Transcendentalism, Nature, and Concord

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.

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“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.” -Thoreau

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.

Deep breaths…

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:

a pipe and thoughts

 

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.

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Self-Realization

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Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.

Zora Neale Hurston’s character, Janie, said this at the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God. This next week is my last before receiving my third degree, this one in literature (the previous two in religion). I just submitted my final research paper, “Self-realization in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Though Hurston was a famous figure in the Harlem Renaissance, her works are often conspicuously devoid of racial politics. Alice Walker noted this as well: “I think we are better off if we think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period—rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be.” Nevertheless, Hurston’s novel should appeal to anyone who feels they don’t have a voice. Part of my thesis was that Janie, the main character, only achieves self-realization by pushing past social norms, social expectations. As a chronic people-pleaser, I can’t help but think of a phrase my very wise mother has been repeating to me a lot over the last few years: “You’re not responsible for anyone’s happiness but your own.” I still struggle to internalize that, but what freedom! This isn’t a cop-out from serving others (it’s not a selfish self-happiness that ignores all others). But it IS understanding that it’s not my ability/responsibility to control how people react to situations. Also, I don’t need to worry so much about social conventions. I just “got tuh find out about livin’ fuh [myself].”

It’s not until Janie stops listening to rigid social norms of her culture that she finds love. But what a love! So coincidentally, shout out to both Black History Month and Valentine’s Day (a few days ago)! May you find self-realization and love and freedom! Even after Janie’s great love, Tea Cake, had died, she found life from her love.

Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.

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“Tea Cake…lit in the top of the pine trees.”

Saying Goodbye (and Understanding Home)

Home is one of the most powerful motifs I’ve ever found in literature or theology. 

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My dad, my mom, my girlfriend Elena, and I at San Martin, basically El Salvador’s version of Panera Bread Co.

In my senior’s English Literature class we’re reading Robinson Crusoe (I needed something in our textbook that would hold their attention amidst senioritis better than old poetry they couldn’t understand–remember, English isn’t their first language). At the beginning of the story the main character is being persuaded by his father not to set out on his adventure. Let your imagination wander a little bit, and it’s a rather tearful, dramatic account. Robinson Crusoe’s brother has already died on his own adventure, and his father withholds his blessing (and God’s) if his son insists stubbornly on his journey to the sea.

Now, my experience with my parents has never been like that. They’ve always been supportive of my adventures, the path of my life (and it’s taken quite a winding way). But it’s always so difficult to say goodbye. I said goodbye last July when I moved to El Salvador. I said goodbye after visiting them at Christmas. And I just said goodbye to them last Tuesday after they were in the country for a week. My parents are beautiful people, and we are very close. It was difficult to say goodbye. I love them dearly. So this is an important lesson to adventuring.

Always remember where you came from. There’s a worn-out statement packed with meaning. Nobody is so alone in life that they would not be missed if they left. Stay in touch. Send a postcard. Love the ones you leave behind. Visit. And when your journey’s over, it’s okay for your tired feet to find their way back home. Home is one of the most powerful motifs I’ve ever found in literature or theology.

A little bit out of context, but I’ve always loved the sense of this statement from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

“What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

…a little bit of honesty

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reading at my hostel in Quito, Ecuador (2014)

Because I’ve tried to be more consistent and at least post once a week, and because I’ve spent this past week a bit sick and busy, and because frankly I just don’t have a whole lot of time today, this post is a bit of a ramble. And a bit of honesty.

Confession: I want to be a published writer. I don’t want fame or fortune or success really. I simply want the validation that I don’t absolutely suck at my passion. I’m sure a lot of artists can relate to that. I’ve sent writing in the form of poetry or fiction to publishers or agents probably about twenty times now. Nada. It can be disheartening. But I keep telling myself that this is part of the game; this is the grit and the grime, the how-much-do-you-want-this, the kick-you-in-the-nuts and start again process that all determined people must face. Is publication the great satisfaction in life? Of course not. But if we’re determined to do something and feel strongly about what we do, we have to keep at it.

So today’s post is a renewal of commitment and energy. Art was never meant for notoriety really but simply to say something that’s important to the artist and maybe, collaterally, to their audience. Thus, publication or not, it’s still important if for no other reason than that it is coming out of me. It is reflection and release.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re sweating towards, keep working. Don’t forget to lean in and love others (I guess I’m saying not to be so consumed that we miss the greatest purposes of life), but don’t stop. The world needs YOU. Unique, weird YOU. Thank YOU.

 

Adventure: Reflection and Looking Ahead

 

Seven years ago today I embarked on an incredibly transformative life-adventure: backpacking through Europe by myself for 3.5 months as a freshly graduated 22 year old.

