Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pilgramage to Concord

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify.
-Henry David Thoreau
I made a pilgrimage last week to Concord, Massachussets in search of simplicity. Concord is where the first shots of the American Revolution were fired. But it may be even better known for it’s literary history. It is where Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden and where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. Both writers were greatly influenced by two other famous Concord literary figures, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They were all lifelong friends, teachers and students to each other. They were all at the forefront of the transcendental movement in America and they all strove for simplicity in their lives. 

Obviously, Thoreau is best known for truly simplifying his life. He built a one- room cabin with reclaimed boards on borrowed land. He plowed his own garden and gave up all non-essentials so he could work as little as possible to sustain himself. He walked wherever he needed to go. If he was cold, he chopped wood and built a fire. He grew his own beans or foraged in the woods for wild berries and nuts. He ate no meat, dairy, sugar or salt. He reasoned he didn’t need them, so why spend the money. He drank water, because it was free. I dipped my toes in Walden Pond, where Thoreau drank his water from a ladel rather than digging a well. I peaked in the cabin where he wrote: “If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel the cold in your extremities, if we are alive, let us go about our business.”

The idea of secluding yourself from all distractions for two years, two months and two days so you can have as much free time as possible to read, write and think sounds amazing and frightening. Thoreau, at one point, questions his sanity and alternates between referring to himself as a hermit and a poet. It was Independence Day, 1845 when he spent his first night in the woods. He was 28 years old.

“I am more independent than any farmer in Concord for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.”

His writing does not hint at regret with his choice. Although, one wonders why it took him nine years to publish his memoir of the experience. The account is so rich in detail of the sounds of nature to the happenings in the woods to his observations of ants fighting and recording when the pond first thaws in Spring.  But the ending seems so abrupt or is it just simplistic?

“Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed and my second year similar so. I finally left Walden September 6th, 1847”

His book, Walden, was not a commercial success when he died at age 44. In his brief life, Thoreau never married and he never accumulated wealth or property. Today, Thoreau’s writing is credited with influencing the National Park System, The British Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the Environmental Movement. Leaders ranging from President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Ghandi have also been influenced by Thoreau’s writings. Walden is now regarded as one of the most important books in American literature.

Thoreau didn’t fully reject civilization or society. He entertained guests in his small cottage and often walked to Emerson’s house or into town if he needed something or wanted company. But who can really live the way he did? For those of us who choose to own a home and raise a family, where are our woods?

I visited Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived with her parents and sisters. Little Women is a fictional account of the Alcott family. It is on the same street as Emerson's home and less than a mile from Walden pond. I happened to go on May 23rd, the 153rd anniversary of Alcott’s sister’s wedding. A scene fictionalized in the book. I was struck by the fact that the wedding gown was a simple grey dress, because the bride did not want to look different than she does on any other day. The flowers were hand picked from whatever was in season in the yard. Invitations were sent out the morning of the ceremony to an intimate circle of friends. The wedding took place in the parlor. Thoreau and Emerson were both in attendance. They were not served a feast of meat. The Alcott girls, who were once students of Thoreau, were raised to embrace simplicity. Keeping animals was too much work and not as sustainable as keeping a garden. I am not sure what if any gifts were given. But Thoreau gave his friends Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne a garden for their wedding, which still stands today at Old Manse in Concord.


The Alcott, Emerson, and Hawthorne families enjoyed the amenities of their time. Rather than making sacrifices, they appeared to make conscious choices of what was really most important to them- "distinguishing the necessary and the real", as Thoreau would say. Nature, individuality, freedom and friendship took priority in their lives.

If you ever go to Concord, be sure to stop at the Sleepy Hollow
Cemetery. It is another mecca for writers because Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott and Hawthorne are buried next to each other on Author’s Hill. I left amazed with the sense of place.It is no coincidence that so many famous writers would create their masterpieces in the same small New England town at the same time. Their friendship and ideals propelled each of them to greatness.

How can you reduce to the simplest terms?

