19th century writers used a lot of words. It would be another hundred years before a different style of writing would catch on. Emerson is wordy. There’s no way around it. It’s an incontrovertible truth. When I taught “Self-Reliance” I did it by making a worksheet that had one question per paragraph. The idea was if the student could answer the question, he/she had the jist of the paragraph.

My students hated it, or, anyway, I thought they hated it. When I wrote my thesis advisor, who had edited the Emerson’s Essays we were using, and told him I was teaching it, he said, “Find out who likes it. Get their names and I’ll send them autographed copies.”

The next time I went to class I asked, “Do any of you like ‘Self-Reliance’?” 3/4 of the class raised their hands. I said, “It doesn’t affect your grade. I just haven’t tried this before.” No one put their hands down. Dr. Robert D. Richardson had to send 25 autographed copies of the book.

The message of “Self-Reliance” is that through self-knowledge, a person can learn to act and live in harmony with his/her true nature. The essay is full of beautiful passages buried in the labyrinth of Emerson’s prose. One of the loveliest, densest and (to me) truthful passages of “Self-Reliance” is very dense, but the message contained within it strikes home for me. It concerns “Whim.”

I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation… Self-Reliance” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Whim” in this case is essentially following your heart. You don’t know where it’s going to lead, but the thread to which it attaches might be the heart’s goal. It might not, but, as Emerson says, “…we cannot spend the day in explanation.”


Nothing Pedestrian About It

I am a pedestrian. I walk. I’m not the first and, god-wiling, not the last of the species to make this claim, even to make this one. I love to walk. Love. Yep.

My dad had Multiple Sclerosis and had problems walking that got worse with time. Watching him struggle and persist probably contributed to my early sense that being able to walk is not to be taken for granted. That knowledge has been affirmed many times by my own mobility problems, two hips that went south and various injuries. My mom didn’t like walking, but she HAD walked to school in 40 below degrees with newspapers in her hand-me-down shoes, her feet in hand knit socks. It wasn’t “uphill both ways,” it was legit, but I did hear a lot about it. I never had to walk to school in 40 below, but 10 below is no picnic. But you do walk fast.

Some of my sweetest memories from childhood involve walking home from school with my brother over a little mesa where the wind blew like a, like a, oh well, like it does here. My mom knitted us short scarves she pinned around our heads, kind of like a Buff, and we often arrived home with icicles hanging from the place above out mouths, but, in the meantime, we’d fought through a barrage of space aliens; snow flakes — coming at us head on.

I still go out in that and like it.

Walking has often provided the transition, the liminal moment, between one life and another — between work and home, school and home. It was transportation (literally, TRANSPORT-ation) for much of my life. I didn’t drive if I could walk. Simply.

Walking to work and back from my Denver apartment in my late 20s was so important for me. My walk was 3/4 of a mile to and from, just long enough to prepare myself for whatever the day would hold in the morning and to clear the spiders of law from my mind in the evening. There were no electronic devices back then to pump music into my ears on my walks. There was only the sound of the streets, cars passing, snippets of music, vroom, the fragrance of dinners cooking.

I was a paralegal in an immense 17th street (Wall Street of the West) law firm. I was having my first experience with the kind of squishy integrity inherent in “billable hours.” My law firm had some huge clients — the City of Lakewood, for example — for which my boss was the city attorney. I was deep in municipal law, public improvement agreements and and and … I did well, but for me there was no governing philosophy to anything we did other than the bottom line. I liked my job OK. It was challenging, changing, fast-moving, but it wasn’t “me.” Invariably, somewhere on the walk home, I shed the paralegal and encountered my”self” and we went home together. It wasn’t much of a walk, but every day I saw something new and apparently I wrote convincing rhapsodies about it because the man in my life at the time, a man who’d trekked all over and been on the support team for a climb up Annapurna II, wanted to make the walk with me when he came to Denver. “I want to see what you see.”

I wasn’t aware of it then, but I was learning the lesson that if you go out, you will see something. Simple, huh? One day as I headed down the hill to the State Capital building I saw a hot air balloon preparing to rise. The design on the balloon was an immense blue Columbine, the Colorado state flower. There was no one to witness this but the denizens of the balloon and me.

I learned that you don’t have to walk in some “grand place.” All places are grand places.

If you would like to read some beautiful and inspiring words about walking, I turn your attention to Walking by Henry David Thoreau and “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. There are other writers, such as John Muir, who have extolled the quiet wonders of a pedestrian life, but those written Thoreau and Emerson are still my favorites.

This, from Thoreau’s Walking sums up my feelings and experience — and did the first time I read it in Robert D. Richardson’s graduate American Lit survey. Life — just like walking — comes down to putting one foot in front of the other.

“…We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.” Henry David Thoreau, Walking

The best book about walking I’ve read recently is A Walk to the Water by Daniel Graham. Definitely a good choice for a time like this one (“like” this one?)



