Writing is work. Hell, reading is work. I appreciate your eyeballs. I like to lie to myself and say I love the labor involved, but watching a movie or going out to dinner sounds a lot better than parking my ass in front of the blue glow of a computer screen, knocking out a couple pages to nobody. I pay for it when I give in to easy, base pleasures. Taking it easy isn’t easy. There’s a debt in it that I can’t get my mind off of in the milieu. All those hours with a head full of worry. I should be working on something. Here I am, growing old, bounding swiftly towards death, squandering my time on the planet—watching this movie, at this beach, doing this thing. I’ll spend a week or two on an idea that’s going nowhere. Wrong turns happen often. Days, weeks, years can go by without acknowledging them. All that time wrapped up in delusion. It takes guts to trash it all and start again. You really screwed up when you decide to run with it and put it out into the world. I’ve done that. I’ve had enough of living with wrong turns. Nothing we put out there goes away anymore. You make a mistake and live with it forever.
I feel at home with the essay. It’s the fourth wall broken. Here we can finally drop the act. We don’t have to tell a story or try to make our point with allegory. It’s just you and I, almost as if we’re buds. Nobody can know me if they’ve never read my essays. The masters of the form have become true friends and mentors. So many days and nights with Montaigne, Chesterton, Schopenhauer, Mencken, Didion, Emerson. Guys like Emerson and Thoreau always made me pay special attention. Those old New England Transcendentalists informed so much of my being. I can’t nod in agreement with everything they had to say, but that doesn’t really matter much. I grew up in their shadow. When I grew homesick during my time in California, I embraced these writers from Massachusetts. They’re proud symbols of an early American literary tradition, one that was struggling to find its own identity. They gave me something to cling to, something to be proud of. Fuller, Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott, Hawthorne and Melville felt like great literary grandparents. Voices from home. A part of my identity.
Their ideas have stayed with me—follow your intuition, we are not separate from nature and need to live in harmony with it, we are all from and of the same stuff. There is an idea floating out there with some of the Transcendentalists, borrowed from Roseau I guess. It goes something like, our institutions corrupt us and we are all inherently born good. I can’t buy into that. One only has to watch a group of chimpanzees over a period of time or read about what happens when societies break down to know that humans have a propensity for great harm that goes way back. We’re vicious animals, products of a vicious natural world. It’s our institutions that are maintaining order and saving us from ourselves to an extent. There’s no doubt that our institutions can get out of control and cause harm, but they’re our safest bet for survival. Yet, I deeply admire and enjoy reading these guys. The fact that I don’t agree with a lot of what they’ve got to say only makes me more enamored. If you’re only nodding in agreement to everything you read, you’re in trouble.
So, I’ve been having a hard time lately. I’ve been blocked up and blanked out. In an effort to remedy the situation, I got in my car and drove up to Concord, Massachusetts. A lot of these writers worked, lived and are buried here. I don’t like to think of myself as a literary tourist. All those middle-age people in beige clothing with soft voices and a slow, gawking gait hoping to capture some of Twain’s magic by visiting his house in Connecticut or wherever those types go. I don’t think visiting these places inspires me to be a better writer, though I want to believe it. I go to these places looking for something—a drive to clear my head, something to look at, something to take in for a while. The scenery on the drive over pulls you in. All those stone walls and green trees everywhere. An old cemetery here and an old barn there. Some cranky Massachusetts driver riding your bumper. Every now and then, a large three hundred year old house pops out of the landscape with its giant chimney the size of a whale. Over here, a battle once fought on some patch of sacred ground. Over there, the ruins of an old mill off in the distance. Here’s another Dunkin’ Donuts.
