“However mean your life is,” says Henry David Thoreau, “meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is.” I re-read this carefully this morning—very carefully—while I was being serenaded by the bangs and crashes and beeps of DeKalb Water Department tractors and personnel at the literal edge of my driveway, attached to the Stone Mountain home I purchased just three weeks ago. It was a leaking water main. Yesterday late afternoon we’d left the house and all was well; when we returned several hours later at 10pm our part of the neighborhood was lit up like Christmas, streets were closed, heavy equipment everywhere, men in hard hats, a huge hole where the end of my driveway had been. Imagine our surprise. The culprit was the tall pine at the edge of our property, which up till that point had seemed friendly-enough; little did we know that its roots over the years had silently aimed for the water pipe running underneath. I went to sleep with the music of a buzz saw in my ears.
And I awoke ready for some good news. And so: “love your life, as poor as it is.” I was of course already familiar with the passage, but changed circumstances have a way of changing one’s perspective. “Love your life.” “Love your life.” The words sound impossible, and yet … I’m listening. I’m listening for the good news there, the possibilities, even as the hard-hatted men in the tractors continue to gouge my driveway and yard. “The morning wind forever blows,” says Thoreau, “the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it.” We hear the groans and beeps of the machinery, the metal scraping, the rattling, but not the poem of creation that ultimately we and the machinery and the hard-hatted men stand within and are an integral part of.
We do not hear wholly. It is Thoreau’s constant refrain in Walden, together with his bright conviction that life gifts us with so much more than we normally think, or grasp. “The universe is wider than our views of it.” “Be a Columbus,” he says, “to whole new continents and worlds within you.” “There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dullness.” The poetry of creation goes unheard in all or even in much of its complexity, and this is truly tragic when you remember that the unique vocation of our humanity in the wide universe is to witness to it, to give the poetry a true voice, to take conscious pleasure in it, as well as gratitude, knowing how fragile beauty can be.
That’s our holy vocation as humans. To know the wholeness in all its variety. To piece the groans and the beeps and the metal scraping and the rattling in our lives all together, until the poetry emerges, and we see how we can love our lives, poor as they are. We see.
I go to Thoreau to be reminded of exactly this.
And you know, it’s true of so many people. Since October, when I began this sermon series on Walden, I’ve encountered story after story of people who have gone to our Unitarian Universalist ancestor to be reconnected with a sense of purpose and wholeness. To be confirmed in the hope that, “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success in common hours.”
One of these people is Wade Rouse. Wade Rouse is the author of At Least Someone In the City Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life, and in this book, he talks about what it was like to grow up gay in rural America. He says, “I grew up worshipping Erma Bombeck instead of George Brett, Joe Montana, or Buck Owens. When boys from school would come to my house they would inevitably make fun of her books—The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank and If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?—which I had sitting on my nightstand, and the photos of her I had pinned to my corkboard wall.”
“’What’s wrong with you?’ they would often ask.”
“Which is why I ran and ran, and kept running, from rural America, until I found myself in the city doing everything but what I had initially set out to do. Write. I was making great money, I was traveling, I was eating at the best restaurants. But was I happy?” Ultimately, this question—this yearning—would lead Wade Rouse to emulate Thoreau and return, after so many years, to life in a rural setting, and opportunity for the poem of creation to emerge and become known…..
So many stories of people engaging in their own Walden-like experience. Another one comes from psychologist Stella Resnick, in her book The Pleasure Zone: Why We Resist Good Feelings and How to Let Go and Be Happy. She says, “After years of graduate study and training, I became a successful therapist with a thriving practice in San Francisco. I bought a home, made many friends, and traveled widely giving talks and seminars. The only problem was that I wasn’t happy. […] Here I was—a therapist. I clearly had something worthwhile to offer others; my practice was full. Why wasn’t it working for me? I had been in the best therapy for years, with leaders in my field. I had my insights, my dramatic breakthroughs when I would erupt into tears and rage over the pain of my childhood—my parents’ divorce when I was five, the years living with a neglecting mother and a physically abusive stepfather. I did yoga. I meditated. I exercised. I became a vegetarian. Why did I still suffer? Why wasn’t I happy?”
It would lead her to spend a year in the country “more alone than ever before.” “But this time, she says, “it was a chosen solitude. For guidance, I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Like Thoreau, I had a pond full of croaking frogs in the summer, which froze over in winter. Like Thoreau, I had a visitor now and then and made regular forays into town for supplies. And like Thoreau, days and days would go by when I neither saw not spoke to another living being.”
Can you imagine what that must have been like? Stella Resnick’s story is fascinating, especially in the way that it goes deeper and deeper. At first, the loneliness and crankiness. “I would find myself staring at a wall, not knowing how long I had been sitting there or what I had been so lost in thought over. […] Some nights when the cold winter wind blew especially hard, I would stay awake stuffing newspapers between the planks of the uninsulated walls of this summer house, grumbling to myself and wondering how this was ever going to make me into a cheerier person.”
At first this. But then the powerful insight comes upon her, which is the theme of her book. She says, “What I began to discover during those endless days was how little I knew about how to be happy on a daily basis. I knew how to criticize myself for how I wasn’t good enough. But I didn’t know how to take on a day and enjoy it.” “I began to see that while understanding and releasing pain is certainly crucial for lasting results in psychotherapy, it’s not enough. Getting good as struggling with problems just makes you more skillful at struggling with problems. To enjoy your life more,” says Stella Resnick, “it’s better to become skillful at what inspires your enthusiasm and generates vitality and good feelings.”
Hearing this, Thoreau would smile. That’s exactly what he was about, when he says at one point, “Sometimes, in a summer morning, 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 sing 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. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.“ Thoreau here was practicing the art of living, even as his more proper neighbors completely misunderstood what he was about. They thought he was escaping life, when in fact he was living more deeply into it, applying a discipline of revery and simple enjoyment that to many is in fact quite difficult.
