Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Your Mark! Get Set!...

                Henry David Thoreau explains towards the beginning of Walden,

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise [sic] resignation, unless it was quite necessary. 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, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Why did Thoreau begin his little experiment? He had a pretty wide streak of civil disobedience running through him, but he wasn’t anti-social. In fact, while he craved solitude, he also welcomed many visitors to his humble pond-side abode. The reason was quite simple. His friend Ellery Channing told Thoreau  that to fulfill his intellectual potential, he should build himself a remote hut where he could concentrate. It seems that the hectic pace of life in bustling Concord, Mass, had become too distracting for Master Thoreau.
                Imagine if he were suddenly transported to America 2011. I suspect old Hank would understand quickly why we’re sponsoring a screening of Race to Nowhere.
                I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve heard about it for quite a while. As I’ve stated directly and suggested many times in this blog and elsewhere, I’m very worried about the demands placed on kids and the pressure they feel to achieve. I’ve explained it as a non-virtuous circle:

To twist another idea from the business world, I fear that top schools have gotten caught up in a non-virtuous circle. You may know that in the concept of the virtuous circle, certain aspects of an organization are plotted on a circle as they affect each other. The circle generates momentum, like a flywheel. The organization grows stronger.
                In the non-virtuous circle, however, the effects are deleterious. Here’s how that happens. Independent schools want to fulfill their missions, so they try to do more. Parents want to see a return on their investments in those schools. So schools try to do more. Parents want their kids to have advantages, so they do more outside of school. More leads to more leads to more leads to... ( )

Rationally, we know this is happening and that it’s not ideal. But—I speak as both educator and parent—emotions (mainly fear, I suspect) and current realities keep us from breaking that cycle. The discussions after the film should prove fascinating and, I hope, empowering.
                The film’s title evokes two metaphors people like to use when talking about rearing children, education, self-discovery, life. Both are clichés, but clichés become such because they ring with some essential truth we all can grasp. The first: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Definitely. Besides appreciating the typical idea behind this, I also like it because so many people train for a marathon not as a race but as a personal challenge. The second: the idea of a journey.

                It prompts me to remember a book that I had not thought about for many years: William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey Into America. On old-fashioned road maps, the interstates that we hurtle along are marked in red. Blue highways are the roads which have been supplanted by the interstates and throughways. They meander along the natural terrain rather than slice through it. Suddenly they enter small towns which struggle to remain isolated. Newly divorced and having lost his teaching job, Heat Moon outfitted a van and set off to explore America via only blue highways. In offbeat places he encounters even more offbeat characters. Of course, Heat Moon also has many personal revelations about himself and human nature:

What is it in man that for a long while lies unknown and unseen only one day to emerge and push him into a new land of the eye, a new region of the mind, a place he has never dreamed of? Maybe it's like the force in spores lying quietly under asphalt until the day they push a soft, bulbous mushroom head right through the pavement. There's nothing you can do to stop it.
Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more.

It’s reminiscent of that innocent time when a bug on the sidewalk or interesting cloud would launch a spectrum of musing. Significantly, while Heat Moon has a rough plan for his journey—to circle America—he remains open to various detours, switchbacks, and random jags. He learns to trust in a mix of instinct and serendipity, to revel in wherever the road may lead. As one reviewer noted, “It's a contention of Heat Moon's—believing as he does any traveler who misses the journey misses about all he's going to get—that a man becomes his attentions. His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.” Over time it becomes the slow process of self-discovery.
                Heat Moon has a bravado and courage about venturing into these unknown places. This grows throughout his travels, and he becomes particularly fond of his slowed pace across the blue highways. Indeed, the only times he seems at all jolted occur when he is somehow forced back onto interstates.
                I imagine that, while he was traversing the United States, Heat Moon realized the same idea penned by Thoreau in his little cabin, from which he seldom ventured more than a mile:

I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Otherwise, life really does become a race to nowhere.


Sylvia Venable said...

Dear Mark,

This may have been one of your most successful and most thought-provoking posts yet! As a passionate and confirmed traveler, but one prone to follow the route of most efficiency, I often find myself in an ambivalent set of mind, attempting to experience as much as I can, in "sucking the marrow" out of my travel experiences, and at the same time keeping my "radar" attuned to the interesting anomaly that defines the travel experience and makes it come alive. It is a tightrope of an experience that mimics the head / heart dichotomy of life itself. However, within this dichotomy, and crucial to it, is a sense of taking the time to consider both and arrive at a synthesis. And it is this delicate balance that seems to elude all of us whose schedules do not allow for reflection and musing.

Mark Crotty said...

Well put, Sylvia!