It was summer when I made my way up to Walden for the first time in a long time. I knew what I was in for, but I just needed to go. I paid to park in a large labyrinthine parking lot and passed by a replica of Thoreau’s cabin, placed beside a busy street as Japanese tourists wandered around it and snapped photos. I nervously crossed the road to the other side and began to make my way around the pond. Walden Pond is not the serene wilderness in Thoreau’s book. During the summer it’s a prime swimming destination for the greater Boston area. A cacophony of bad pop and hip hop rings out of portable speakers. There are yells, screams, shouts, crying babies, laughter and the smell of sunblock that comes with the summer beach crowd. The water of the pond is more clear and turquoise than the kettle ponds that are so common in in the southeastern part of Massachusetts. I like the idea of this place. Most of these people coming here either never read or enjoy Thoreau. It doesn’t matter. This place is alive. Walden Pond isn’t some museum destination. It’s a real living, breathing place with a function all its own. Most of these people could care less if some old dead writer came here to live in a shack and scribble down some words for a while, no matter how important some us may think he was.
Approximately halfway around the pond, I came across the foundation of where his actual cabin stood. Some fanatic in the 1940s tracked it down. The site was marked and memorialized. This was the place where it all had gone down. I tried to take it in and imagine living and writing there, but in my heart I felt nothing. These places are indifferent. Nature is indifferent. It’s only the material you’re playing with. Just going somewhere and seeing something isn’t going to make you a better writer. I knew that. I’ve always known that. I just needed a reminder. I found an empty spot along the pond and went for a swim. A young couple made out in the water next to me. An old man lay on the beach on the other side. A group of young guys were acting up and swearing up a storm, talking about disgusting things. Their voices echoed through the trees. Out there in the distance, the other side of the pond towards the main entrance was a madhouse. All these moving dots on the sand, bobbing in and out of the water down there. I ducked my head underwater.
I got out, dried off, and fought traffic on the way into downtown Concord to hang out with the dead. The place was busy and bustling. There is something almost English about it, as is the case in so many towns here. The place still keeps up its literary appearances. There are modern authors and other arts types who would want nothing to do with me, calling this spot home. I drove by one of Emerson’s old houses and snapped a picture. I thought of going inside and being bored to tears with old relics of his, but I thought better of it and moved on.
I parked on the street somewhere and walked into Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The famous authors are all clumped together on a hill there along with their families. The place gets a lot of traffic. Hawthorne’s grave was littered with pennies. Pens, pencils and random paraphernalia lay all over the ground around Thoreau and Alcott’s markers. It’s probably not what they would’ve wanted, but it’s what people leave there. Emerson’s marker was just a giant rock with a plaque on it. I stayed there for about an hour, hanging back, watching families and couples come to the graves. Some left more litter, some just stood there and talked. I wondered how many other writers come here to get unblocked, to be moved in some way. I didn’t feel anything, but I enjoy being in cemeteries. I like to be reminded of death. I walked back down the hill and turned to admire at a headstone with a unique font. It was the guy who invented the Concord grape. The thought of grape jelly came to my head—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in grade school. Grade school—all those nerves, failing grades, incomplete assignments, unrequited crushes—all irrelevant now. All as dead as the people in the cemetery. I got in my car and drove away.
There’s an old hippy saying; Wherever you go, there you are. The hippies don’t a have monopoly on that one, but those are the types telling me this stuff. It’s a truth. Probably why I don’t travel much anymore. No matter where you go, you’re bringing yourself with you. It’s probably why so many of us like to drink and do drugs, just to get away from that person for a while. I admit, I had a notion that somehow visiting the shrines of my dead heroes would give me insight. It’s magical thinking and I knew it was nonsensical, yet I complied with myself regardless. You see people do it all the time. It really manifests itself when they get crazy about religious relics and pilgrimages, collectors items and paraphernalia. Even after all of this, all I could think of was returning to Concord during the drive home. Maybe if I could convince some poor woman to come along and endure touring the old houses there, I could justify another trip. Maybe if I try again. Maybe next time the flame will ignite and I can write again. Maybe I can make the magic happen. Maybe next time.