- Ken Ilgunas
Anything becomes possible when you claim your life as your own. The author of his life not only wields a pen, he wields a power—a power to fill his years like pages of a favorite work; power to decide where chapters begin and end; power to plot glorious triumphs and noble failings; power to draw the arc of his narrative with his own hand.
This is what was going through my head as I entered Thoreau’s replica cabin at Walden Pond, just outside of Concord, Massachusetts this past week.
The holy pilgrimage to my idol’s storied pond hardly felt holy. It was a mere mile-long walk from the town of Concord, which, since Thoreau called it his stomping grounds a century and a half before, has become a bustling warren of cafes, stores, and restaurants where shoppers, turbaned under layers of wool and polyester, exit and enter with exigency as if on holy missions of their own. Not only have some of the businesses borrowed Thoreau’s name, but his iconic mug was plastered on posters, tee shirts, and buttons. Oh, how ironic was my urge to buy!
I was with my old buddy Chuck, a fellow classmate who, a half-year before, had been my first guest in the van. We donned hats, gloves, and winter coats for our amble to the site of Thoreau’s home
that is now on state park land.
Cars curled around the curves of “Walden Street” along which—ages ago—horse and buggies clip-clopped and creaked. An intersection, not but a football-field’s distance from the pond, buzzed noisily: tires plowed through slush, SUV’s groaned to a halt, and engines purred while drivers waited for green.
The trails around the pond—during pleasanter climes—are clogged with fellow pilgrims, but freezing temperatures, today, inhibited others from visiting, giving Chuck and I some semblance of a solitary sojourn, ideal for a ramble around the famed hermit’s pond.
Green needles of long, slender pine trees blotched an otherwise bleached sky whose clouds were about to explode and unleash torrents of snow like overcooked bags of popcorn. If I was in a dreary mood, I would have called the scene dreary. But as we edged the perimeter of the pond, I was excited with the anticipation of something; excited about what I’m not sure exactly. Perhaps I imagined the ghost of Thoreau rounding the next bend of the trail on his mid-afternoon traipse, silently nodding to us without slackening his gait.
The pond is actually more like a small lake. Brittle, translucent ice formed along its edges. The wind pushed ripples of water atop and underneath the ice: the pressure causing a musical tinkling. A covey of ducks—agitated by our footsteps plowing through rust-colored leaves—flurried to the center of the pond.
Despite the sylvan surroundings, my strongest impression of his home was how close it was to town. Not only that, but the trappings of our frenetic culture were ubiquitous. An Amtrak train rumbled by. We could hear the hum of traffic from all corners of the park. Planes screamed overhead. While Thoreau certainly wasn’t bothered by these mechanized mumblings of modernity, it was obvious that he was in no way separated from the society that he deemed “insignificant.”
Critics lambaste Thoreau for extolling the virtues of solitude in Walden while maintaining close connections, walking to Concord often, and having his mother do his laundry on weekends. I see the hypocrisy too, but won’t let a fib spoil an otherwise timeless piece of work.
Thoreau—I’ve decided—was not a madman, a recluse, nor the symbol of frugality that we like to attach to him. He was a man. And a storyteller. His greatest story was his life. Thoreau realized—as few do—that his life was his own. And that he could do anything with it.
In his story he played the role of the philosopher-hermit. But Thoreau, undoubtedly, had itches for the other sex, cravings for consumerism. I don’t mean to suggest that Thoreau was a liar. I just mean to suggest that his identity was of his making. He became what he wanted to become.
Once, while pushing carts for The Home Depot—a miserable job I held during my undergrad years—I saw a bumper sticker on one of the many cars in the lot. It read: “Remember who you wanted to be”—a jarring reminder, to say the least. As a film and novel connoisseur, I had a keen understanding of narrative. It was self-evident that I wasn’t living in one of my beloved stories. Far from it, actually.
The van, like Thoreau’s cabin, is merely a chapter in a self-written story. He and I weren’t forced to live in such circumstances; rather, we chose it, just as Henry and I “remembered who we wanted to be”—heroes in our own self-directed stories, not background extras in someone else’s.
But the truth is that few can write their own stories. People are born into inescapable poverty. Children are abused. Disease and war and famine and a million other causes inhibit us from wielding the pen. Choice is a luxury. And choice—though most in our culture have this luxury—is rarely exercised; content are they to live in soulless dramas written by the bland hand of society and parents. Should it not be our duty, our great privilege to live the lives we’ve imagined? To be who we wanted to be?
I quit my job at The Home Depot one May to drive to Alaska. That drive, at the time, was my dream of all dreams. My journey was supposed to last a mere summer, but, five years later, I still have yet to truly come back. Little did I realize that it would become the introduction to a life, a story, and a much larger journey that I’ve determined to stay on.
Today, when I go into The Home Depot to buy something or other, I still see some of the same sad souls who I worked with five years earlier, slogging through life miserably, each seemingly incapable of wielding the pen either because they suffer from the self-invented “I’m-stuck-syndrome” or because there are legitimate exterior constraints.
In Thoreau’s replica cabin, I thought, while viewing the comically-austere furnishings—the twin sized bed, the wood stove, a rickety chair and desk—just how many things we could do in this life; how we can turn the wildest fragments of our imagination into reality if we so choose.
As Chuck and I walked back to his car parked in Concord, I thought about how the possibilities seemed endless.
Funny—I thought—how Thoreau’s story—despite its author six feet under a tombstone no bigger than his book, and his cabin—first a home, then a roof of a pigsty, then burned as firewood—is still ongoing. We of course never saw the ghost of Thoreau on his mid-afternoon traipse, but it was more than evident just how alive and well his message is today. Perhaps that’s what Thoreau knew all along: that some stories are better off without a conclusion.