Thoreau in the Bronx

ACROSS THE LITTLE river that defines the northernmost finger of
Manhattan is the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale. During the three
years we lived there, I took graduate courses at Columbia and
taught at five other colleges to earn diaper money. My family and I
were immigrants from Brooklyn, 15 miles to the south. We moved
because Riverdale was an easy commute to Midtown, where my wife,
Judy, had a new job as a reporter at a leading business weekly. Our
oldest daughter, Katie, was then a year old. I was with her from
dawn until evening, when Judy?s return released me either to take
or to teach an evening course downtown.

Of the classes I took, my favorite dealt with Henry David
Thoreau. His classic 1854 work Walden told the story of a
young man walking away from daily life to live as simply as
possible in a shack he had built beside Walden Pond near Concord,
Massachusetts. Many scholars have pointed out that Thoreau?s cabin
was hardly isolated?he remained within walking distance of
Concord?s town center and regularly walked to the homes of friends
and family for hot meals. Still, I was tremendously drawn to the
very idea of what Thoreau had done?to live deliberately, as he
wrote, without any unwanted compromise with society. Struggling as
I was to make my way through graduate school, earn money, help
raise my daughter, and be a good husband, the notion of throwing it
all over and walking off into the woods to live by my own compass
was enticing.

Early in Walden, Thoreau wrote: ?Most men, even in this
comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are
so occupied with the facetious cares and superfluously coarse
labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.?
This struck a chord. As a happy dad but a tired one, I could see
what he meant. But would taking up a solitary outpost in the woods
tutor my soul in a way that the company of my wife and baby
daughter could not? I had trouble believing that. Most days began
for me with my wife waking me at about seven, as she dressed for
work and headed out. Katie woke a bit later, and we?d have
breakfast. Then we?d bundle up and head for a nearby park to play
for an hour or so.

The park was a classic city spot?no grass, lots of concrete, a
fierce steel jungle gym, and a sandbox bearing more resemblance to
kitty litter than beach. There was another father I?d see every so
often, a man who had completed a Ph.D. in Russian literature at
Columbia, then spent years making a living painting houses. He had
finally settled into a career in public-health research, working
mostly from home. He knew Thoreau forward and backward, and we
enjoyed talking about books. Eventually, a couple of moms joined
our circle, and every few days I could look forward to engaging
book talk at the playground.

Sooner or later, I asked nearly everyone I met in those days
what I called ?the Thoreau question.? Thoreau had summed up his
goals at Walden Pond with these words: ?I went to the woods because
I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts
of life. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of
life.? My question was this: How would you go about living
deliberately and confronting only the essential facts of life?

The Russian-literature expert stood with me on a cool fall day
as his 3-year-old son wrote his name again and again on the park?s
concrete floor and my daughter plucked the last petals of October
flowers growing nearby. ?I am living deliberately,? he
said. ?I love Thoreau, but I resent his implication that a man like
me?living with my wife and my son as part of a family, going to
work because I need the paycheck, going to the supermarket because
the family needs food?that I?m a victim, that I?m a conformist. I
know I?m making compromises day to day, but that?s only because my
ambitions are greater than Thoreau?s were. Or not greater; maybe
more connected. I?m part of a family, and he was not. That?s a
choice I make every day; it?s deliberate, and it gives my life
meaning. I couldn?t live alone on the edge of a pond without my
family. That would not be sucking the marrow out of life
for me; that would be hiding from my destiny. It would be a kind of
exile.?

?An exile from what? Your family?? I asked.

?Well, yes, but more than that. An exile from my public life as
a father. I like being known around here as Daniel?s father.?

?Is that enough for you? You don?t want more??

?I do want more, but not the way Thoreau wanted more. I want
more ordinary things, not more self-indulgence. You know, Thoreau
talks now and then about Eastern philosophy. Do you know what I
think the most transcendent Zen approach to life is today? It?s a
guy wearing a white shirt and tie, working at a desk, conforming to
ordinary life with joy because he?s living the life that others
live. To find transcendence from the ordinary is the highest
spiritual place to be. The ordinary isn?t just the fish in the pond
and the bugs on the ground that Thoreau writes about. The ordinary
is what mothers do when they feed their kids. It?s walking the dog
and living a domestic life with joy. That?s as rich and original as
going off by yourself for two years, I think.?

One of the young mothers at the park, part of our informal book
group, had a different take on things. ?For you,? she said to my
friend, ?maybe that?s true, because you?re not just doing what
you?re told, right? You?re breaking the mold by being home with
your boy during the day. That?s not what most men do, but you?re
doing it. It?s different; it?s more meaningful. But what if you
were doing only what you were expected to do? What if you were
being exactly what everyone in the world said you should be, and
you had no sign of original thinking in anything you did??

It was a powerful question, in part because of what we knew
about this woman, the wife of a lawyer who worked long hours and
expected her to take care of their daughter without a thought for
life beyond the playground. ?Well,? I asked her, ?what?s
your answer to that question? Are you saying that there?s
something wrong, or something missing, from what you?re doing with
your life right now??

?No. I?m trying to say that what I do today is particularly hard
for me because it has nothing to do with who I want to be. It?s not
a statement. It?s not a lifestyle. It?s a commitment to Sue,? she
said, looking at the little girl she was holding on her hip even as
she calmly explained to us how limited our outlook was. ?Thoreau?s
problem is that he can?t see beyond himself. I think you two guys
have the same problem?it?s like you?re watching yourself in a
movie, being the hero, the Lonely Guy at Walden Pond, or the Good
Dad in the park, or the Suffering Husband when you?re cooking and
cleaning and getting a taste of life at home. But it?s not about
you.?

It was a beautiful day with a clear blue sky and very little
street traffic to distract us from our conversation and the
loveliness of being outside with our children. Her words brought us
right back to where we were. She helped us pay attention to what we
were doing, rather than the abstract notion of what it all
meant.

?It means so much to be a parent,? she continued. ?But it?s all
about the child, and about what you do today to help that child.
When you push harder, and try to make it mean more, you lose a lot.
I have plenty of ambitions, and maybe I should have spent today
working on my investment portfolio or writing an opera, but I
didn?t; I spent it with Sue because she?s the ?finer fruit??she?s
the reward. There?s no such thing as living deliberately if you are
part of a family.?

?Really?? said my friend. ?No such thing? I?m not living
deliberately??

?You play your part, and if you do it well, you do it with
dignity and love. But it?s not deliberate in the way I think
Thoreau means. It?s not all about what you want this minute. You
became a better person by not living deliberately every
minute. You have to give that up to live with other people, or at
least to live with real regard for other people. I think that?s the
thing that Thoreau is missing. He?s missing regard for other
people. He?s missing love. That?s the price you pay for being all
alone in the woods.?

Then we sat with our kids, she opened a little bag of
cream-filled cookies, and we enjoyed our own society under the blue
sky.

From The Common Review (Fall 2002). Subscrip-tions:
$12/yr. (4 issues) from 35 E. Wacker Dr., Suite 2300, Chicago, IL
60601. The Great Books Foundation makes a thoughtful foray into
periodicals with the recent debut of
The Common Review. In
addition to bookish topics (Ralph Ellison?s
Invisible Man at
50) and, of course, book reviews, the magazine displays a
wide-ranging, idiosyncratic curiosity of the true literati. Recent
articles look at melancholy, the tango, and how whites feel they?ve
come up short in the new South Africa.

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