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.”

a little bit of love, E.E. Cummings and Damien Rice

The thing about poetry is that its power and brilliance lies in its weakness. There are only a handful of universal themes, but poetry takes that vague generality and fractures its meaning and its telling (its story) into a thousand-million little tributaries which break off from the complete thing and then eventually find themselves coming back to their source or running dry awhile away.

What can be more general than love?

Famed avante-garde American poet E.E. Cummings explores the tension of love in his poem “[love is more thicker than forget].” Love is paradoxical in nature, just beyond defining but never going away. “love is more thicker than forget,” says his opening line, forcing the attention and the absurdity while defying normal English conventions. It is “mad and moonly,” “sane and sunly.” But importantly, “it cannot die.”

Famed Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice has appealed to select audiences throughout the years, namely my college roommate Jimmy. Because of Jimmy I was introduced to Damien Rice though I have still listened to very little of his work. His largely mellow tunes also (surprise, surprise) explore themes of love and relationships. On his most recent album My Favourite Faded Fantasy (2014), the narrator of “Colour Me In” states his desire to “repress it [love]” and that “love let me down.” But guess what? He couldn’t escape it. To live without love is a foolish, unwinnable game. It’s what colors us in.

So read this poem, and then watch Rice’s performance. What are the connections you make? [p.s. it’s a good practice, connecting art forms and messages across mediums, genres, and times]

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

Poetry: Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”

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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?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

 

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.

 

 

 

El Salvador: Día del Niño and Grand Views

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

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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.

Poetry Wednesday: “God’s Grandeur”

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Acadia National Park (I took this picture June 2016)

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.

El Salvador: Juayua, Ataco, El Principito, and Grace

[I missed a post last week, so this is basically a combination of yesterday’s and tomorrow’s posts.]

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Yesterday I went to las cascadas de Juayua with some friends. We’re in the rainy season here in El Salvador, but if we wait for ideal conditions in life, we’ll sell ourselves woefully short. Thus, we plowed on and had a great time despite the rain. Unfortunately, the weather did prevent decent pictures. Still…

These waterfalls pour into crystal clear pools where one can relax and enjoy the surrounding environment (the jungle). I guess we couldn’t exactly relax too much since it was really cold, but we did have fun. Built alongside these pools are multiple tunnels leading to other pools. Though a little intimidating to plunge through a tunnel in the dark, it was a neat experience. We had a great time, and tried to stay dry, but most of our stuff got pretty wet. Afterwards we cleaned up as best as we could (I was directed to go inside this poorly lit house to change. As I walked in an old lady was moseying about and soon left. I changed quickly hoping she wouldn’t walk back in while I was stark naked!).

After the waterfalls we ate a delicious lunch and then visited Ataco (now my second time) to walk around and grab some coffee. There’s some really great wall art there!

As you can see, there’s a painting dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s work, El Principito (originally in French, Le Petit Prince). This work is significant throughout the world, but it is especially significant in this region of El Salvador: Saint-Exupéry married Consuelo Suncín de Sandoval of El Salvador, and Ataco is near Sonsonate, the departamento where she grew up.

I started reading El Principito to work on my Spanish. Here are a couple favorite quotes so far:

Las personas mayores nunca pueden comprender algo por sí solas y es muy aburrido para los niños tener que darles una y otra vez explicaciones.

 

Cuando el misterio es demasiado impresionante, es imposible desobedecer.

Finally, I’m also reading Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel for the first time. In his fifth chapter, Manning goes into great detail to discuss the exchange of grace and wonder. This idea of wonder I think accurately relates to my experiences in El Salvador as well as to what I’ve read so far in El Principito.

     The spirituality of wonder knows the world is changed with grace, that while sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God’s loving presence and power in our midst are even more real.

In the grasp of wonder, I am surprised, I’m enraptured. It’s Moses before the burning bush “afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). It’s Stephen about to be stoned: “I can see…the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). It’s Michelangelo striking his sculptured Moses and commanding him, “Speak!” It’s Ignatius of Loyola in ecstasy as he eyes the sky at night, Teresa of Avila ravished by a rose. It’s doubting Thomas discovering his God in the wounds of Jesus, Mother Teresa spying the face of Christ in the tortured poor. It’s America thrilling to footsteps on the moon, a child casting his kite to the wind. It’s a mother looking with love at her newborn infant. It’s the wonder of a first kiss.

I’m learning to live with wonder in the moment. Thanks for sharing in part this journey with me.