For today's "sky's the limit" on what you can learn: A bit more about Concord. Ralph Waldo Emerson's grandfather was the town minister and revolutionary. The first shots were fired along the bridge of the Concord river in front of the Emerson home, later named by his grandson, Old Manse. The elder Emerson was killed in the revolution. Ralph Waldo Emerson was also a minister who did not toe the party line of the church. He was the first to encourage this idea of transcendentalism, which is a philosophy that there is inherent goodness in people and nature. Emerson, like all the writers he kept company with, placed their faith in the self reliance of the individual rather than in institutions like organized religions or political parties. The transcendentalists were very progressive in their thoughts on women's equality and the abolition of slavery. The Orchard house, where Louisa May Alcott lived was a stop on the underground railroad. There was more than one freed slave squatting in the woods next to Walden Pond when Thoreau lived in his cabin.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Memory Lane

I walk down memory lane because I know I will run into you there.

The cemetery is just past the race track. You’ll remember the area when you see it. Do you see Tebels’s yet?

‘What’s that?”

That old supper club. The one grandma and grandpa had their 50th wedding anniversary. The place where we went for lunch after we buried Aunt Joyce. Best perch I’ve ever had.”

“I didn’t come home for Aunt Joyce’s funeral and I must have been seven when grandma and grandpa were both alive. Stay on the phone with me.”

My dad was describing landmarks on every corner as if he was sitting in the car next to me. One of five boys, dad grew up not far from here. I saw a picture of the house once.  It couldn’t have been more than 1200 square feet; home sweet home to a family of seven.  An architect might call the clapboard bungalow a shotgun house because if you shot a gun from the front door into the house, the bullet would travel straight out the back door. The house sat in the shadow of the steel mill that once lured my grandfather and great uncle to the south side of Chicago.  

As the family story goes, the boys left their farm in Minnesota in search of work during the Great depression. They were digging ditches along the banks of the Mississippi for a WPA project in an effort to feed themselves and send enough home to save the farm from foreclosure.  Soon the mail carrying the wages of three imposing Nordic boys had dwindled to just two envelopes. One brother caught something from the mosquitos. My grandfather and his surviving brother were escorting his body back on a train when they heard a man speaking their native Norwegian dialect. The man was headed to Chicago to work in one of the flourishing steel mills. The hope of steady work was enough to make the two brothers get off the train that day. They both worked at Acme steel for fifty years. My two uncles put in another fifty years each at the same mill.  Most of the industry collapsed in the 1970’s, sending the Scandanavian immigrants who settled the once blue-collar neighborhood packing. The children of the millworkers, like my uncles, fled deeper into the woods of the suburbs. The original neighborhood became the new home to families migrating from the crime ridden projects of downtown Chicago.

Uncle Sam, the oldest of the five Dyrhaug boys, was the first to follow in Grampa’s footsteps in the mill. He was the first to move to Northwest Indiana, only 15 miles but a world away from the neighborhood where they grew up.  He was the first to retire from the steel mill and the first to become a widow. The second oldest of the boys, Uncle Bob, followed the same exact path. Today, it was Uncle Bob’s turn to lay to rest his bride of 48 years. Aunt Patti was always my favorite aunt. She was everyone’s favorite everything.

I spotted Tebel’s and the racetrack not far after. As predicted, the cemetery was on the right. The name was Memory Lane. I reluctantly turned in.

Usually it was Christmas parties at Aunt Pat’s that got us all in the same room for a few hours and even those gatherings were spaced a part by several years.  I can count on my hand how many times I have seen my cousins since I graduated college. These were the kids I chased fireflies with in the summer to the bottom of the hill where we swung on a tire swing until we were too hungry to stay outside any longer. There were ponds to ice skate and wooded hills to snowmobile through in the winter.  They are the cousins who piled into the back of station wagons for road trips to the family cabin in Wisconsin. The same cousins who turned Uncle Bob and Aunt Pat’s unfinished concrete basement into a place of discovery and adventure. Once we tried riding skateboards down the stairs into that basement.

Somehow, we survived our invented games, cars without seatbelts, bikes without helmets, trampoline’s without nets as well as restaurants where hand washing was optional and secondhand smoke was a given. Now, Marky goes by Mark. He is an accountant with two girls ages 7 and 9, about the same age that we will always be in my memories with my cousins. Mark’s little sister, Jill, has teenage daughters. Together, they will ensure their 73-year old father is never lonesome. But first, they must bury their mom.

