The Accidental Transcendentalist

I remember clear as a bell, sitting in a high school classroom, entirely transfixed learning about the very ideals that shaped transcendentalism and the philosophies of men like Thoreau and Emerson.  Then ten years later, on June 14, 2000, (my son’s first birthday) I found myself standing on the edge of Walden Pond…..

My husband had reenlisted in the United States army and we had just gotten stationed in Massachusetts. He was put on recruiting duty in Salem Massachusetts and we were waiting to move into our new home on Hanscom Air Force Base.  We were staying in a hotel right off base for two weeks. I was with my three year old daughter and one year old son while my husband was gone from roughly 4 or 5 a.m. until long after the little ones were asleep each night. That was the way recruiting was in those days in New England, especially the first year. Being somewhere I loved made the time apart bearable. I had always wanted to live outside of Boston and was fascinated by the city, Harvard, Lexington, Concord and everything else about the history and culture of the area; so I did as any military wife does when she is new to an area and her husband is gone all of the time–I grabbed a stack of brochures and maps from the hotel lobby and set out exploring. (These were the days long before GPS or OnStar, of course).

I knew we were very close to Walden Pond; but once I realized how close, I couldn’t fight the overwhelming urge to get there as fast as possible. Plus, what better place to take my children for my son’s first birthday? I relished the idea of seeing the grass and leaves sway in the breeze, the sun dancing on the water, the peaceful birds hopping from tree top to tree top. Everything Thoreau’s Walden was on paper was going to be right before my eyes and my children’s eyes. We were only two miles away and my heart was beating out of my chest. The noise of two toddlers happily strapped in the back of my Grand Am echoed in-between the thuds of anticipation inside my chest. I knew in less than two miles I would stumble onto the most peaceful place my mind had ever had the pleasure of knowing or learning about. I knew 150 years worth of insight, reflection, observation, solitude, and gratitude for the natural serenity tucked in the back woods of Concord were within reach.

When we got to the parking area, I rushed the children out, strapped my son into the stroller and tightly held onto my daughter with my free hand. We raced down the sandy, pine needle littered path to my heaven. The air was unbelievably fresh. I would later learn this was just a typical, crisp and sweet smelling late spring New England morning. I clutched my daughter and maneuvered the bulky stroller as quickly as I could with one hand. It felt almost as if my entire existence, my destiny depended on getting to that crisp perfect water and laying my eyes on the very destination I had loved studying about in high school and college. As an English major in college, I remembered the virtual swooning in my heart and soul when I read and reread Emerson’s “The American Scholar”, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”, and of course, the tingling sensation when I first immersed myself in “Walden”. These great works were like my Bible and I was about to reach the Promised Land.

Suddenly there I was–standing on the edge of that sacred water. Thoreau said, “The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.” I inhaled like I never had before and felt an overwhelming peace and understanding. Off in the distance were two other people curled up on a log reading—Walden, no doubt. The quiet was beautiful and the clouds were perfectly swirled across the incredibly light blue sky. The trees stretched far and encircled the large pond, much larger than I had ever envisioned it to be. Postcards, pictures and sketches simply don’t do the size of it justice. The water lapped gently at my feet and I could see pine needles skimming the top and small pebbles scattered at the bottom. I wondered if the view was the same for Thoreau, if he had ever stood right where I was at that moment. I found myself dizzy with the solitude and then felt an all encompassing sense of peace. Everything transcendentalism had meant to me came bubbling up inside, suddenly and with a feeling of inevitability—as if my very cells had been waiting to get to this space, this moment. This was my nirvana. I was truly one with Walden.  So much of what were simply words a decade ago suddenly became my truth, my quiet truth–just as Thoreau had wanted all of us to see nature as being. Then, from the silence and deep solitude as my purpose in this life was on the verge of materializing before me, a screech of joy echoed and squeals of childhood were followed by the unmistakable sound of the of my three year olds little body flopping around and splashing in that sacred water.

I was shaken from my meditative state and looked down to see her in her purple shorts and matching shirt flopping wildly like a fish in the water, splashing my feet while making her baby brother squirm and squeal with sheer anticipation at the thought of writhing in that sacred water with her. Then the couple reading looked up with palatable annoyance, closing their books in obvious disgust. I realized that my children had broken their solitude, their serenity. While momentarily horrified that this sacred and calm Mecca for some had been confiscated and turned into a source of loud and obnoxious delight by my toddlers, I couldn’t help but smile when I looked at her.

I later remembered one of the basic beliefs behind transcendentalism centered on the idea that if something, some action or some idea was right and just for one man, it is in essence right for all of humanity. This world, this earth, this historic pond in the woods of concord was to be loved, enjoyed and soaked in by us all, in whatever way felt true and just in each of us. My daughter had become an accidental transcendentalist, but a transcendentalist none the less. As Thoreau said, “All good things are wild and free.” That is exactly what she was in those pure moments splashing and rolling around. I think Thoreau would have loved her willingness to jump right in and allow that sacred water to fill her tiny soul with so much joy. Emerson echoed, “Allow yourself to trust joy and embrace it,” She did just that with unyielding gusto. She saw her chance at joy, peace, serenity, and sheer release to be one with that pond, one with the sacred waters of the Ganges and jumped right in.

Thinking of that sight and that moment of sheer joy and truth–her feet splashing wildly and the squeals echoing from them both–is now my serenity, my peace and solitude. In that moment, her joy was all of humanity’s joy. She was a transcendentalist in the truest form, accidental but true, and I am sure Thoreau would have been tickled pink to splash alongside her.

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3 Responses to The Accidental Transcendentalist

  1. Pingback: The Accidental Transcendentalist | Writing All Over the Map

  2. bbragdon says:

    I could picture every word as I read this, nicely done.

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