In Walden, Or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau said, “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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
He wanted to live so simply that his focus had to be on the world around him and not on the things that he had surrounded himself with. A noble purpose, for sure. In his cabin near Walden Pond he was able to spend hours just listening to a fly buzz around him, and to watch the entire daily process of a bird. I read a lot of excerpts from Walden when I was an undergrad in the English department, and I love how much detail and beauty he found in the simplest of things. I enjoyed A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold for similar reasons. Thoreau made it his business to observe and record the life around him in the rural American countryside. That was his version of standing up to experience life before sitting down to write about it. And I admire his dedication.
Some of the most relaxing moments of my life have been spent sitting in nature and just observing. Being surrounded by trees in the timber at my aunt’s farm and watching the squirrels. Sitting on a night time Alabama beach listening to the waves. Walking my dog in the quiet of a December snow. I love it. I feel small and like all of the things that I tend to worry about don’t matter all that much. I make the most of those moments, because I know that they only last so long. But then I go back inside and trudge myself back into the fray with just a little more energy than before. And that’s okay.
Thoreau, for all of his aggrandizing of his Walden experience was also just making the most of his situation. Yes he sat and observed and experienced the world around him. But the famous cabin was a temporary gift from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wanted Thoreau to truly have the Transcendental Experience, so he let Thoreau stay in the cabin for free, and if my memory serves he even paid for his food while Thoreau spent his days following the path of that fly. Then once a week Thoreau stopped his nature watch and gathered up all of his dirty laundry and carried it into town so his mom could wash it. Because not only did he not have time (being so busy observing), he didn’t believe that he, as a man, should have to wash his own laundry. I know this about him, and thought it was hilarious when I learned this about the Walden experience, and I still value the works that came from this time at the Pond.
The fact that Thoreau’s immersion into nature was a patron-funded worry-free vacation and not a survival experience in the wilderness does not make his insights less important or poignant. He was able to take what he saw and make it into a beautiful essay on the nature of life itself that is still quoted some 150 years later. It’s his perception of his experience that is so powerful.
And so when I’m sitting in my house looking at the literal piles of things that I need to do and decide to drink a mojito and sit outside while my dog suns himself instead of handling them, I am controlling my experience. I have a tendency to let little things build up into big stressors, and when I get stressed my brain tries to just ignore the problem until it goes away. This has never ever worked as a tactic for dealing with my stress, and is usually the cause of my prolonged discontent. This is my perception of my experience. The process of house hunting, finding, and then buying a house was one of the most stressful things that I’ve ever put myself through, and instead of putting everything away where it goes I’ve left it in piles in my dining room and bedroom. But I am changing my perception of this experience. Once the piles of things are no longer the cause of my stress I can put them away and bring order to my life.
I am so lucky. I have so much privilege in my life that has allowed me to make the most of my situation. It’s been a long road to get here, and I have student loans and now a mortgage to show for it, but I’m making the most of my situation. I have a job that I love and will figure out the rest. And I will continue to think about Thoreau sitting in his borrowed cabin in clothes that he didn’t wash while appreciating the flowers and birds that he could see from his window and making them into a beautiful experience.