannons, Gatling guns, and artillery. The driver’s seat in recline, I half sleep and half listen to a radio news story about drone pilots who arrive in full uniform to work at a computer and remotely take out selected “bad guys” overseas. The military is in the process of creating a new medal to honor these desktop warriors. Holy hell! Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. My taxes pay for this cowardly form of warfare, not to mention torture in “black sites” overseas. These are not small crimes.
In “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau gives abolitionists and war protestors a tongue-lashing for decrying slavery and the land-grab war in Mexico while still paying taxes that support both. He could be as hard as Jesus on hypocrites and criticized those who obeyed unjust laws. “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad,” he said. “If I repent of anything, it is likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”
“That terrible Thoreau,” his neighbors sometimes called him.
After my short rest in the park, I drive back to Emily’s. She needs a lift to the Jefferson County Courthouse to pay her property taxes so she can renew her expired license plate. When I arrive at her condo, she can’t hide the fact that she’s been crying all day over her boyfriend, Adam, who’s on a motorcycle trip to Maine with a group of fellow cycling enthusiasts, a couple of them female.
We take the back roads to Charles Town and talk while Ariel sleeps in her car seat. I put on Leonard Cohen’s album The Future: “Get ready for the future, / It is murder.” Cohen sees clearly: moribund civilization is reaching its endgame — brutally so in certain foreign places (the beheadings in Syria come to mind), but also right here in God-Bless-America. Emily confesses that she has moments when she doesn’t even see a future for herself beyond work, work, work. Day care costs so much, and she’s often a payment behind on her mortgage. She asks what my life was like when I was her age, in my hippie days. There’s a good bit of interest in hippies, I’ve noticed, among the younger generations.
I tell her how I dropped out for a year, after my marriage to Connie had ended. I quit my teaching job and went on the road with Ty, my seven-year-old son, landing for a while in a commune called Harmony in rural northern Florida. We lived in our pop-top VW van and expanded our living space by building a treehouse with a fireman’s pole through a hole in the floor. (How hippie is that?) Everyone on the commune grew their own food, meditated together, and smiled a lot despite being financially poor. My “home schooling” of Ty amounted to teaching him to fish and garden and reading The Chronicles of Narnia out loud to him at bedtime. But to live on the edge of a swampy lake, wake up to a chorus of frogs and tropical birds, and breakfast on grapefruits we had picked with our own hands — that was a school unto itself.
Emily listens with an attentiveness that can act on me like an aphrodisiac. I have to mentally douse my face with cold water to remind myself that she doesn’t feel that way about me anymore. Then I go on with my story.
Wouldn’t you know it, I was soon infatuated with a commune “sister” who went by the name of Butterfly and had a boyfriend named Oak, even though exclusive relationships were discouraged in Harmony. Butterfly toiled in the garden in her cutoff jeans and sometimes nothing else. Was it my imagination, or was she watching me while she worked? I was newly single and in my mid-thirties, with an ache in my chest like a missing rib. But Butterfly was spoken for, as were most of the other Harmony women. And how many nonhippies were going to look twice at a man who lived with his son in a treehouse?
Emily laughs at this, which encourages me to continue, although the story gets sadder. I tell her how Ty was outgrowing his clothes and I had no money for new ones; how I fiercely missed my daughter, Holley, who was living in Maryland with Connie. At least when we were in the same town, I had seen Holley every day. And, growing poorer by the moment, I felt terrible for not being able to buy her new shoes or a bike. It was becoming clear that I would soon need what we at Harmony disparagingly called a “world job.” The breaking point came when I could no longer afford to make my weekly calls from a phone booth — calls that had always ended with Holley pleading with me to come home, and me saying, “We have to hang up. Together now. On three. One, two . . .”
Emily’s attention has become divided between me and a text-message fight she’s having with Adam. She asks what my “asexual Thoreau” would have to say about what she’s going through in her relationship. She’s reading Walden on my recommendation, but it has been a slog for her. She says voluntary poverty doesn’t make sense, and, like N.C. Wyeth, she often criticizes Thoreau for leaving sex and love out of his equations.
I tell her that everything Thoreau says about possessiveness applies to her love life, too. “Enjoy the land, but own it not” — enjoy the man, but own him not.
“Where am I supposed to put the pain, then?” she asks.
