wake up! (Thoreau inspires again)

I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up. –epigraph of Walden

“Every morning was a cheerful invitation,” writes Henry David Thoreau in Walden, “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me…. to be awake is to be alive. … I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.” (Walden, chapter “Where I lived”)

May these images of spring from my neighborhood in West Seattle–including one photo of our very own chanticleer on Admiral Way, from last spring!–bring hope and inspire you to enjoy this day. Or at least keep trying to do so…


remember Thoreau

I’m sick at heart about Amanda Gorman’s new modeling contract.   It may seem unfair to thwart a young woman’s aspirations for fame and fortune, and she is certainly beautiful enough to grace the pages of fashion magazines and elite runways world-over. But to have discovered in her a poet of such transcendent grace and wisdom at such a young age has made her into a magical figure for us in this time, and we wish her to rise, like a goddess, to lead the way out of this uniquely American morass.

It is unfair, I repeat, to expect her to exert such independence at such a tender age (22 years old). Yet one can wish another future would be ahead for her. Will it be possible to remain undistracted by the tawdry parasitism of social media and the crap world of fashion advertising, and to go on creating original words of wisdom?  Seems unlikely.

But here’s hoping.

And for the rest of you writers out there, who are not receiving modeling contracts or other worldly fame for a poem, I append the following quotes from Walden, which no one can refute. I challenge you to keep on writing, remain focused, prove that words can still have lasting value, even in 2021.

Remember Thoreau.

“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips…

When the illiterate and perhaps scornful trader has earned by enterprise and industry his coveted leisure and independence, and is admitted to the circles of wealth and fashion, he turns inevitably at last to those still higher but yet inaccessible circles of intellect and genius, and is sensible only of the imperfection of his culture and the vanity and insufficiency of all his riches, and further proves his good sense by the pains which he takes to secure for his children that intellectual culture whose want he so keenly feels…”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, ed. Michael Meyer (New York: Penguin, 1983),  147-148.  Original pub. 1854.

Photo of Inauguration poet Amanda Gorman, photographed in 2018, has signed with IMG Models.(Charles Sykes / Invision / Associated Press)

American literature creativity humor nature wisdom

mistakes and self-revelation

Isn’t it great to laugh at other people’s mistakes?!

Today’s paper was a riot.

But seriously folks, my favorite non-political example comes from reading the new issue of The New Yorker last night after T’ai chi class.

I began laughing incredulously–with a huge sense of relief–when I read Nora Ephron admit that she forgot a key ingredient in a recipe she published in a book! Yikes! Funniest of all is the deadpan way she talks about that incident, inside a long reminiscence about Lee Bailey: “By then, I’d come to realize that no one was ever going to put my recipes into a book, so I’d have to do it myself. I included Lee’s recipe for baked lima beans and pears (unfortunately, I left out the brown sugar, and for years people told me they’d tried cooking the recipe and it didn’t work), along with my family cook Evelyn’s recipe for cheesecake, which I’m fairly sure she got from the back of a Philadelphia cream-cheese package.”* Re-reading this now, I’m more aware that it was Lee‘s recipe. That makes it even more horrible. To do disservice to a dear friend and cherished mentor must have made her feel really embarrassed and awful.

So, hahah!  at least it wasn’t us!

(Schadenfreude, one of our tawdry habits as human beings.)

The second topic on my mind this morning is self-revelation. As a writer, in any serious writing such as scholarship, I’ve been trained to stay out of the picture. My focus has always been investigating phenomena discovered in books written by other people, artwork created by other people, and weaving it together with history and criticism written by other people. Now that I don’t have to do that for a living, it has lost its appeal.

A new audience has become visible to me, as well as a new perspective on self-revelation. The insight came while reading Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden, last night. (Yes Ephron and Thoreau–what a literary feast I had!)

Thoreau is by turns funny and Zen-master wise: “I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do. […] The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well nigh incurable disease. […] This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one center. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.” **

His description of Americans circa 1854 is not far from today’s profile of the workaholic: “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly” (48).

But it was the opening pages with their frank self-assessment that I found most endearing (reminded me of other favorite autobiographers Saint Augustine, Montaigne, Rousseau, and Gide, but with a special turn all of its own):

“I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.” (46)

Loveliest of all to me, as a seamstress in love with stitching, is the coat metaphor that wraps up this piece: “As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits” (46).

A final poignant note: yesterday I shared the first couple paragraphs I wrote of “A Seattle Homecoming” with members of my West Seattle writing group. After a spirited discussion, I received their annotated copies of my work. One member wrote: “I would like to know you better through your writing.”

Well, I guess the stars are finally aligning…  though I feel like making a quilt instead of a manuscript. Or some combination of the two…

In the meantime, enjoy some pretty pictures of November in Seattle!

* Nora Ephron, “Serial Monogamy: My Cookbook Crushes,” The New Yorker (originally Feb. 13, 2006; repr. Dec. 3, 2018), 75.

**Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience. Ed. Michael Meyer. (New York: Penguin, 1986), 48.