Along these same lines, Stella Resnick goes on to say, “I certainly have learned a lot over the years, watching people at the office grapple with their need for love and their sexual longings, and then watching my husband and myself grapple with these same issues at home. A major factor that goes unaddressed in most relationships because it is so completely taken for granted is the common tendency to make matters worse by inflicting pain on ourselves and the people we care about—all in the name of trying to make things better.” “We seem to hold a curious philosophy,” she says, “that what brings people closer is talking about how they displease one another. I’ve seen couples who could easily itemize what was lacking for them in the relationship—carefully spelling out their resentments, disappointments, and sexual complaints—who would resist saying how much they appreciated one another.” We get so good at solving problems, in other words, that we can’t step outside of problem-oriented conversations, with ourselves and with others. A sunny doorway is just not drama-ridden enough to hold us, and so we can’t sit there. What is right in our lives and in our relationships becomes like the wallpaper—goes unnoticed. Uncomfortable to talk about, since we’re unpracticed in it, or it goes against the grain of our philosophy.
Few are the ears that hear the uninterrupted poem of creation…..
The tenacity of Earth and its creatures.
These children who will go on to save what we cannot.
Baruch ata Adonai
The ordinary tenacity of plants and of people.
Om (The Rev. Barbara J. Pescan)
It’s me, waking up this morning ready for some good news. “Love your life, as poor as it is.”
And the struggles we often go through, to allow ourselves to hear. To advance confidently in the direction of our dreams.
Let’s turn once again to Wade Rouse—his Walden story. The day when everything changed, and he made the decision to get out of the city and do the Thoreau thing. He writes, “I had been waking up at four A.M. to write my first memoir, America’s Boy. I had been consumed with writing about my childhood—the beauty, the horror, the unconditional transformational love of family—and could not sleep any longer without getting it all out. One morning, when it came time for me to go to my job as a PR director at a prep school—a position that entailed mucho schmoozing and dwindling self-esteem—I had to force myself to stop writing by turning on the TV as loudly as possible to distract myself.
“The Today show was blaring as I raced around our tiny city bungalow, leapfrogging our mutt, Marge, in the hallway. Matt Laur was interviewing a couple who had quit their jobs to run a B&B in Bali. ‘We have discovered the secret of happiness. Follow your obsession,’ they told Matt. ‘You freaks!’ I yelled at the TV as I dry-swallowed a vitamin, aspirated Kashi, lint-brushed my suit, reviewed my meeting notes, and tossed a Bonz down the basement stairs for Marge to follow. ‘I’m happy!’
“I found myself in my car, already late to work for another day of insanity and stupidity—already preoccupied about what I was wearing, preoccupied about the fact that I didn’t have enough time to write, preoccupied about the last think I’d yelled. I was happy, damn it!
“Or was I happy in the way that sheep or lobotomy patients are happy, mindlessly bleating and going through the motions? Was I just one of the ‘sheeple’’ (part sheep, part people), a term a friend of mine used when referring to many Americans who seem to sleepwalk through their lives?
“I got into my car, gripped the wheel, and saw that my hands were shaking. I eased into an all-out traffic jam and instantly came to a complete stop. No! No! No! Move, traffic, I’m late!
“And for one moment in my life, I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t rush ahead. So I started thinking of my morning, of my life. Was I having a bad morning? Or a bad life? I asked myself again, Wade, are you happy?
“And then I became emotional. So emotional, in fact, that I lowered my head on my steering wheel and began to sob as Christina Aguilera told me I was beautiful.
“When a car honked to knock me from my stupor, to let me know I could inch ahead a few feet, I lifted my head from the wheel in time to see a man holding a sign on an overpass above the highway. The man, who looked like a greasy, heavily medicated version of Jesus, held aloft a cardboard sign that read in poorly scrawled letters: WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU COULD NOT FAIL?
“He was backlit by the morning sun, rays splaying from behind his body, and the image looked like one of those religious paintings, in black velvet perhaps, or color-by-numbers, that you find buried under other crap in cluttered antiques stores. […] As my car inched toward the overpass, the man simply reached over and, as if on cue, dropped his sign, which flitted and fluttered and floated like a butterfly caught in a crosswind before landing directly over my windshield. All I could see, in close-up 3D, my eyes crossing to make sure I was still reading it correctly, was its message: WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU COULD NOT FAIL?
“I braked immediately, panicked, unable to see, and fetched the sign off my window, ignoring the angry honks of drivers. I shoved the sign, which was covered in grimy fingerprints and smelled like gas and motor oil, into my backseat. As I came out from under the overpass, U glanced in my rear-view mirror, and Jesus was waving at me—alternatively blowing kisses and doing the sign of the cross, like a mix of the Pope and Liza Minnelli. The sun had obliterated his face into an explosion of whiteness. As my eyes turned toward the road again, it was then I caught a glimpse of the backside of Jesus’ cardboard sign reflected in the driver’s mirror. It was the outside of a packing box, with an address that read: WALDEN’S AUTOMOTIVE.”
And that’s Wade Rouse’s story. The struggles we can go through to get to a place where we can begin to hear the poetry of the universe. How we can struggle. But even when we abandon ourselves, the universe does not. The world, synchronicities and all, constantly calls us to a deeper life of witnessing to the Wonder and Mystery of creation. And then there is Thoreau. He’s the man on the overpass, dropping the sign, waving at us from more than 150 years ago. Love your life, Anthony, despite the broken water main. Love your life. Love your life, congregation. Love your life, friends. Start with love, to end with love. Love your life. Love your life.