The following are a series of essays and notes inspired by the writing of Henry David Thoreau.

Friday
May112007

on making a living

"Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives."

For the last few weeks, I've been pondering the best way to write about my working life. It's such a strange path that I've chosen to take, since I began paying my own bills over fifteen years ago. Although earning money and making a living is something we all must do, I think it is something that can be especially difficult for people who feel called, even pulled, toward a primarily creative existence.

It's so easy to lose our way when we forget our nature.

In WALDEN, Thoreau wrote that he went to the woods to confront the essentials of life; and, I think this is mostly true. But also, deep down, in a very practical way, I think he went to the woods because he wanted to have more time to write. He built his own cabin, cooked his own food, and eliminated as many expenses as he possibly could so that he could fulfill his calling. He was a born writer and philosopher with strong opinions. Rather than conforming to the world around him and softening his writing style to appeal to his contemporaries, he simply decided to be true to himself. You might say that writing, for Thoreau, was a spiritual exercise rooted in his own unique identity, an exercise he was unwilling to water down.

The more I learn about Thoreau, the more his life truly makes sense. Unlike Emerson, who was a charismatic, community-oriented public speaker, Thoreau was more introverted and tended to flounder socially. He was disillusioned with all inconsistencies - both personal and professional. And sadly, almost every attempt he made to marry his writing with his income failed. I think his thoughts often ran so deep that other, less spiritual, minds tended to be threatened by or lose interest in his writing.

It's unfortunate that making money seems to operate according to different, sometimes less genuine, rules. Being successful in business isn't always about being oneself; it's often more about fitting in. After all, the best business minds tend to focus their energies on their client's desires, and money is given in exchange for a service. Like politicians, businessmen and women seek to please. Business lunches are often more about image and flattery and less about serious discourse. And, even when the conversation is more serious in tone, it still may revolve around such superficial concerns.

"Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul," wrote Thoreau.

Sadly, it seems, that the more one values truth, the more one may become disillusioned in business. Our economy can ever so subtly put us in conflict with our higher selves. If we value honesty and truth above all else, the world so often seems soiled with deceit. We are bombarded with advertisements which try to convince us that we need so many things that we really don't. We are made to believe that we will be happier after buying a product which actually makes no difference to the health of our soul.

New clothes and cars can make us feel new only for a while; perhaps we only seek them when we are tired of ourselves. And, perhaps we are only tired of ourselves when we've stopped becomming who we are meant to become.

So, maybe as we live, we should be ever mindful of who we are and what we are called to do.

If I am a writer, to whom should I write? Should I write to people's souls? Or should I write to their egos? Should I write to please an editor or a publisher? Or should I write to please myself and other kindred spirits? And, when I'm working to make money, how should I make it?

Thoreau's solution to this last question was to simply be a "day-laborer." He worked just enough to pay his bills. And, he simplified his life as much as possible in order to pay the fewest.

Thus far, my approach has been a similar one, and although the simplicity of my life has never approached that of Thoreau's, I do have a similarly diverse resume' of employment. Among other things... I've worked as a waiter and a bartender. I've written an arts column for the local paper. I've worked briefly as a tutor and teacher. I've sold a few dozen pieces of artwork. I've been a textile printer and a book binder. I've cared for my friend's children. I've invested in and helped manage a small business. And, since I have sound organizational skills, I've also been known to help people clean and maintain their home. Perhaps those who have their thoughts in order keep their environment in order as well.

I think that my most recent and welcome realization is the knowledge that my personal worth has nothing to do with my financial worth. How much money I make has nothing to do with my ability to contribute to the world around me. Likewise, I've realized that the very people who may look down upon me or accuse me of being lazy are the very people it is healthiest for me to avoid. After all, someone who sees the world in such an obviously materialistic way has not yet learned how to look at themselves more deeply. Someone who builds himself up with externals must feel very empty inside.

