I’m following the new year cliché and working to clean out my spaces, to have a clean start. Last week, I uncovered the metal pencil tray in my desk drawer from beneath a mountain of clutter that had been crammed inside for far too long. Beneath the pile of paperclips and white erasers, underneath stickers that were meant to organize my day planner, a deck of cards shaped like Easter eggs, an old Valentine I hold onto, I found a folded piece of paper.
Smoothing the folds, I found my maiden name printed at the top in handwriting that is somewhere between my current rounded scratch and my daughter’s uneven third-grade letters. Below that, I’ve written the year 1996.
I can’t say for sure it was her assignment, but in my mind Kathy passed out this single-sheet in our American Literature class my junior year. I sat in the second row, second desk from the wall, in an old classroom of my Catholic high school. The room had a wall of windows that looked out over the most amazing Gingko tree in the church yard across the street. And in the fall, when that tree burned gold, nothing was better than walking from the dim hallway with fluorescent lighting and dark paint into the afternoon glow of that class.
Mrs. Jacobs, as she was to me then, would’ve been deep in the middle of the unit on Emerson and Thoreau and the Transcendentalists. And I would’ve been in high school English heaven. Beautiful poetry and essays and fiction with themes of nature and simplicity and goodness. Ever the optimist, always the word lover, Transcendentalism still holds a special place in my heart.
The assignment read, “You have read work by Henry David Thoreau (last night’s assignment). Now, record your own feelings about how best to live a full and satisfying life. How might you go about simplifying your own life?”
I don’t remember the exact reading, but this question so closely implies that it was the excerpt of Walden that reads “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
So how, as a high school junior, could I simplify and feel full from what I had, from how I lived? How could I reduce my life away from the extra, the material, the drama? How could I feel complete on my own version of Walden Pond in small town West Virginia?
I didn’t write just one thing that would simplify my world. I imagine most of my classmates hashed out a sentence or two then handed these sheets in so they could study for their next test or whisper with friends. Nope. I wrote 30 things. My page was full of new rules to follow, to implement. Ways to become more like Mr. Thoreau himself.
Here are some highlights:
Enjoy the things I really want to, no matter what other people say, think, do
Be at home where ever I am
Love everyone I meet
Learn to not only listen but to hear
Accept both sides of the story
Live for myself, for the day, for the moment
Fight for what I believe and help others in their struggle too
Understand basic ideas to build more complex ideas on
Work hard on everything you do
Last week, when I discovered this folded piece of my history, I snapped a photo and texted it to Kathy. “How in the world did I ever think that you guys had the answers!” she texted back. “That’s how smart I thought you were.”
For the record, Kathy doesn’t remember handing this page out in class, and I might need to give credit to my Theology teacher that year, Mr. Mehle, but I like the idea of this assignment coming full circle. And I believe that Kathy is right when she texted that I should share my list with a larger audience. “The world is in need – now more than ever!”
I have two children of my own. They’re 8 and 6 and I see them already get bogged down with the complexities of modern life. They want the material goods. They ask questions that are far beyond their years when I leave on NPR a second too long. They worry over what to wear and how to wear it. And while some of that is healthy curiosity, some searching for self-expression, some of it is also trying hard to fit in with new friends and feeling the early rumblings of peer pressure.
And I turn on the news or scroll through my Facebook feed and I see the judgement and the anger and the bitterness that people feel in the words they write or in their actions. People sharing their beliefs without second thought to how other people might think or feel, and certainly without pausing to listen to discourse or conversation of alternative viewpoints. There is no respect.
As a society, we are divided, split, sliced and diced. And so often when people say they want unity, they really just want to be right. It’s heartbreaking and a hard, hard world to live in.
But then I get to discover hidden gems like this Transcendentalist assignment tucked in a desk drawer that I should clean out more often. And I get to circle back to when things were simpler, and I got to live in a world where my biggest concern was if my skirt was long enough to avoid detention or if my basketball team would make the state tournament that year. And I get to be reminded that I once thought I should “Listen the first time” and “Worry about nothing that doesn’t deserve my worry.”
I share this list now not just because Kathy asked me to, but also because I need a reminder that I can simplify and improve my life. Thoreau did it, but living deep isn’t reserved for the woods around Walden Pond in the 19th century. The path is there on my list. In simplifying, I will find that I can listen, accept, love, help others, understand, and live my full and best life. That’s a reminder that we all need. I just needed to come full circle to see it.