Even though Aunt Pat had been sick for five years, no one was prepared for her loss. I don’t know what was worse, watching my uncle try to unsuccessfully stifle his crying or hearing Patti’s grandchildren howling in the way only children who have suffered a painful injury noisily bawl.  Everything reminded them of her, a ring, a joke, the TV remote. With each reminder, the tears returned hot and unrelenting.

Colon cancer spread to her liver. The treatment was a dress rehearsal in dying everyday. Patti finally refused to prolong the inevitable. Doctors sent her home with Hospice’s phone number and a couple of months to get her affairs in order. That was two years ago. Her illness forced Uncle Bob to finally retire from the steel mill to care for Aunt Patti full -time.  He became a vegetarian and an expert juicer. He read everything on Holisitic medicine and was the first in the family to discover new health documentaries. His vitamin concoctions bought them years together. From feeding, bathing and dressing, he took care of her until the very end.

And I would do it again. These last few months were the most intimate in our marriage.” He said between sobs.

After the wake, twenty of us ended up back at Uncle Bob’s.  My cousin Sally and I picked up more PBR while her husband picked up pizzas. The pizzas, another destination on memory lane, were cut in squares, not slices, and smothered in sausage, peppers and onions, another Southside thing.  On our way back from the beer run, Sally pointed out two local landmarks that were not on my original map of memory lane.  Our Lady of the New Millenium was built for the Diocese of Chicago. The 8,400 pound stainless steel statute of the Virgin Mary, was recently moved to a shrine outside Sally’s massive church. The town of St. John has a population of less than 15,000 and St. John The Evangelist Catholic Church could probably accommodate the entire town.  The 34-foot tall Madonna does not look out of place next to this mega church. The statue’s loving and lifelike expression reminded me immediately of Aunt Pat.

Sally drove me down the road to the town’s original tourist
attraction, “Shoe Corner, also known as “The Intersection of Lost Soles.” I imagined the motherly statue was tall enough to peer beyond the hills where horses graze to watch over this strange intersection. My cousin couldn’t tell me with certainty how it started, but thousands of mismatched shoes are tossed along the road every year. In the summer, the piles stand as tall as the corn, in the Winter, they could be mistaken for odd drifts of dirty snow. One local legend explains that a man’s boot showed up first, then a single lady’s dress shoe. Within a few weeks, the shoes appeared side by side along the road next to the four way stop. By the end of the first summer so long ago no one remembers when, children’s shoes showed up next to the man’s boot and ladies heel. The shoe family has been growing ever since.

We arrived at the house where something resembling one of our best family parties was underway. My Uncle Jimmy, the youngest of the brothers who recently retired as a special ed teacher in an inner city school, was telling the story of how he discovered the joy of manicures and pedicures. Apparently, Jimmy was turned on to manscaping by my Uncle Kenny, the middle child of the five, who retired from the phone company and moved to Arizona.

“Let’s plan a get together of all the brothers this summer, I bet we can find a salon to give us all manicures and pedicures at the same time. We will bring our own PBR.” Jimmy made a toast.

The laughter soon faded to quiet attention as someone mentioned that one of Patti's grand daughters found two four leaf clovers on the day she died. I found a beautiful feather in my path the same night. I picked it up as instinctively as one picks up a penny. I have always believed feathers to be a sign of angels. At the time, I was unaware that my favorite Aunt was taking her last breaths. I didn't share the feather story as I didn't want to be judged for my childish beliefs. I was silently relieved when my cousin Sally and Uncle Sam spoke of the swarm of lady bugs that suddenly appeared when they were searching for a cemetery for Aunt Joyce. My Aunt Joyce loved lady bugs. They took it as a sign that she approved of the remote country plot. A few weeks after she died, Sam and Sally were inside their huge church when a lady bug landed on them, another sign from above they concluded. I didn't remember our family being so superstitious. Is that where I picked it up? 

At midnight, Sally and I said our first round of goodbyes. We became sidetracked first by the basement stairs. The basement is now finished as a spacious office and laundry room. Now, only pictures remain as reminders of the amusement park that was once located underneath the house. Still, it’s a kid’s paradise. Aunt Pat made it a home away from home for her grandkids. Beyond making visitors of all ages feel welcome she made them feel like they belonged. There was always enough food, enough room, enough laughter; there was always more than enough at Aunt Patti’s.

