We Went… Maybe not the Woods

2020: the year we acted like we lived in the depression. Staying close to home. Baking sourdough bread. We grew plants from starts and seeds

I got to know my neighborhood. I watched spring come with rains. I saw the baking summer sun crisp the grass.

About the time the neighbors started talking about birdcalls, I knew we had travelled even further back in time.

I picked up Walden.

My friends and I are looking to find the silver lining in the quarantine.

What is really important? Are these material things really what we want? COVID made me think about death and therefore how precious life is.  Walden does the same. What is really most important?

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately”

Yes. If I am holing up to protect life, what am I protecting?  What kind of life is a lonely solitude? Before I pout too hard about my situation, Thoreau puts the challenge out there. He lays it out: take the time to notice the beauty around you!

He went to the woods because he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Even in the shutdown, there is marrow to suck. There are skies and plants to observe, simple skills to practice and alternate paths to try.

There is richness in the things I have passed over. The sun in the sky is a marvel. I have learned to observe it in ways I never have before.

Big cities—New York, San Francisco—they are hollowing out. People are taking their lessons from the lockdown and moving house. Sacramento and Salt Lake City are filling up with new neighbors. Now that people can choose, can do their work from their homes, they are changing the homes.

Thoreau and his Transcendental buddies. were quite thrilled with finding new classics, and making up their own minds

“Let the reports of all the learned societies come to us and we will see if they know anything”

Sounds like the internet to me. I want to know all the things the world has to offer, and I delight in new ideas. I love to be the one to make up my own mind about their value. I don’t have to live by the expected wisdom. This is a time to explore and make up my own mind. The whole world awaits.

It used to be

There is a scene in the Lord of the Rings movie where the village is being attacked and the children are sent to light the bonfire. It’s a system of fires set up to be lit across hilltops. This was the warning system.

This is the medieval 3- way handshake: light signal fire- far end sees signal fire. Far end lights signal fire.

That’s how the internet does it. But the internet hadn’t happened yet. There were a few more stops along the way between the signal fire and the internet.

The Post office changed everything. Ben Franklin had a great instinct for marketing, and the story goes that he invented electricity, white wigs and the post office, but the real breakthrough came from Victorian England.

Letters had been around since writing. The way it went is the letter writer would find some lucky person, and ask him to deliver it. The person would be paid by the person receiving the letter.

Remember that old saying “Don’t kill the messenger”? The value of a letter depended a lot on what was in it. There were risks involved.

Sir Rowland Hill invented stamps. England created a set of posts so that deliveries of these prepaid letters could be sent to anyone. And the letters were secret the envelope protected the message from strange eyes.

This was new in the world. Sir Rowland had to vision and got enough cooperation to make it a reality. No one had thought of it before, but once it existed it took off. It was so sensible it spread.

Until it was created, it wasn’t even a concept. It was impossible until one day it was normal. And once it was normal it could be made better and better until we have this internet that erases time and distance.

And we have a system that the whole world is riding on.

This normal amazing this didn’t used to be here. There are things just offstage waiting to be possible. I wonder what is next.

A Piece of Faulkner

I just finished Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! Something in the air drew me to read it again. Faulkner was wrestling with his inheritance—the legacy of the American South.

He writes a fictional story that holds his experience. He lives on the edge of a conquered land. The story is not easy at all—at no point do we hear the voice of the main character. We hear the memories and the inferences of the people who were connected or controlled by him, by Thomas Sutpen, the demon hero of the story.

Sutpen controls the people around him and no one stands against him. They seem to admire what he can do so much they allow all the collateral damage.

He is the embodiment of a pure single-minded vision, and the people around him fall into it and give him what he wants. They are mesmerized, wanting to see what will happen. Will he make his dream come true?

The main narrator—not the only narrator—is Quentin. He’s not related to any of the characters, but his grandfather knew the demon Sutpen.

Quentin is trying to piece together what happened. Everyone from his hometown has their version of the story. No one can leave it alone.

They pull his sleeve, telling him what really happened.

He is stuck trying to make sense of it. What happened? Between all their versions he is not sure of the basic facts.

The others are sure. And he’s heard the stories his whole life so he knows the basic facts.

Until he thinks about it. He is trying to sort it all out with his college roommate. Now that he is not at home where everyone is so sure, he himself is not so sure.

He talks it over and over with his roommate. They piece together what he never saw clearly, what was hidden in plain sight, this dark dark dark story of the American South.

It’s a masterpiece and it is not for the fainthearted.

Here’s the piece that I can break off for you all:

I know there are stories I’ve heard and accepted my whole life. Sometimes, when I look at them now, they aren’t true anymore. They may have been true once. But they don’t have to be true now.

It is worth sifting out the jagged edges to find the things that aren’t true anymore. The assumptions can be discarded. I deserve to have the true truth.


This week I burned down a pumpkin spice candle. The date on the bottom said 2006. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s kept a decorative candle for years. It’s moved with me to several homes, but this year

I burned it all the way down.

This is the year I’ve learned to appreciate candles. I’ve burned down quite a few during the quarantine. I had forgotten about the little orange pumpkin candle, but after the other scented candle ran out, I found it and set it next to me on the desk.

It’s a friendly thing.

Lighting a single candle

My daughter has gotten in on it. The supermarket had some big fall candles and I brought a few home. I’d say the scent could be dialed back 2 or 3 notches, but Veronica loves it and lights it while she is doing her schoolwork.

I saw the candle growing smaller in its glass jar.

She asked “Where does it go?”

“It burns away. You can’t really see it, but it becomes smoke and floats away on the air.”

We stared at the flickering flame together. It was a quiet feeling.

Candles have been companions to worried people for a long time. They doesn’t ask for much. They put out light



maybe Hope

That little flicker is known all over the world as a prayer without words

When the hope is too fragile sometimes words are too heavy.


When the imagination is too rusty and life is too rigid to conceive of another way, words don’t work.

I can light a single candle. I don’t even have to know why.

It helps. And I am grateful.