I spent time journaling and reflecting this morning. Here’s today’s entry:

January 14 [2017]:

On this day seven years ago I flew from St. Louis to Dublin. That experience ended up being one of the most transformative of my life. In some ways I can directly link to that experience as a point in which everything changed. I learned to see life differently. I grew independent. I grew quieter and more reflective. I became imaginative and wanted to see the world through experience rather than didactic moralism. I fell deeper in love with books and writing and creativity and art. I have wanted to explore the depths of knowledge and adventure. Suddenly I was dissatisfied with a normal (9-5) life. Some might say I’ve become “unhinged” ever since; I’d just say “unsettled.”

When we have experiences such as these there’s a temptation to try and re-create them. But we can’t; it does disservice to the memory and the experience. In a sense, we can’t look back in life. We can look in the mirror (self-reflection and growth), but we can’t turn around. Re-creating sublime moments is a sort of prostitution [soiling what is supposed to be pure]: we’re plucking at the divine fruit we were meant to taste once. We forget we’re in the garden of mystery where every tree bears a different fruit. Savor that which you’ve already enjoyed, remember it, cherish it, but search for new fruit.

I’m thankful for the adventure that started my adventures. Let’s keep moving forward.

Since that trip in 2010 I’ve had the incredible privilege of backpacking around Scotland (and the West Highland Way), hiking the Na Pali coastline, traveling and getting my CELTA in S. America (Ecuador and Peru), Scotland again to hike with a friend, and Italy with my family. I now live in El Salvador. I’m not rich monetarily; but I’m rich in experience. Travel itself will not fill emptiness in your life–it will not “fix” you. You can be filled in so many ways. Nevertheless, don’t settle for mundane. Keep pushing at the seams of life.

Here’s a link to my inactive blog that recounts my Europe trip in full: Go.

Finally, read it or don’t, but below is a final piece of warning/advice. Happy Saturday!

 

[Note: As I scan webpages here and there, I want to leave this warning/advice to any readers. Don’t commercialize travel. I hope that’s not what I’m doing by blogging about this. There are a zillion travel tips and organizations and resources (many of them helpful, many of them that I have used from time to time), but don’t lose the spirit of travel. It’s not an industry for some Fat Cat to get rich off of…feeding into the Western world’s dissatisfaction with life. Travel, done correctly, is painfully intimate–no one can understand your experience like you can. It is sublime. It is mysterious and soul-seeking. Stepping out, I mean really stepping out, was never meant to be a two-second affair, snapping off a bunch of photos and scampering back to safe and normal. Now, it’s okay to return to what the world might call “normal” because YOU know that you’re no longer normal, and you adjust your life accordingly. You bring that spirit of change and  new eyes back with you. I feel that I’m rambling a bit here; I don’t know how to put this into words. But I see some people’s travel posts and sites, etc. from time to time, and it seems that they are more interested in how their experiences are perceived by others rather than letting those moments be their own. Remember when Sean O’Connell in Walter Mitty explains that “If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera…”? Leaving aside the irony of using a major Hollywood quote to make my point, let’s take a page out of O’Connell’s book and not feel the need to prostitute our moments, OUR OWN. Let’s pursue truth and beauty and self-discovery, not gimmicky tourism-industry shenanigans. I hope this makes sense. Thanks guys!]

Everyday Adventure

{I feel like every post lately starts with an apology. Here’s my last apology but hopefully not my last post for awhile. The reality is that I was a little over-ambitious when I began my blog, not factoring in my schedule (besides being a first-year teacher I’m finishing another degree online). Once my schedule clears up a bit, my posts will become more regular again. Thanks all!}

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…the girl 😉
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Chicago with my brother and my Salvadorian brother over Christmas break.
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sunset at Costa del Sol…it’s good to be back in El Salvador

 

 

La vida es bella.

Every day we wake up to a new sunrise and a new wind, a wind gathered among the airs and the comings and goings of an entire globe, accumulating and retracting and gathering and forming and transforming–touching our small little environments along its journey. And we are invited into the tears and smiles and burdens and triumphs and tragedies of that traveling breath–the wind is a speechless whisper, ever observant, ever moving–that passes over this beautiful, ugly little planet, a mere pinprick in the sea of stars and galaxies and universes.

Estoy feliz.

