Today is Henry David Thoreau's birthday. Long ago, when I was in high school, I was struck by how many grown up people talked about Thoreau as an influence in their search for a simple life. I sought out Walden, or Life in the Woods, since that was the book they most often mentioned. After 30 pages, I put it down. This book influenced these grown ups? Really? The cost of bean plants could transform a life profoundly in the 20th century?
Now, of course, I realize that many people are influenced by writers without ever having actually read their books. Thoreau has one of those personalities/reputations that affect so many of us. Even today, when I realize that Thoreau wasn't really that cut off from civilization, I feel that pull to leave it all and go back to the woods--or to a sailboat, or to a monastery, or to any place that's a bit more isolated than my current life.
I've also had an opportunity to read more Thoreau. I find his Civil Disobedience to be a far more impressive, important work.
Still, it's probably this quote that influences modern life far more than any other Thoreau quote: "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."
Ah, to live deliberately, to have our private lives and our public lives match, to see what's really important. I'm always surprised to realize how many adults do not do this. Many grown ups are just not that introspective, as they live their "lives of quiet desperation," to use another Thoreau quote.
I'm also surprised by how many adults have just accepted what our society tells us should be important, primarily that chase after money. I've been catching up on past blog posts, and thanks to Kelli Russell Agodon for pointing me towards this post by Joshua Becker who encourages us to stop chasing success and start pursuing significance.
One of the things I most miss about late adolescence is that sense that I could do anything: go to college, grad school, a foreign country. I miss that sense of a long life's journey stretching out in front of me, with enough time to do everything I might think about doing.
But now that I'm older, I suspect that vision was just an illusion. Now (and probably then, although I wasn't as aware of it), it seems that every time I choose to do something, several other doors close. The idea of significance might help order my choices.
Some part of me bristles at the idea of pursuing significance, though. There are days I just want to be able to relax, not to feel like my life is slipping away. I want to learn to live more presently in the moment. I want to stop always thinking about the next accomplishment that needs to be done. I want to still the voice in my head that says, "Sure it's great that your individual poem got published, but how are you going to get that book with a spine published and out into the world?"
Maybe I need to return to Thoreau's journal, or better yet, Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere journals. Maybe I need to simplify by focusing on the simple things that give me joy and pleasure: good food, good wine, a poem draft, a poem revision, time with friends, more time in the natural world, less time in front of screens. The journals of creative people remind us that a creative life expands to include all these things, while also questing for significance.