It's funny how we can all see each other so differently, measuring each other in different ways. I often wonder how many people's values actually overlap. I also wonder why more people don't turn to spiritual concerns after they have satisfied their physical concerns. It seems strange to me that many people will continue making and spending money indefinately without asking themselves why, while I find it so much more enriching to slow down and appreciate the simple things in life. The color of the sky and clouds, the sound of the wind and trees, the touch of a loved one... none of these things cost money, and few of us appreciate them enough.

Maybe using our unique gifts and being true to ourselves are the most worthwhile achievements of all. And, maybe whether they are noticed by the people around us or not, our littlest, most hidden accomplishments actually become our crowning achievements.

Each day the sun rises and sets, and somewhere in between, I try to feel my way through. There always seems to be something small and beautiful to notice and appreciate, something patiently waiting to be discovered by determined yet gentle eyes.


Wednesday
May232007

on home

"The outward is only the outside of that which is within."

Almost eight years ago, I moved into the building that has since become my first true home. Originally constructed in 1893, designated as a historic landmark in 1979, and renovated for residential use in 1984, my home exists within an old mill, divided into 28 separate residential units.

My individual unit is small, but the first time I walked in the door, I knew it was where I wanted to live. The exposed brick walls, the huge wooden beams, and the unique character of the interior corridors and hallways all made a deep impression on me. At the time I couldn't really explain why or how, yet something about the building made me feel comfortable. The character of the structure seemed to match my own, awakening intangible feelings of belonging.

I think a big part of me has always been drawn to the past.

Perhaps many things that exude age, character, and hidden knowledge have tended to attract my attention over the years. When I was a little boy, my grandparents seemed to have a special appeal that my own parents, and other younger adults, seemed to lack. When I was older and went to college, I chose philosophy - the study of wisdom - as my primary area of study. And, when I attended graduate school in fine art just a few years ago, the work of the old masters tended to interest me more than the popular and more contemporary artists of the 20th Century. In fact, it still seems unfathomable to me that modern artists such as Pablo Picasso or Andy Warhol could ever be compared to the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci or Johannes Vermeer. Even including their names in the same sentence feels unnatural to me.

I believe that time is the ultimate filter and the final test of talent and character. Sometimes new experiences are exciting for only one reason - simply because they are new. And as time always seems to remind us, novelty can never endure a wider and more mature perspective. In my mind, there is nothing more mediocre and unimpressive than a passing popular trend. While in our youth, we've all been caught up in them at one time or another, but when we age and our understanding of life deepens, so many things become endlessly trivial - like tiny ripples on the surface of the ocean.

Perhaps the wisest fish are found in the deeper waters, swimming by themselves or in a small school, following the undercurrents and steering clear of the large crowds of shallow warm-water jumpers and splashers. Maybe the wisest people are like squids, capable of braving the colder darker waters where intuition and memory are the best guides.

Just as some plants are prettiest while blooming in the Spring, there are others that shine brightest and show their true colors in the Fall. The passage of time may feel like a loss to some and a gain to others. Maybe if we think more creatively about our lives, if we view ourselves within a wider context, we can see that the best lives are those that continue to develop. The best lives are in a constant state of becoming. If we can view our life as a beautiful process of personal development, an unfolding of our deepest nature, then perhaps we can see each other as fellow travelers on a long voyage toward home.

With each passing year and with each new wrinkle that appears around the corner of my eye, I think that I'm becoming more at peace with myself. Maybe time gives back more than it takes. The concept of home has so many meanings for all of us. My own home is both where I live and where I am going, and it feels both physical and spiritual.

I think love and acceptance are the true foundations of contentment and the true foundations of our desire to feel at home in the world. When we take the time to find ourselves each day, we can offer so much more to the people around us. It's only when we are content that we can see the world well and know how to help. Not only is an unexamined life not worth living, it is simply not very helpful to the people around us. Shallow love is ineffective; it's only the most measured and considered love that can reach into the depths and the hearts of our loved ones.

After we have learned to be at home within ourselves, we can begin to give to others. Our own contentment gives warmth to the people around us. The deepest truths always seem the most paradoxical.