The holidays always take me back to times at my grandparents’, when I was a kid. 9655 81st Street in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The trip from my home in Peace River would take around six hours; we’d leave after Dad got off work at the clinic and drive all 300 miles south listening to eight track tapes of family favorites, including Barry Manilow, ABBA, Captain and Tennille, the Bee Gees, but also Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and the Red Russian Army Choir booming out “Kalinka.” All this great music, filling up the inside of our 1970s wood-paneled station wagon, as we sailed through the frigid night. Then, the music would click off, and this was the sign: we’d arrived. I’d instantly wake up. Baba and Dido’s house. Christmas lights like electric gumdrops framing the windows. Sometimes even Northern Lights high above, a shimmering red and green river running through the Alberta sky. Baba and Dido, waiting for us in their warm kitchen with a big tray of sandwiches (some of which were onion for my Dad: onion, salt and pepper, bread, and that’s it—a favorite of his, but not my Mom’s).This is how our holidays with them would begin.
And during those holidays: abundant time for the imagination. Mom and Dad and Baba and Dido busy doing adult stuff; so my brothers and I had to figure out what to do for ourselves. No computers or video games. No Charlie McButton temptations. Just the low-tech mysteries of a creaky house with lots of old things to explore. Strange but cool smells. Mothballs. My Dad’s old bedroom: his Boy Scout uniform hanging in plastic in the closet and, on a shelf, the classic book Tom Sawyer, with this inscription: “To Robert Makar, from Joan Scott.” Joan Scott? Who was that? Did my Mom know?
Then there was Dido’s office. He had come over from the Ukraine in the 1930s—didn’t speak a word of English, but with his immigrant ethic of hard work, he learned in no time. There, on the office wall: a big plaque honoring his 40+ years of service in the Canadian National Railway, as a carpenter. And on his shelves, all sorts of books which I suspect he never read but collected because he knew that education was the way to success. I loved to flip through them.
Finally, in the TV room in the basement, best of all: a huge wooden table with thick legs like tree trunks, to which my brother and I would haul big sofa cushions. We’d make a fort; and in the deep darkness of that fort we’d click on the flashlight and start the storytelling. Supremely low tech, but supremely high yield. Avatar in 3D simply can’t compare.
Just some of the memories that the holidays bring back for me. Nothing really accomplished in those times, no big or even small projects completed; and yet from those seasons of free play came a sense of history and identity and creative ability, growing quietly and resolutely. Nothing less than imagination coming into focus in me, and about this, the writer of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, once said, “When your imagination is out of focus, you can’t depend on your eyes.” Focus the imagination first, and then you will see truly.
That’s what I want to talk about this morning, as we explore chapters three and four in Walden: what it takes to focus the imagination, and how this represents time well spent. “I love a broad margin to my life,” says Thoreau. “Sometimes, in a summer morning,” he says, “having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.” That’s what Thoreau says. It’s all about imagination coming into focus, in order to see truly. Doesn’t matter whether it happens at Walden Pond in summertime Concord or Baba and Dido’s house in wintertime Edmonton or your own house here in Atlanta, in cold January. What matters is time well spent in the cultivation of the human spirit, as we move into a new year and a new decade. Growing like corn in the night.
But it is a controversial issue, and Thoreau knew it. He sat in his sunny doorway, there at the edge of Walden Pond, in pursuit of a broad margin to his life, with or without a book to read, and he could just feel the withering disdain of many of his fellow-townsmen. To them it was, no doubt, “sheer idleness,” but, he says, “if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting.”
Thoreau stands with nature, as he critiques his contemporaries. Being the gadfly he is—a modern-day Socrates—he wants people to recognize how they are stuck. “I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor to be flattered by them,” he says, “for that will not advance either of us. We need to be provoked—goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot.” So he takes us to task for our common prejudice against creative loafing, doodling, doing nothing. Far better to cram our days with important things to do; far better to push ourselves to do more and do it faster. For it is said: “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Doing nothing structured raises suspicions. It raises anxieties.
