From the cradle (of American literature) to the grave

I love visiting the place, even though it’s always really dead. I’m talking about the venerable Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass., and specifically the section called Author’s Ridge.

Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts (including Bronson and Louisa May) are all buried in graves so close to each other (Hawthorne’s right across the path from Henry; the Alcotts are a few steps down from the Thoreaus; Emerson’s a little farther down the lane but still nearby) that they can chat to their transcendent hearts’  content without ever having to raise their voices (Keep it down, Alcott and Emerson…your neighbors are trying to get some eternal sleep!).

Here’s (Ralph) Waldo (Emerson):

And here are the graves of Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott:

It still absolutely amazes me — I’m filled with awe, truly — to realize that the earthly remains of the authors of “The Scarlet Letter,” “Walden” and “The American Scholar” are all within a few hundred feet of each other. Even more thought-provoking for me: Emerson and Thoreau themselves trod that shady path when they were among the quick, Emerson to speak at the dedication of the cemetery when it opened and Thoreau for the burials of his parents. I stand there and I’m quite possibly standing in the very footprints of two literary gods.

A final note about these grave matters: Thoreau and Emerson are both buried in family plots. Henry’s modest marker is small and low to the ground. The inscription says “Henry.” Emerson’s grave is marked by that huge marble boulder, with his name in big letters and a quotation from one of his poems:

THE PASSIVE MASTER LENT HIS HAND
TO THE VAST SOUL THAT O’ER HIM PLANNED

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Having the last word…

What words would you choose to utter if you knew they would be the final words you spoke in this mortal realm?

Novelist Victor Hugo declared “I see black light,” which isn’t exactly encouraging.  Thomas Edison, on the other hand, reported: “It is very beautiful over there,” which I suppose balances out Hugo’s dark vision.

The very first Queen Elizabeth probably had a whole bunch of castles and crowns and ermine capes and….well, you know the stuff queens own. Nevertheless, she tried to cut this deal when her time came in the early 1600s: “All my possessions for a moment of time.”

Good attitude, right? But then along comes the film producer Louis B. Mayer, who on his deathbed declared, “Nothing matters. Nothing matters.”  Let’s add James Joyce to this gloomy mix. The great writer died with this question apparently unanswered:  “Does nobody understand?” And, OK, we might has well mix some doom into the gloom…Edgar Allan Poe’s final plea: “Lord help my poor soul.”

Whew. Time for something a little lighter.
The great Henry David Thoreau probably had something profound to say when he heard the Grim Reaper’s knock? Nope. Henry’s last utterance: “Moose…Indian…”

I like poet Emily Dickinson’s farewell:  “I must go in, the fog is rising” spake Amherst’s belle in 1886.

But this may be my favorite. President James K. Polk, when he died in 1849, told first lady Sarah Polk: “I love you Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”

That’s what I want — I want my heart’s true fulfillment right there by my side, close enough for her to hear me whisper those three perfect words: “I love you.”

Love’s hum and hues

I am a sojourner in civilized life. But today I am thinking of the day we stepped onto the curved and narrow path around that pond, seeking the way where silence and song are one and the same, where simple beauty outstrips ornate, where all is love and love is all, where beams of sunlight stream through the trees in hues arrived from another world, tints which are tinctures which heal wounded souls.

Leaves for WoW post
Autumn leaves at Walden Pond

A man collects trash around these peaceful waters, an admirable enterprise requiring no new clothes. But he is not calm, not joyful at his labors, and he stabs at the trash with anger, not blissful, not wishful, far from finding the higher ground at the end of his path. I pray he finds the proper prayer to chant each day, the words, the song, the holy hum, the soothing thrum to overcome his desperation.

It is written that the only remedy for love is to love even more.

But who would need such a cure, I wonder, who would feel afflicted? I catch you in my gaze, hold love softly in my hand, and here by the waters of Walden I lay down and weep, softly from joy, and here we have found the fire of love, and we are warmed by its heat and guided by its light as we walk around this pond and find our way down this path which is lit a thousand times by a thousand rays of sun.

Red leaves against water for WoW
Red leaves at Walden

Simplify. The waters are calm. The sun shines off the water. Ducks swim in a row. People stroll all in a row. You find a lady’s slipper tucked into a shaded glade. We see red leaves against a blue sky. Woods surround the pond. A slight breeze. Simple.  And we are simply here.

Mallard for WoW post
A duck -- perhaps a mallard -- at Walden

But what if the ducks swam out of sight, then flew away? What if rough winds roiled the water? What if the lady’s slippers did not fit the lady’s feet? What if the blue sky turned to black? What if all the people all in a row scattered in all directions? What if lumberjacks cut down the woods? What if that winding path suddenly slithered away like a snake? What if the pond drained and dried? What if a thousand beams of sun dimmed to darkness one by one?

Yellow leaves for WoW

Then I would front only the essential facts of life, to see if I learned what it had to teach, whether I had managed to learn these truths so I would not come to die and find that I had not lived. And I would know I had learned these truths, had learned the chant, the whispered prayer: I glory in the glow of the light of love’s bright fire and know that its flames will keep us always warm.