My friend and I went to a bookstore to get a book as a Christmas present for our Reading Pals. While we were there, I had a memory of a children's book that I read long ago in the Brooklyn public library when I was visiting a friend and her toddler.
I couldn't quite remember it. Was it based on African-American history? I wondered because I had the piercing memory as I looked at a book based on slavery.
It was about a bear named Henry . . . oh, the memory came so slowly, and then I had it! Henry walks to Fitchburg. It wasn't slavery that was the inspiration, but Henry David Thoreau. Henry doesn't walk but hikes to Fitchburg: Henry Hikes to Fitchburg.
The book is based on part of Thoreau's journal, where he challenges a friend to get to Fitchburg. The friend has money for a train, and Henry will walk. The book shows their contrasting adventures. It's not too preachy, but it makes clear that Henry has the better time.
It's a marvelous book, and I first heard about it when I was deep in reading British Literature for the classes I was teaching. I kept on the look-out for something similar I could do.
And then I moved on to other projects, and gradually, the book and the ideas dropped from the forefront of my brain, and then dropped altogether.
I thought about my nephew: I forgot to buy him this wonderful book, and now he's almost too old for it! I'll probably get it anyway and a copy for my cousin's children.
I am beginning to feel that middle-aged sadness more and more often, that sense of all the projects I won't complete, all the great ideas I had that I didn't pursue. I feel less sad about the places I may not visit or the stuff I may not have. I don't have any regrets at all about all the humans out there with whom I will not have physical encounters.
But I do have regrets about the writing projects that are dropping by the wayside. I do have regrets about the way the world will remain unchanged in terms of social justice even after I have walked the earth. The death of Nelson Mandela has turned my thoughts that way too.
I think the trick is to use that knowledge not to sink into despair but to reorder the shape of my days. I need to think about my priorities. Some days I do a good job of keeping them in mind. Other days I get lost in Internet wanderings, chores that expand to fill a morning, irritations of other sorts.
Some days I need to pay attention to the work that brings in the money. Some days it seems all consuming. But even on those days, there are pockets of time where I could write a poem, send out a query letter, revise a bit of my memoir, start putting together my collection of linked stories.
And I want to remember the larger issues. My creative works may help pave the way for social justice. They may not. I should make time each day--at least each week--to try to make the world a better place because I was here.
It seems a small thing, helping a child learn to read by way of the Reading Pals program. But those actions can add up. We never know which action will be the important one. At least, usually we can't be sure.
Or maybe that's the wrong way to approach the social justice angle. The homeless men to whom I served dinner a few years ago are likely still homeless today. I haven't helped that problem go away. But I've made the world a bit kinder, and that's no small thing.
Hiking to Fitchburg: it's going to be my code to remember to think about my priorities and what I really want them to be. And the fact that the inspiration was Thoreau, well that makes me happy too. Maybe it's time to return to his writing. I suspect he's got much to say to a woman at midlife.
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