It definitely does for parents, especially these days. One child psychologist says, “This generation of parents has swallowed whole, and in some cases, is choking on, the belief that the sooner you expose a child to learning, the more he or she will learn. If they don’t get it during those critical early childhood years, well, forget Harvard.” Another psychologist says, “As a society, we have talked ourselves into believing that we have to make every moment count, and that we have to fill our children as we would empty vessels. Parents feel compelled to give their kids every advantage they can afford. So they cram their days with art, music, sports, and even weekend enrichment programs.” No wonder that kids today have half as much free time as they did 30 years ago. That’s what a national study coming out of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research shows. Kids are as time crunched as their parents.
And the intentions are all good. We want our kids to be all that they can be. But the trend to overschedule is backfiring. Children, with a range of symptoms from headaches and stomachaches to temper tantrums, sleeping problems, an inability to concentrate in school, an inability to tolerate and manage boredom. As for parents: stress and exhaustion. Running a frantic race to keep up. More at home on the road than in their own living rooms.
Above all, the idea that it’s a waste of time to do nothing is false. The co-author of a book entitled Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less, Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, Ph.D., says, “There is a myth that doing nothing is wasting time, when it’s actually extremely productive and essential. During empty hours, kids explore the world at their own pace, develop their own unique set of interests and indulge in the sort of fantasy play that will help them figure out how to create their own happiness, handle problems with others on their own, and sensibly manage their own time. They need time to recharge their batteries and process what they’ve learned. Free time allows them to explore, to be scientists, discoverers, creators, and innovators. They do that when they build pillow forts in the family room, sail away in a laundry basket to a foreign land, or find the remarkable in the mundane.” Dr. Hirsch-Patek continues: “In our well-intentioned efforts to give our children the best of everything, perhaps we’ve forgotten the importance of a balanced life. As parents, we have a choice. We can groom our children to be worker bees—to take in information and it spit right back out—or we can help them be creative problem-solvers, to look at a cloud and see dinosaurs or birds, to be energized by their own imaginations and curiosity. That’s where doing nothing, sometimes even to the point of being bored, comes in.”
In other words: corn needs night to grow in. What Dr. Hirsch-Patek is arguing for, and what Thoreau is arguing for, is a greater sense of trust in this, which is ultimately self-trust. Why anxiously fill our children up, and fill ourselves up, as if we were empty vessels when, in fact, we are already full of good things just waiting to be recognized, powers to be released, creativity unleashed? This is exactly what Thoreau is talking about when he says, “I love a broad margin to my life.” The margin is where the wild things are. The margin is where the magic is, which can be brought in to infuse all our living. No wonder he loves it. No wonder he invites it in, as he sits there in the sunny doorway of his cabin at Walden pond from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, in defiance of the anxious busy-ness of his neighbors. Like corn in the night, he grows.
And he invites us to do the same. It’s not just about our children. It’s about all of us. We all need a broad margin to our lives. Imagination focused, so that we can see the world truly. Time well spent.
Reading is a big part of it. “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!” he says. “There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us.” For Thoreau, it’s the classics that do this best. Plato, Shakespeare, Emerson, scriptures from the world’s religious traditions, helping us see things from angles that we’re not necessarily used to. A book called Walden. Lifting us up out of our near-sightedness and putting us up in the balcony, giving us a balcony view of our lives. “These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us,” he says, “have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life.” And at the very least, even if their answers cannot be our answers, still, our way of imagining ourselves is shifted, we feel surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, we feel welcomed into a common purpose of wisdom-seeking that spans millennia, and in this we can experience genuine consolation. Says Thoreau, “The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision.” We are united across the generations. We are not alone.
Besides this, reading has what Thoreau calls a “liberalizing” impact. Just listen to this quote, which makes him sound exactly like a contemporary Unitarian Universalist preacher: “The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience … may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, travelled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men. Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, and through the liberalizing influence of all the worthies, with Jesus Christ himself, and let ‘our church’ go by the board.” In other words, become post-Christian! Don’t leave Jesus Christ behind, but join him with Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Lao-Tzu, and wise women and men of all places and times. How we imagine religions is changed forever, through reading.
