This week is “Project Week” at school, and I’m busy planning “Thoreau Down,” five days of building a cabin facsimile, reading and discussing Walden, doing things Thoreauvian, and shedding one modern convenience a day (television, iPod, computer, then cell phone). I hope the brave students who are undertaking this challenge will find their lives simpler and slower, but I’m a little anxious. I’m granting myself a slow-down today. The post below is a reprise of one I wrote on my old blog, Joe Felso.
Please excuse the re-run, but I have a million things to do…
I remember my high school chemistry teacher telling me how grateful I should be that water is densest at 4˚ C. If not for that quirk, ice would sink. Streams, lakes, rivers, and ponds would freeze from the bottom up, and, eventually, underwater glaciers might incorporate surface water altogether.
I don’t have time to be scared by hypotheticals. Water isn’t denser at 0˚ C, and, if it were, the world wouldn’t include Mr. Chadwick explaining why. Though I am a great worrier, I don’t lose sleep considering how things might be different if oxygen were lethal to humans or Eleanor Roosevelt had wings. Some possibilities reside outside reality.
As a metaphor, however, underwater ice works.
Ice accumulates in the bottom of my life. On the surface, I’m the same pond—sometimes choppy, sometimes serene, sometimes the color of sky, and sometimes its own color. Yet, something does grow down there. Molecule by molecule it inches to the surface.
Immediate needs come first, and I never reach the bottom of what I want to accomplish. “Put more art on the walls” happens only when the realtor is on the way over, and “Make a will” will wait for my deathbed.
We could set aside a holiday, “National Reckoning Day,” for people to write overdue letters, clean the bathroom, and send the package you taped and addressed three weeks ago and put in the coat closet…beside boots too small for your son that you meant to give to a colleague’s child when it actually was winter and he was that small.
But if you give me a holiday, I’d squander it watching “Groundhog Day” for the twenty-seventh time. You don’t see me donning scuba gear and gathering a chisel and hammer to bust up deep ice.
In Walden Thoreau asks, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?…Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow.” He would say I have too much to do and too many of my goals are meaningless. I know, I know, I know already, I am a German Confederacy. I get it. I should live a more deliberate life and make tasks finite, “to front only the essentials of life.”
It’s on my list.
Thoreau may be right, but he would be out of place in my neighborhood, mistaken for homeless and hassled by cops. How can I live by his priorities in Chicago, and how can I figure out what’s essential? Some unessentials give too much pleasure to be deferred, and some needs are hydras—chop off one head to grow two more… until it becomes a bouquet of monsters.
I’ve been looking for time to front what’s essential, but clarity requires more space and occasion than life affords. “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify” has slipped to the bottom of my to-do’s, adding to the ominous glacier down there, another inadequacy I meant to address.
I’m looking over all I must accomplish. The refrigerator is empty. The sink is full of dishes. I have the usual stack of papers to grade…which, by the way, do seem to be filling from the deep.
Plus it’s finally something like spring out, which makes matters worse.
Still, here I am, picturing Henry David Thoreau figure skating on Walden Pond, his under-chin beard parting as he turns out of another relaxed toe-loop, smiling all the while.
And I’m jealous.