A few decades ago, I was a different person. I did not think things over. I viewed impulse, impetuosity, spontaneity and whim as virtues. I made a lot of “decisions” from that perspective, decisions such as marriage.

I was inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”

I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.

Now — as I told some friends the other day — I make decisions more slowly, that I like to gather information and then let it all “percolate.” I said that. Whim is fine but sometimes its pal is “bad judgment.”

I have learned — as my father always advised me — to “count the cost.”

There’s more to “Self-Reliance” than that. It’s the manifesto of individualism. Emerson makes some points that, in view of the recent election, are very interesting.

This struck my attention:

Your goodness must have some edge to it,—else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached, as the counteraction of the doctrine of love, when that pules and whines.

I thought of the doctrine of love, which I have to admit I’ve always had problems with ever since my failed attempt at being a hippy back in 1970. I gave it three months. It just didn’t happen for me. In the midst of all the saccharine neo-Romantic youth movement, there was a horrific war, my dad was dying, my mother was on drugs and my brother was fucked up. I didn’t see that “Love” and “Peace” were realistic objectives at all. Brotherly love was not — in my mind — the natural route of the human heart. Wearing tie-dye, being stoned and wearing flowers in your hair was not going to make these objective problems go away.

Compassion is not only difficult but it is tricky. For example, for years, out of feelings of compassion, I supported my brother. But what I was supporting was his drinking habit at a pretty serious cost to myself — and it wasn’t compassion; it was selfishness. I could not live with MYSELF if I did not “help” him. And the help I offered — gave — was not real help at all.

When I turned away from him — which felt like hating him — I found myself. I believe this is Emerson’s sense here. Sentimentality is not love, just a pretty box that LOOKS like love.

As the days pass and I read more articles from and about “the other side” I’m starting to get it. On top of my mind is always that 40%+ of qualified voters did not vote. To me this is important. Then, among those who voted for The Donald (a spewer of hate with a fascist agenda) were people who were not voting FOR The Donald at all but who are simply completely disenchanted with the government. My guess is that no one who is completely disenchanted with the government voted for HRC.

The Donald preached a doctrine of hate such as I never expected to hear any more in my life time. I heard it a lot as a kid in school because we had movies all the time showing us what happened in Hitler’s Germany. We heard Hitler speak and while we could not understand his words, we could hear the background context especially when it was combined with images from the war and war atrocities. Night in Fog was a big hit in my high school. We saw it twice a year in all-school assemblies. There was a concerted effort on the part of the schools I went to that we would all understand what fascism looks like and sounds like; we would know what it can do, how people can be caught up in it even without wanting to.

So revisiting Emerson today just to write this prompt about “percolating” I began to wonder if the “doctrine of love” had begun to “pule and whine” for many Americans and I think it has. The Donald made a lot of noise about political correctness and I know that many people are sick of it, many people feel victimized by it and, for my own personal self, it’s never been something I could get behind. It is (as Emerson would say) the “name of goodness” not goodness itself.

He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.

For example, there’s a big difference between calling a gay guy a “faggot” like, “Hey faggot, how’s it going?” and actually hating gays. Without ever saying a disrespectful thing, a person can nurture in his soul a deadly antipathy toward anyone in the LGBT community. Political correctness (in my experience with my students) was very often a form of hypocrisy. The name of goodness, not goodness. I always believed it was better to teach kids to be kind from a genuine impulse of the heart than it was to forbid them to use certain words, but… (And, in case you’re having an apoplectic attack over my use of the word “faggot” don’t. I don’t care at all what someone’s sexual orientation is. Love and desire are personal, individual things for which I have (way before PC) always had tremendous respect and the belief it’s none of my business. I’ve also known since I was in 8th grade that it is not a “choice” or a sin or anything. K?)

Perhaps that’s why so many voters ignored the horror of The Donald’s rhetoric; they really didn’t care what he said as long as what he said was nothing at all like the hypocrisy of “business as usual.”

In a long ago English class, I had my students paraphrase all of “Self-Reliance.” It was incredibly difficult. Some fought against it, some did it out of duty, some were enlivened and liberated by it. My thesis adviser, Robert D. Richardson, Jr.  — who loves the Transcendentalists and has written beautiful biographies of both Emerson and Thoreau — had edited a version of Emerson’s essays. When I wrote him about what my class was doing he offered to send an autographed copy to every student who wanted one. I expected 3 or 4 to raise their hands, but I ended up with enough books for every student. ❤

I believe this election is far more complex than we’ll soon know, but I sense within it the desire of maybe 60% of the voters to make a change. And, as I was in the middle of rereading “Self-Reliance,” this hit me:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think… It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible Society, vote with a great party either for the Government or against it…under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are…If I know your sect I anticipate your argument…But do your thing, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself…

I think this is part of the appeal of Bernie Sanders; he stands up for and as himself. I hope I am right in my theory, that many of those who voted for The Donald were actually voting against the status quo and not for fascism. Time will tell…