“The pain of not owning someone you love?” I say. “You don’t put it anyplace. You grow into it.”
“Have you grown into it?”
I take a couple of breaths, the way Howard has taught me to do under such circumstances, then hold up my thumb and forefinger about an inch apart to indicate how little I’ve grown and how slow this kind of growth can be.
At the courthouse I read to Ariel from her dragon book while Emily stands in line to pay her taxes. This is the same building in which John Brown was tried and found guilty in 1859 for attempting to foment and arm a massive slave revolt. If I had any courage, I would have dropped to my knees upon entering. How great was John Brown? Few Americans knew then, and the number has only gotten smaller. Many were shocked when South African leader Nelson Mandela, addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 1990, extolled Brown among other abolitionists and civil-rights leaders he admired. In the days of Brown’s trial and execution, Thoreau was one of a small handful of abolitionists who publicly stood up for the revolutionary: When news of John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry reached Concord, a fire-breathing Thoreau, thinking Brown had been killed, pushed past authorities to toll the town bell. A couple of months later, after Brown was hanged, Thoreau risked his own neck to sneak one of Brown’s on-the-lam accomplices onto a train to Canada.
On our way back to the van, Emily, Ariel, and I pause at the site of Brown’s hanging. “People living right here in Charles Town don’t know what happened in their own backyard,” I say. “We live on the shoulders of giants, and there’s always hell to pay when we forget who they are.”
Emily’s phone plays its jingle. Love hurts. On the ride home to her condo, I can see how hard she’s working to hold back tears. When we arrive, she asks if I’ll baby-sit Ariel while she and Adam finish their fight over Skype, but I can’t. Howard’s stopping by on his way home from his qigong session in Bethesda, Maryland, and we’re having dinner. He’s never seen my workplace before, plus his grandparents lived in the countryside hereabouts when he was a boy, and they used to take him into town for a milkshake at the Blue White Grill. Emily looks as if she’s not sure whether I’m making this up.
This will be a walk down memory lane,” Howard says when he greets me in the college parking lot.
More likely he won’t recognize Martinsburg, I tell him. A third of the downtown stores are now vacant, and another third are pawnshops, storefront ministries, adult-video stores, and greasy spoons where people stop in just to use the toilet. On King Street I point out a homeless shelter inhabited mostly by aging Vietnam veterans and a growing number of younger vets (several of them my night students) from the more recent debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s a VA hospital just outside of town that serves our wounded servicemen and -women, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress and addiction to alcohol and other painkillers. Some of them live under bridges and in tent cities.
Then we have our famous (or infamous) gentlemen’s clubs. Several of my night students work in these establishments as dancers. It’s a living wage in a town where a living wage is hard to come by. Roberto, who played the lead in this spring’s all-school play, provides for his family by stripping at bachelorette parties.
When the financial-aid checks arrive at the college, the line is hours long, and that aid is mostly loans. This is the only place I have ever taught where a student has approached me to say he hasn’t eaten. I have also received as an absence excuse a note from a student’s jailor and have given a strung-out student money she said she needed to buy “medicine” for her baby.
I tell Howard we human beings may be on our last legs.
“Think of them as the legs of a caterpillar before it becomes a butterfly,” Howard says.
There he goes again. After qigong especially, he is prone to seeing people as angels in progress. And I have to say, I sometimes imagine the nubs of wings growing from the backs of the students queued up for their loan checks. But what about the fat cats who rake in the interest on those loans and lobby for laws to exempt student loans from bankruptcy protection? Is it nascent angel wings for them, too?
At dinner, over beef-and-pineapple tacos, I tell Howard about the novel I’ve just read: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. It’s the story of a father and his young son traveling together after some unspecified apocalypse: The sun never shines. Nothing grows anymore. People are starving, freezing. Everybody they meet is a possible thief or cannibal. But, as dark as the book is, I found it exhilarating. Though the novel is set in the future, McCarthy has the courage to show us the direction we seem to be headed, and I admire him for it. As Thoreau said, “If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats.”
Howard notes how quick I am to go to the death rattle and reminds me of the rest of that passage: “If we are alive, let us go about our business.”
I can tell he and I are about to get into one of our fights. He finds it repugnant, this end-of-the-world scenario I’ve fallen in love with, and asks from where inside me all this negativity comes. Is it that I believe I haven’t lived up to Thoreau’s ideals?
