Friday, May 22, 2020

Our Walden Moment (Polk)

Books by stoic philosophers, Seneca and others, are selling well during the pandemic. That makes sense, but I’m turning to Henry David Thoreau and Bill Murray for guidance. Is this our Walden moment? Or is it Groundhog Day? For me it’s somewhere in between. Like all of us, my social activities have fallen away: teaching on campus at Lorain County Community College, giving school tours at the Cleveland Museum of Art, occasional jazz gigs and jam sessions. All that interaction with others is gone or at best moved online. I’ve been grounded. But being grounded also means reconnecting with our true self, and the pandemic has given me that opportunity.

It feels like a retreat away from the bustle of life. It feels like my childhood, when entertainment options were channels 3, 5, and 8, or WVIZ 25 with rabbit ears. I lived in the inner city. No shopping, no going anywhere. We made up our own ways to fill the day, as I do now. I write at least an hour a day, walk for an hour, play and compose music for an hour, and spend an hour managing my creative pursuits. Although I’ve never had routines, this structure has helped me stay productive, which is good, but life now is about more than being productive. It’s about turning inward and focusing on what’s important. Turning down the volume of life until I reach the quietness that reflection requires. 

My cabin is a modest house in Cleveland, my Walden Pond is Lake Erie, a ten-minute walk away. The lake winds keep it cold through April and May, but I bundle up and quickly get used to it, even look forward to it. Thoreau said, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.” I was near that thousand mark. As a teacher, writer, and musician, there were endless possibilities I wanted to explore. Those possibilities still exist, but instead of being shoehorned into a busy day, I have time to consider, in the words of pandemic management, which are essential. 

Yes, every day is very similar. I go to bed and wake up with that Groundhog Day feeling. I don’t miss driving or shopping. I miss swimming, but walking helps ground me in this new analog (but with Zoom) life. Bill Murray, in his role as TV reporter, realized he was trapped in the same day but discovered he had amazing freedom to craft the day however he chose, and he started to work on perfecting that day. I’ve been given that chance, too. To really think about each day and what would make it meaningful.

The limits imposed on us by the pandemic have helped me come to this realization, that all I have to work with is this day, my little part of the world, myself. I have to accept those limits and then find the freedom it grants me. Emerson said there comes a point when every person “must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.” That plot of ground seems small these days, but also much larger as I try to cultivate this postage stamp of a yard, my life.

Geoffrey Polk writes, teaches English, and plays jazz sax and clarinet. His poetry and fiction have appeared in several journals. Nonfiction publications include articles on literature and music and interviews with David Foster Wallace, Ken Kesey, Studs Terkel, and others.

1 comment:

  1. Love this, Geoff. If you ever want to borrow my 14 volumes of ALL Thoreau's diaries and not just the piddling two years that made it into Walden, let me know. They are such a stitch. I like looking up the date I'm in and seeing what Henry David was doing that day.