Grace, Whit and I went to Walden today. Over the years I have been there often, pulled by something beyond me, and I always go in the winter. I like it empty and quiet. I like to be the only person (people) there. I like it when I can feel the spirituality crackling in the air. I could today.
As we made our way around the pond Grace and Whit took detours to explore the woods and paused to wonder at the fact that the pond is still mostly covered with ice. It is definitely not warm here yet, even though it is officially spring. The trees are still defiantly bare, and their black branches net the sky. Today that sky was gray, with occasional beams of sun breaking through the thick ridges of white-gray clouds.
As we walked I told Grace and Whit about Thoreau, about how he chose to live simply, to focus on the natural world around him. Our adventure quickly turned into a Notice Things Walk, and each called out when they saw something worth sharing: a peculiar knot on the side of a tree trunk or the pattern of stones leading down to the water that looked like stairs. When we arrived at the site of Thoreau’s cabin, we saw this sign and a pile of rocks.
As Grace read the lines, so familiar to me, and I felt my chest tighten. They both had questions about the last line. We talked about what meant to live a life so full that you felt sure, at the end of it, that you’d truly lived. I had sunglasses on so neither child could see that my eyes brimmed with tears. Then they busied themselves building a cairn in the rock pile, as others had done before.
Whit was very curious about the cairns and he moved carefully among the stones, examining the various piles. I imagined what those who erected these monuments were commemorating: the example of a life thoroughly-lived, the commitment to art, the desire to immerse oneself in nature.
And then we were off again. The trail wound its way around the pond, a multi-season combination of dead leaves and tenacious patches of snow and ice. We walked in companionable silence, Whit’s hand in mine. He announced, apropos of nothing, that when he went to college he still wanted to live at home. “Why?” Grace piped up from ahead of us. Whit didn’t answer right away, just squeezed my hand. “I want to live at college for sure,” she averred confidently as she danced, occasionally skidding in her tractionless Uggs, along the path.
“Well,” Whit said, not looking at me, “Being with Mummy makes me feel safe. And I want to stay safe.” I gulped, remembering the time he told me that holding my hand makes him feel like his heart would never break. I desperately wish I could keep his heart from breaking and keep him safe forever, but I know that neither of those things is in my control.
I gripped Whit’s little fingers and kept walking, breathing the piney Walden air, hearing Thoreau’s words in my head. Ahead of us Grace’s red and white parka bobbed up and down. The air was still, the bracing cold of winter mitigated by the promise of spring. The only sound was our footsteps.
I want to make sure my children know the feeling I get at Walden, the soaring in the chest that speaks of a similar expansion in the spirit. I want to encourage them to engage with life and to learn what it has to teach. I want to fill them up with poetry. Even more, I want to help them see the poem that lives in every day of their lives.