Bare trees with branches, tentacle-like, grasp. Exposed bark. Leaves cling to a few oaks, green tinged with yellow, orange, brown.
There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. God has given us nature to surround us and wrap us like a garment, and I have had only a few moments of electrifying clarity in my life, always at the hands of an important book or nature. It seems no accident that mystics seek nature to sharpen their visions and their divine movements.
And perhaps there is a mystical connection with coffee.
Thanks to my parents for the blessing of their house, their little hermitage, their house tucked away in the woods that has often been a retreat over the years.
About a year and a half ago I remember having what can only be described as a really good day. Now, if those superlatives don’t exactly bowl you over, it’s simply because nothing truly spectacular happened; I was just able to look back at the end of the day and realize how incredibly refreshing it was.
I had a day off from work (this was when I was managing a cafe in Harvard Square) and decided to spend it by myself exploring Concord. So I walked from my house-converted-into-an-overpriced-apartment to Davis Square, took the red line one stop to Porter and changed to the Fitchburg commuter rail line out to Concord. I then visited various locales including Thoreau’s replica cottage, Walden Pond, Louisa May Alcott’s home, the Old North Bridge, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I felt rather transcendent myself as I ate my lunch by the water’s edge of Walden Pond. It was a clear, mild (low 70s probably) October day. The leaves were just beginning to change. As I sat in that place near Thoreau’s little Walden experiment, and as I later visited the graves of several famous writers, I somehow felt connected to that legacy, that heritage of literature. I don’t necessarily agree with all their worldviews, but I still felt as if I was breathing in the fresh air of greatness. Call their ghosts muses or whatever, I also spent time writing; one poem in particular I am still eager to publish eventually. Thus, it was…a really good day.
In my American Literature class we will be taking a look at Transcendentalism over the next couple of weeks. Here is a small excerpt from M.H. Abrams’ immensely useful A Glossary of Literary Terms (7th edition) under the entry “Transcendentalism in America”:
What the various Transcendentalists had in common was less what they proposed than what they were reacting against. By and large, they were opposed to rigid rationalism; to eighteenth-century empirical philosophy of the school of John Locke, which derived all knowledge from sense impressions; to highly formalized religion, especially the Calvinist orthodoxy of New England; and to the social conformity, materialism, and commercialism that they found increasingly dominant in American life. Among the counter-views that were affirmed by Transcendentalists, especially Emerson, were confidence in the validity of a mode of knowledge that is grounded in feeling in intuition, and a consequent tendency to accept what, to logical reasoning, might seem contradictions; an ethics of individualism that stressed self-trust, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency; a turn away from modern society, with its getting and spending, to the scenes and objects of the natural world, which were regarded both as physical facts and as correspondences to aspects of the human spirit; and, in place of a formal or doctrinal religion, a faith in a divine “Principle,” or “Spirit,” or “Soul” (Emerson’s “Over-Soul”) in which both humanity and the cosmos participate.
It’s amazing how relevant some of these tenets are still today. In an over-commercialized, super-technological, empiricism-is-our-only-truth type of world, we need a return to nature, to unplugging, to spirituality.
I am most refreshed in nature. I have been blessed to get out into the wild in my life: the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coastline in Hawaii, the West Highland Way in Scotland, Acadia National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and more. I live in El Salvador right now. And while it’s difficult to be isolated in nature (security reasons), there are some spectacular views, spectacular opportunities to witness another marvelous part of the world.
So here’s my advice. If you’re feeling the grind of the machine (corporate culture, for example, or whatever system is stymieing your life), break free. For a moment at least. Where is it you can go to transcend, to commune in nature? To know that you’re not just useless mass of atoms? You’re made of special stuff.
It’s a simple playlist, only sixteen songs right now. My thinking music. My deep breathing, deep contemplating music. My centering music. It’s playing in the background right now. I invite you to join in my thoughtful reveries:
Every life is a universe. Every step opens new worlds, new realities and spheres of possibility and influence. Some days I feel off center but find that my life is merely finding a new center; it’s the way of things on the outside of normal.
All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!
-Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”
I cannot always believe the life I live. At times it is painfully ordinary; life must be that way to be effective. But when I float up and out, when I peer down upon my life like the watchful moon, there’s something unsettlingly magical.