I say, if I haven’t, then so be it. Thoreau is a writer who asks something of you. If you’ve got a job with a retirement plan in a rich country like the U.S., you’re tied to the stock market and a lot of corporate corruption that you’d rather not know about. Thoreau’s going to tell you to leave that job.
“Quit your job, then. Where does that leave the kids?”
“Whether I quit or stay, they are left with our calamities.”
“There is only one real calamity, and that’s to turn your back on the joy of life.”
I reply that in our present mess, joy is an obscenity.
Howard says that Whitman found joy dressing infected wounds in a Civil War hospital. Was his joy obscene?
We finish our tacos in silence, pay our separate bills, and walk back to Howard’s car. But before he drives away, he rolls down his window and, with a devilish look in his eyes, leaves me with a one-two punch from Yogi Berra — “It ain’t over till it’s over, Jim” — and Friedrich Nietzsche: “The most valuable insights are the last to be discovered.”
It’s early enough that I could drive home, but why bother when my night student Nate doesn’t mind putting me up on his couch? Nate’s an Iraq War veteran who spent time in the brig for insubordination. He didn’t go along with the SWAT-like tactics of bursting into civilians’ homes. Thoreau would have liked this young man. In World Literature last week Nate said, “I just live from paycheck to paycheck.” Normally that’s a statement of defeat, but he meant it in terms of living today and letting tomorrow’s income, or lack thereof, be tomorrow’s concern.
Nate’s not home, though, so I fall back on my old standby: the Walmart parking lot. First I go inside, brush my teeth in the restroom, and talk briefly to Minerva, who’s working a register. “This is my English teacher,” she tells a co-worker. I think she knows I sleep in the parking lot on occasion.
Back in the van, I pull the rear seat out into a bed and lie there thinking about the last years of Thoreau’s short life. Walden was published when he was thirty-seven, and it was hard going for him after that. Notwithstanding all his vigor on the page, he had never really been healthy, often taking to his bed for weeks. The seven-year effort to produce an immortal book had taken its toll. He grew weak in his legs. For a couple of years the champion of intensive living could barely make it out of the house. Tuberculosis was slowly suffocating him.
Thoreau didn’t have another masterpiece in him. He did experience brief bursts of his old powers, however, writing some memorable shorter pieces, like his John Brown essays. Once, a friend arranged for Thoreau to meet Whitman. Thoreau had reason to be resentful toward Whitman, who had supplanted him as the up-and-coming writer of the age. But whatever resentment Thoreau might have felt, he soon overcame it. Whitman was, after all, a kindred spirit in his courage to live big and tell the truth, no matter how the world might react. Both men were in the waking-up business.
A few details of their meeting are recorded in letters and diaries. Whitman lived with his brother in an attic in Brooklyn, and the two shared a single bed. Just thirty-seven, Whitman had already gone prematurely gray. In one exchange he said something about speaking for all America, and Thoreau said that he didn’t think all that highly of America. Whitman said he thought Thoreau had misunderstood him. Thoreau said he didn’t think so. The two great writers sat and talked for a couple of hours despite their differences.
As I’m falling asleep, I think about a passage from “The Village,” the shortest chapter in Walden, and one of my favorites. “Not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are.” A security guard drives by and flashes his light in my window, as if to remind me that he’s got me on his radar. Walmart doesn’t allow “vagrants” to spend the night on its property. Tomorrow I’ll be looking for a new place to sleep.
Jim Ralston’s account of teaching Henry David Thoreau to community-college students and sleeping in his van or on friends’ sofas at night resonated with me [“That Terrible Thoreau,” September 2015].
I’m now retired, having taught English at a community college in Southern California for thirty-two years. I offered my students helpings of Thoreau whenever I could, along with Nikos Kazantzakis, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Robert Frost, and e.e. cummings. Friends’ homes were sometimes the only home I had, and my wife and I first kissed in my VW van.
Despite his friendly arguments with his neighbor, Howard, Ralston’s empathy for others is clear.
My ninth-grade English teacher assigned Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence’s play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Since then I’ve been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and would not be who I am today had I not been introduced to him. Jim Ralston’s essay “That Terrible Thoreau” [September 2015] reminded me how challenging and relevant Thoreau can still be.