I’m back at Walden Pond.
Vacation? More like an ordeal.
Henry David Thoreau is no easy read. I dove right into his classic work last fall when a student in one of my classes was astonished to hear I had never read it. The next day he gave me his copy. I felt obligated.
I had quoted Thoreau for years. Two of my favorites are “The perception of beauty is a moral obligation,” and “Beware all ventures for which you need new clothes.” But I shied away from actually reading his famed book because I feared it would have that musty, laborious, 30-word-sentence, semi-colons galore style of most 19th century writers. And it does.
Which made it quite easy to set it aside time after time for snappier reads like Don Winslow’s “The Force,” Graham Moore’s “The Last Days of Night,” Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Reagan” and “Killing the Rising Sun,” Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves,” and Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train.”
I even worked my way through tennis legend Rod Laver’s autobiography rather than return to Walden.
But return I must. This I knew. So I stuffed it into my carry-on for a recent quick flight to Austin, Texas, to visit my grandson — and, yes, his mom and dad, them too. At the last minute, however, I also grabbed “Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman from the dining room table and that won out. No surprise there.
But “Walden” kept whispering to me. And Gaiman’s book couldn’t last forever. So I’m back home and here we are.
Aside from Thoreau’s style, which I must admit I got the hang of once I gave it a good, solid try, the thing that makes “Walden” such a slow-go for me is that I keep stopping to type his observations into the notes application on my phone. There’s much I don’t want to forget.
At first I did not write things down, thinking I’d be able to remember all these gems. That was foolish. First of all, there are just too many. Secondly, I found myself resorting to paraphrasing Thoreau rather than using his own, eloquent language. For example, he makes the observation early on how absurdly most men live. They make themselves sick pushing themselves at their jobs for the sole purpose of building up a fund in case they get sick and can’t work. That’s my version. Thoreau puts it much better, but try as I might, I cannot find the actual passage.
Reading such insights sent me to the internet to learn more about Thoreau himself. The most shocking discovery was that he was not quite 30 years old when he wrote “Walden.” That’s mighty deep thinking for one so young.
Much of what I read I not only stopped to record in my notes but also to ponder. These are not just quotes to text to friends or possibly work into a newspaper column, but more importantly, lessons to apply to one’s own life. I read something like “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity” and must stop for a period of introspection. How much time have I myself killed? How much eternity have I myself injured?
I paused the other day to record this: “Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for the love of it.” My thoughts immediately went to Bob Smith, who operates Smith-Miller roofing.
There’s a flat section on the roof of my hundred-year-old home and it once developed a leak no one was able to find, let alone fix. One day several years ago, I drove from the Firefighters’ Memorial Bridge into Pittston and noticed a guy in a cherry-picker attaching a banner to the side of First Baptist Church. “Spending eternity in Heaven … priceless” it proclaimed, borrowing from the old Master Card advertising campaign.
I waited for the guy to come down, mainly to get a story for the newspaper. Turned out it was Bob Smith. When he told me he put the sign up simply as a good deed, I decided this was the guy who could fix my roof. He did. With ease and with good humor. He’s been my roofer since.
I also thought of the Ridolfi Brothers Dodge dealership in Pittston. I bought a couple of cars from them in the early ’80s. Not so much because I wanted a Dodge, but because I wanted to deal with the Ridolfis. I still picture Pete Ridolfi showing me his invoice for a car and saying, “Okay, Ackerman, this is what I paid for the car and this is what they tell me I can charge you. But I’m not charging you that. It’s too much. I’m charging you this ... and I’ll throw in the title and tags.”
They serviced those cars like their mom was going to be driving them and then seemed almost embarrassed to hand you the bill.
I miss the Ridolfis. They are all gone now. Otherwise, there still might be a Dodge in my driveway. They worked for love, not money.
There are several other Thoreau nuggets in my notes and surely more to come. I have 65 pages to go.
Here are a few:
“We are paid for our suspicions by finding what we suspect.” This is the price, I believe, for losing our innocence. And embracing the cynicism that fills the void.
“Goodness is the only investment that never fails.” If only Ebenezer Scrooge had learned this earlier.
“Ignorance and bungling with love are better than wisdom and skill without.” Think Clark Griswold.
“Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open.” Think Mother Teresa.
“Men have become the tools of their tools.” Think most of us.
And finally, “Books can only reveal us to ourselves.”
Precisely why “Walden,” for all my resistance, has been well worth the effort.
But as vacations go, Walden Pond is no day at the beach.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.