We found our way back to the kitchen, which had been transformed into Pat’s dream kitchen with all granite and custom cabinets right before she got sick. She never really got a chance to entertain in it. Now, there was this beautiful party unfolding missing the hostess.  She and Uncle Bob never got around to traveling either. While he was putting in his time at the mill, she worked at a trucking company. Maybe, they had plans for something more than their simple life someday. But I didn’t sense that putting off remodeling or missed vacations were among their regrets.  Now for the first time, there wasn’t enough of something.

“I really believed she was going to get better. I thought we would have more time.” Her daughter Jill confided.  Jill couldn’t imagine not having her mom around. There wasn’t an inch of her childhood home that didn’t hold a memory.

The next morning, Sally and I returned as everyone else was having breakfast and getting ready for the funeral. It was grey and drizzling, appropriate weather for what we were about to do. I told Sally to go in without me, I wanted to take some pictures of the pond. There was a patch of puffy dandelions growing next to it. The kind that are a rare find in Florida. A few months ago, I wrote a story about making wishes  for Hadley. Cole, Hadley and I had recently found some dandelions while picking flowers and had great fun making wishes like the story. The more I walked, the muddier it got. My heels were sinking with each step. But I wanted to take a picture of that pond. I wanted a picture of those dandelions to show Hadley and Cole. I squatted down to get a few pictures and when I stood up, I realized there was an entire field of dandelions beyond the pond, just like the field I described in my children’s story. I thought I imagined such a beautiful place, but maybe I remembered it? Soon I was picking a bouquet and thinking of what I might wish for. At first, I wished that my husband would be as devoted to me as Uncle Bob was to Pat. I wished my kids would miss me someday the way Pat’s kids and grandkids sorely long for her. I wished that my children would know the comfort and security of a homecoming like this one. Finally, I realized those wishes all boiled down to just one. I wished that I could somehow make my family feel as loved and accepted and connected as my aunt made her family feel.

I went straight to the airport from the funeral to meet up with  Kenny and the kids, who were already on our summer vacation in Canada.   When we finally reconnected, I showed Cole my pictures. He just smiled and handed me his phone. His pictures revealed that he had also found a field of dandelions."They reminded me of you. Me and Hadley made wishes while you were gone."

A visual guide

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink and be in love. I like to work, read, learn and understand life.
-Langston Hughes

I attended a community meeting recently at a collaboration lab that had all sorts of smart boards and electronic gadgets to share ideas in real time between different focus groups. There were even little remotes so we all could anonymously vote on the best ideas. It was all very clever, but what caught my attention most was the guy in the corner drawing pictures on a board with sharpies. He was taking notes in pictures as we brainstormed. I have seen this done at TEDx conferences as well. Cartoonists will sketch concepts for the visual learners in the audience. Brilliant.

So when I came across a picture book for adults on simplicity, I thought I had struck gold. Especially since I am spending the entire month studying childlike simplicity.
When Life Seemed Simpler by Welleran Poltarnees is a collection of illustrated pages from early reader books published between the 1930’s and 1960’s. The author studied how educational books in that time period depicted a utopian society. You will see in the pictures that  every one was neatly dressed, teachers were helpful, students were respectful and families spent time together reading around the hearth. Yards were well kept. Homes were clutter free. The book is chocked full of simple advice like: To make a friend, be a friend. Dress for the weather. Play outdoors and Get plenty of sleep. The chapters cover everything from community, safety, and play to pets, vacations and home.

The author didn’t make the case that times were actually simpler, but rather the ideals were. You get married, the mother takes joy in raising her children, the father takes pride is supporting his family. You know your neighbors and you love your country. The books that these pictures were taken from were a do as I say approach to education or this is how it is supposed to be.

Recently, I have been exploring children’s book publishing because
a few stories have evolved from reading and telling stories to Hadley, my four-year old. 
 Today, If anyone tried to publish the stories from When Life Seemed Simpler, I suspect they would be rejected for being too didactic or too preachy. Still it is enjoyable to look at the pictures and reminisce about a time before my time. A time when people openly strove for something that is timeless, simplicity.

What does simplicity look like to you?
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