“That man is rich whose pleasures are the cheapest.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Summer began last Friday.
If you will be pedantic and insist that the solstice is still three weeks away, I won’t argue the celestial facts. But it will not change my opinion that summer began on Friday at approximately 1:30 p.m. when I took off my collared shirt and tie, changed slacks and dress shoes for running shorts and a pair of minimalist New Balance shoes, and set off at a jog towards Walden Pond.
On any other Friday afternoon, I would still have been at work. I would have been hunched in front of my computer screen, reading or sending some random email, trying to stay focused, but also watching the clock. I would have been feeling the pressure to finish up what I was doing by 2:30, so I could make the drive to Concord Academy to arrive by 3:00, to supervise practice until 5:30 or so, and maybe — if I still had any energy left — to sneak away for a short, solitary run before heading home to dinner and whatever work was waiting for me in the evening.
But last Friday I had taken the day off from work to attend Commencement exercises at school. In the morning, I had slept in, and hadn’t left the house until 8:40, more than two hours later than normal. I had arrived on campus at 9:15 and, after dropping off a backpack in the Athletic Center, had proceeded to the big tent that had been set up on the chapel lawn. From there, I had made my way past rows of fresh-faced underclassmen, more rows reserved for families and friends of the soon-to-be-graduates, and finally to the rows reserved for faculty and staff. I had been pleased to have found a seat that was out of the sun but still close enough to the action that I would be able to see the faces of the graduates as they got up to collect their diplomas. Unlike in previous years, I had followed the instructions to arrive 45 minutes early. For once, I wasn’t seated in the very first row where the roof of the tent didn’t provide shade.
The ceremony had been lovely, and even better, brisk. The Commencement speaker had been suitably funny, encouraging, and heartfelt, and even better, brief. The words spoken and the thoughts expressed had had the intended effect of both marking an important transition for the graduates, but also making all of us in attendance consider the arcs of our own lives. It had been what it needed to be, and then it had been over. The faculty and staff, myself included, had recessed first to form a reception line to congratulate the students, and then the whole crowd had spilled out onto the middle field behind the chapel to mingle, to say good-byes, and to make un-keepable promises about staying in touch.
You might think that an introvert like me would have found all of this both exhausting and enervating. But like a runner nearing the finish, I had found a renewed resolve to see it through. These were the final meters and this was my final kick.
An hour later, the campus was emptying out. Most of the families were gone, except for a few families of underclassmen who were still occupied in packing up cars and vans with belongings that were going home for the summer. Workers had already packed up all the white folding chairs, and were now busy dismantling the tents. Some might have found the scene melancholy, but I found it soothing. I had been looking forward to this moment for a long time. Anticipation of this moment had gotten me through the last few weeks with my sanity intact.
It took me only a few minutes to change, and as I stepped out of the Athletic Center into the brutal midday sun, I stretched like a cat waking up from a long nap. I set off at a comically slow jog, filling my lungs with the warm air. I knew I was in terrible shape, but I was in no hurry. I was happy beyond description thinking that I would have the next three months to teach my body how to run again. All I had to do was to put one foot in front of the other.
Fifteen minutes later, I was at Walden, taking a familiar turn onto a trail that would circle the Pond but keep me away from the swimmers and other visitors who were lucky enough to be there on a weekday afternoon.
In my solitude, I noticed the sounds of traffic from nearby Route 2, and then noticed how those sounds were swallowed up by the woods as the trail veered to the South away from the highway. The trail was dry and even dusty in places, and insects hovered in small swarms at approximately mouth level. I found myself thinking about Thoreau.
Thoreau lived in a cabin at Walden for a couple of years, and then wrote about it. Nowadays, his experiment seems quaint, and we might even snicker at the idea of Thoreau playing at the simple life, while taking advantage of the conveniences and society of nearby Concord. These days, that doesn’t sound like such a big deal.
But as I run through the woods, making my choices so as to stay clear of the people flocking to the water to escape the heat, I think that Thoreau’s genius wasn’t in getting away from it all, but in finding mental repose in the midst of every kind of distraction, including the distraction of obligations to others and to society. He wasn’t living in any vast wilderness; even in the mid-nineteenth-century, Concord was a thriving town, and the world must have seemed very modern to him. It seems that his genius was to live in the midst of that modernity and insist that there was a part of life that didn’t belong to its increasingly frantic demands.
He moved into his cabin in July 1845. I want to imagine that it was a day like Friday, hot and oppressive. However he would describe his intentions later when he finally published Walden, I want to think that he felt spiritually “out of shape,” and that he contemplated the time ahead with pleasure as a chance to practice by himself every day what made him feel healthy and alive. Whatever else went through his mind on that stifling summer day, I’m almost sure that he was on the threshold of something important; it wasn’t what he was leaving behind, but what he was commencing that mattered.