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Going Down To Walden Pond

I’m still having some trouble adjusting to the time zone shift, apparently.

I awoke at four-something in the morning, after about six hours of sleep, and couldn’t get back to sleep. So many things were whirling around in my head: the Korean internet ban, the illegality of the petition, the apparent risk of deportation for those signing it; the way the USFK is pulling out of Korea, the way that the government is handling all protest. What could happen in the next few years. What so many voices are saying, the dozens of different visions all colliding, all the voices of those I’ve read since my dazed return to Korea less than a week ago. And then the bigger picture: the fate of America. The fate of Iraq. The fate of my debts and how I shall ever be rid of them, too. The personal, which is intertwined with all these great events of the world.

Papers describing my debts; a few books; a few poems scrawled into a notebook. A letter to an old friend, on hanji paper, on my desk beside this computer. A photograph of myself when I first arrived here. My desk is like my mind, aswirl with so many of these small things that make up my small human life. No despair, just… it all seems like so much. So very much.

I needed to clear my mind. Lime was reading Thoreau when I left for Toronto, and I wanted to reread Walden so it’d be fresh in my mind when, after her exams finish, we talk about it. So took the copy I picked up in America, and I read some more of Thoreau’s wonderful book. Something grabbed me, when he was describing the beauty of Walden Pond:

In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth. Sky water. It needs no fence. Nations come and go without defiling it. It is a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quicksilver will never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs; no storms, no dust, can dim its surface ever fresh; — a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush, — this the light dust-cloth, — which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.

I read that, and then looked out my window:

How ashamed I felt glancing back at my cynical annotation in the margin: “Not anymore!” I had written, thinking that nations actually can, now, defile and destroy ponds and skies when they come, before they pass on. That mankind is no longer dwarfed by that which it inhabits. How sad to think that, for a moment. I loked past the ugly cranes, the ugliness of the construction, and what wonder I felt. Seeing the clouds in the firmament, the stars covered over by them, the mysteries of all the universe seeming to be hidden from my view. It could make one so sad, to never see this, to see only pollution. And I felt so very small, gazing up at the sky.

And I realized something. To fight for nature, we must be in love with it. We never struggle hard enough for something or someone we don’t love. I have done myself and the world a disservice by not camping every summer that I can; by not going fishing, by not climbing mountains and sitting there on their peaks, as if I were visiting an old friend. I must start doing this. It reminds me that it is good to be small, to understand I am a miniscule part of a beautiful world, that I can do things but only small parts of a larger whole. It calms me and removes from my lone shoulders the burden of solving great problems.

And now, a mere hour or so later, here I am writing this, listening to a song from long ago, a song that once held within it so much pain for me, or reflected it perhaps, like the clearness of the surface of Thoreau’s pond. It was such a struggle for me, to get through that time. When I am old, will I look back on that part of my life embarrassed, ashamed because I let brokenheartedness blind me? Because I struggled for survival merely, when I could have spent my energies on so many endeavours, so many joys?

How humble I feel, remembering how much of a struggle those long-ago days were, when I was fighting for nothing much except to live on through sorrow.

Our old brokenheartednesses embarrass us. Perhaps they shouldn’t. Perhaps we need compassion for ourselves, as much as for the fish in the lakes and the birds whose shells are laid ruined. When I think of people in our age, living in our time, there are so many who bring to my mind nothing but images of the Exxon Valdez spill, poor struggling creatures mired in oil, creatures that sadly will never fly again, will never swim or see again. To be brokenhearted once in one’s life breaks open the seal between reason and passion.

It’s a dangerous seal to break, of course. We suddenly become so aware of our own voices. We look out windows at strange times of the day to see how the clouds look. We spend hours at night worrying about what will happen in years to come, what will happen if the wrong things happen. We wonder if, taking on a struggle that would anyway be unwinnable for the likes of us, is worth throwing away the simplest things in life, the things we truly need. How does one speak to power when one doesn’t even speak the language? When everyone would simply tell one that the struggle is none of one’s business?

It didn’t even take that much to send Thoreau walking out to the pond to look upon its surface in silence. And lacking a lake, again I look out my window to the sky, to the clouds gathering in conference on the faraway mountaintops.

Those of us who want to do good sometimes wish ourselves at the center of a titanic battle. We want to fight in everyone’s war, we want to do everyone good. We want justice, and we’re convinced that the struggle for it is necessary at every point along the way.

And perhaps it is. I cannot criticise those who take on any struggle: it is always good to work for liberty, to work for what is right.

But not all of us can struggle in every battle. Some of us, at certain points, must withdraw from the fray, to rest; some of us must use whatever strength we have just to manage to contemplate things as they are. It seems to me it would have been a pity if, in Thoreau’s time, he had stayed in Concord; oh, if nobody had fallen in love with Walden Pond, what would the world be? If nobody had looked on Flint’s Pond, watched the water-spiders in their ballet across the surface of the clear shimmering water; if nobody had reclined his back against a tree and drank in the beauty of Baker Farm.

Thoreau also went to prison when his country arrested him for his Civil Disobedience. Nobody should eternally stay out of the struggle. But Thoreau did this in his own country. It was unquestionably his battle, and his engaging it did offer the possibilty of success, change, of some effect at all. The battle cry whcih is called out is not wrongful: it is in opposition to something I think is odious, but… I do not think my joining the fray can do any good. I will not say it is not “our” battle, but it is not mine, I feel very clearly.

So I will do what I can, something I believe also matters in its way. I will, in my own way, go down to the shores of Walden Pond, try to keep my mind clear; I will try to speak to those who will listen and spread word so that those whose voices will be heeded may speak out. I will also find ways to live in the wilderness cut off from so many good friends, if necessary, and try to offer ways to make doing so easier for those engaged in the battle. That is the most I can commit myself to doing, for now.

It shall have to be enough. For now.

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