First of all, can we just acknowledge how cool Walt Whitman looks? I mean, like the original mountaineer hipster guy. Okay good, glad you agree.
I first came across Whitman in college quite by accident. I honestly can’t remember how I found his poem “Song of the Open Road,” but it was while compiling a POI (program of oral interpretation) for my forensics team in college (think debate/speech, not CSI). It’s sad, really, that I “accidentally” stumbled upon one of America’s most famous poets. But this truth perhaps highlights how far I’ve come literarily-speaking since that time.
Whitman (1819-1892), a humanist journalist, essayist, and poet, was not always loved for his poetry. His free verse was very unconventional, and his overt liberality of human sexuality was ill-approved. Nevertheless, his legacy is one of the trademarks of American literature. His works praise humanity (i.e. “Song of Myself”) and are quintessentially American in their wild, rugged freedom. And if you aren’t very familiar with Whitman’s poetry, you may have at least come across his famous “O Captain! My Captain!” which was written about the death of Abraham Lincoln and more recently immortalized in Dead Poets Society(starring Robin Williams).
So, without further ado for all my freedom-loving, adventure-seeking, open-roadies (yes, I subtly wanted to pretend I have “roadies”), literature is something that should become a friend on your journeys if it is not already. Nothing goes better with travel than deep thoughts (think Chris McCandless in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”). Thus, Whitman’s “Open Road” is almost like a companion guide to the adventurer. I’ll share a few lines from the rather long poem, but you should read it all for yourself. Happy adventuring!
[a few pictures from my trip to Scotland a couple years ago]
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.
O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?
O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.
I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.
Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
I have been a bad blogger the last week or so. Things got busy, and I never really sat down to spend time sharing literature or travels here in El Salvador. Forgive me. But I’m here now!
First of all, a couple weekends ago my friend Fernando and I ventured out to La Puerta del Diablo. Unfortunately, it seems like the devil was a little inundated. Rain only allowed a few pictures before returning home. Here’s all we got.
There are worse things though; Fernando and I will return another day. After Puerta del Diablo we returned to my house and cooked steak and potatoes. Good ol’ comfort food. By the way, Fernando’s nickname for me is “Chele.” Basically this means I’m white. Chele is the nickname for lighter skinned Salvadorians. So at least I feel accepted.
Last weekend I visited El Tunco. Many locals like to remind us estadounidenses that there is more to El Salvador than our third world perception. There is incredible scenery, tourist spots, and very modern urban life. Of course it’s sad that there are areas of violence, but El Salvador is a beautiful country with even beautiful-er people! By the way, El Tunco gets its name because the rock formation is supposed to look like a pig. Eh…I don’t see it.
Finally, what is life without your friends?! Last weekend we celebrated the birthday of our friend, and her favorite cake is carrot cake, so I tried my hand at it. [Below is the recipe…it is awesome! However, for me (probably user error) the frosting was a little runny. I will probably keep the cake recipe and search for a new cream cheese frosting. Additionally, I’m adding a great pizza crust recipe I used recently for friends. I would suggest heeding one commenter’s advice (Crikkitt was the username) who doubled the recipe, added garlic, and oregano.] After we all went out to eat, we returned to my apartment to eat carrot cake and dance salsa. I’m terrible, but I’m learning. Yay El Salvador!
Although officially Día del Niño is observed on October 1st, students at my school celebrated with half day of school on Friday, September 30. The half day was filled with food, games, and a spectacular performance from the seniors. It was really amazing to watch them band together in rehearsal (okay, I only saw one rehearsal) and commit to preparing for their amazing performance Friday. Children from all grades dressed up like Disney characters, but the seniors put on the show. The spirit and culture is amazing, a country that knows how to honor and celebrate.
“It may be that [God] has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” -GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Though Día del Niño was the highlight, I had a great weekend with friends. On Sunday we capped it off by visiting an incredible lookout: El Mirador de La Giralda.
Sometimes “religious” poem smacks of over-sentimentality. In that case, this isn’t a religious poem. Gerald Manley Hopkins is a master with words, a Victorian poet who reminds us of the “bright wings” of the world. And check out the reading by Stanley Kunitz, another poet.
[Note: For some reason I was having difficulty with the indentations. There should be indentations on lines 2, 3, 6, 7, 10, 12, and 14. Check it out here.]
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.