If, of course, we read, and read well. But, says Thoreau, “Most men do not know that any nation but the Hebrews have had a scripture. A man, any man, will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but here are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of; — and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books…; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.” Oh, it drives Thoreau nuts. How shallow reading and limited reading dry up the imagination, impoverish its vocabulary, narrow its scope and power, render it fuzzy. Can’t imagine what he would say about today’s mass media culture. We’ve got unparalleled technology in something like Google Earth, yet increasing ignorance about the basics of world geography. More than 40% of Americans under the age of 44 did not read a single book—fiction or nonfiction—last year. “The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.” That’s Ralph Waldo Emerson, who joins Thoreau in a concern that is by no means new.
He also joins Thoreau in his approach to focusing the imagination that balances reading with something else equally important: sustained attention to the things of the world. Direct experience. Listen to what Emerson says in his American Scholar address from 1837: “Books,” he says, “are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. […] Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” That’s Emerson. And as it happened so often, Emerson wrote about it, and Thoreau lived it. Thus Thoreau’s social experiment of one at Walden Pond. Him sitting in his sunny doorway, rapt in a revery, reading God directly in everything around him so as to feel personally connected, so as to feel like he belongs. Reading God in the railroad, as when he envisions the whistle of the locomotive as the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard, or the train engine as a fiery steed, shaking the earth with his feet, breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils. Reading God also in his natural surroundings: the distant lowing of the cows, the whip-poor-wills “chanting their vespers,” the hoot owls, the screech owls. “When other birds are still,” says Thoreau, “the screech owls take up the strain, like mourning women their ancient u-lu-lu. Their dismal scream is truly Ben Jonsonian. Wise midnight hags! It is no honest and blunt tu-whit tu-who of the poets, but, without jesting, a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernal love in the infernal groves. Yet I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the woodside; reminding me sometimes of music and singing birds; as if it were the dark and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung. They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling. Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks. Then — that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and — bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods.”
This is just a sample of many similar passages in chapter four of Walden, and at some point you might have paused to ask yourself, What the heck is Thoreau trying to do here? What’s going on? For myself, I was helped by something I read in a book by creative art therapist Shaun McNiff, called Earth Angels: Engaging the Sacred in Everyday Things. “Sustained attention to the particulars of a thing” he says, “passes through resistance and opens the soul. ‘Depth’ has more to do with staying in compassionate and attentive contact with the presence of another than with revealing ‘deep’ secrets, which may take us away from the immediacy of the present engagement. Deep down is always right here and now.” Again Shaun McNiff says, “The medicine of renewal comes through the imagination and constantly looking at things in different ways, with desire, or at least with aesthetic appreciation. […] I can change the significance of a bus ride I take every day by approaching it aesthetically. […] Personifying the bus expands my compassion for its experience. The demon bus, the thing I loathe to ride, is transformed into a psychic helper who shows me how to look at things differently. Stuckness, boredom, anxieties, and even depression involve a certain failure of imagination….”
And that’s it. Moving into a new year, a new decade, we don’t want imagination to fail us. We want it focused, so we can see the world truly. Reading good books will expand our minds, but then comes the task of sitting with Thoreau in the sunny doorway of his cabin at Walden Pond, allowing for this broad margin in our lives, listening to the sounds of our world, playing with them creatively, transforming them poetically, reviving what we take for granted, personifying train engines and bus rides and traffic and all other things that from one perspective could be seen as horrific, but we befriend them instead, we expand compassion for them. It’s about feeling connected, feeling at home. Time well spent. There is an angel possibility in the uncarved block of marble that lies before us as the new year, and everything depends on whether we can see it. “I saw the angel in the marble,” said Michelangelo, “and carved until I set him free. “ So may we.