I am learning about contentment. For years I have been learning this lesson, and I will be its student until I die. St. Paul wrote to the Philippians that he had learned the secret of being content. That is a great, slippery secret. I have bounced around a lot. The temptation for adventurers and wanderers and travelers is to brag of their experiences… I know that temptation. The truth is, every new opportunity comes with tears. Every new opportunity brings with it the chance to be selfish and to make it all about ME. And every new opportunity punches me in the face, reminding me just how fragile I am and what the priorities of life are. Love God and love people–Jesus summarized in a few words what takes a lifetime to learn and fail and learn some more. I am learning to adapt. I am learning about contentment.

La vida es bella.

 

 

 

Poetry Wednesday: “Do not go gentle into that good night”

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Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet who died in 1953 at the age of 39, wrote (among other significant works) “Do not go gentle into that good night.” It is one of my favorite poems and feels truly inspired especially when one considers the strict form it is written in: the Villanelle. Please read and listen to this hauntingly riveting poem.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Additionally, I believe that adaptations are art in their own right, and we need to treat them separately, allowing them to communicate their own life. Thus, here are a few verses recited by Michael Caine’s character in the hit movie Interstellar.

Do you prefer one over the other?

Personally, though I like what Caine was doing in interstellar, I still prefer the original voice of Thomas himself.

#HappyWednesday

At the Intersection of Books & Dreams

“I have come to believe that coming true is not the only purpose of a dream. It’s most important purpose is to get us in touch with where dreams come from…”

This weekend I watched a TED talk by Lisa Bu entitled “How Books Can Open Your Mind.” It’s a fascinating account of a young girl scorned from pursuing her dream (Chinese opera) and finding solace in books. Eventually reading also gave Bu the tools necessary to “re-start” her relationship with her parents. However, as the quote above points out, the ultimate benefit of reading in Bu’s life was not an actualization of her dreams but rather an actualization of her identity.

Through reading we live a thousand lives, and I believe that by surveying those multitudes we better understand our own. Books empower and they teach and they console. And in a sense, they allow us to live out those lives that our world won’t allow (our dreams). Furthermore, as Bu points out, even shattered dreams can help us understand ourselves better. Therefore (motivational soap box), find your dreams, find your books, find your dreams (yes, it’s cyclical). Even in the pursuit of understanding a dream realized or a dream dreamed, you will find yourself more deeply I believe.

PS Check out this 6:16 video in full:

The Number One Rule for Developing a Deep Perpetual Ongoing Unceasing Unquenchable Insatiable Appetite for Books…

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DON’T STOP READING!!!

Okay, okay. I know this is earth-shatteringly profound. But seriously, as cyclical a statement as this might seem (the way to develop a love for books is to keep reading but it’s difficult to keep reading without having a deep love of books), I’m learning how important this is. Here is my point: sometimes we challenge ourselves in what we read (as we should), but we hit a dry-spell. The gas runs out. We are weary (“even youths grow tired an weary”–Remember the Titans or The Bible, whichever you prefer). Netflix keeps looking more like a viable option to unwind. If this is you…QUICK! DON’T WASTE TIME…FIND A BOOK THAT REALLY APPEALS TO YOU OR DUST OFF AN OLD FAVORITE.

Keep pushing yourself in what you read…top shelf material. But if you’re reading game is getting a little dry then (to rip a Bible verse wildly out of context) REMEMBER YOUR FIRST LOVE! It’s okay to put something uninteresting down for just a little bit. I’m not suggesting that quitting halfway is a good, ongoing habit. I’m just saying that sometimes we  need a little LTLC (Literary Tender Loving CARE…duh!).

I remember once I was reading this extremely dense philosophy book and, even though I was theoretically really interested in its contents, it was actually boring me to tears. But I felt that if I was going to read, I needed to be reading that book. The problem: I stopped reading altogether! Don’t let that be you. Plus, I can almost guarantee, if you’ll keep yourself reading in general, you’ll find a greater ease and desire to return to that top shelf material. So spice up your reading life!

Finally, here’s my personal reading template to use or toss aside: always I am reading one piece of nonfiction and one piece of fiction. Naturally I finish fiction novels much quicker than nonfiction (this may not be true for everyone), but I’m always reading both. Additionally, I mix up my fiction. This isn’t a hard, fast rule, but I usually go no more than two or three books in a row of either literary classics or contemporary fiction or even pop fiction. I want to read the canonized classics to understand why good literature is good literature (some of my all-time favorite books are more than a hundred years old). But I also want to read new literary fiction (Pulitzer type material) as well as The Hunger Games and other “pop” novels (aside: we’ll often find that “pop” novels have as much depth as “literary masterpieces;” they simply appeal on a different level).

So what story do you need to return to in order to fan that reading flame?

by Zhen-Yang at DeviantArt.com