Simplify

Simplify!

About twice a week I travel into New York by train, preoccupying my time with my Blackberry, the Journal, Will Shortz’s latest Times Crossword or a business brief that screams for my immediate attention.  As the week carries on, fatigue and a flagging vocabulary conspires to prevent my completion of the crossword and retard focus on anything related to business.  In these rare moments, reflecting in the seams between work and family, I find myself staring out a chattering train window and wondering whether my daily routine is a path to a mountain top or a rut leading into a deeply carved canyon.

As a college literature major, I studied the impassioned and idealistic views of the early nineteenth century Romantics and Transcendentalists.  Over 150 years ago, another New Englander Henry David Thoreau listened to the whistle of another commuter train that passed off in the distance from his crude shack that he had built on the edges of Walden Pond.  Thoreau hated the sound of the passenger train – – “a devilish Iron Horse, a bloated pest whose ear rending neigh is heard throughout the town”…carrying within it “masses of men leading quiet, desperate lives…..chained to commerce.”  Hey wait a minute, Henry, you’re talking about me.

My theory is once in a while, we all poke our head above the parapet and wonder, “is this what it is all about?”  It’s usually after that great vacation to Jackson Hole or that really bad day where someone throws up on your shoe in the subway.  David Byrne of the Talking Heads put it another way, “And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. And you may find yourself in another part of the world, And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, And you may ask yourself -Well…How did I get here?”

Thoreau acted on an impulse that many of us secretly covet from time to time.  He chucked it all in – – leaving behind comfort and companionship to live alone in the woods.  He breathed life into that hidden non conformist that struggles within every man  – – the one that pulls against the shackles of pragmatism, fear and lack of self confidence.  Thoreau’s “ experiment” carved a path that others might follow.

“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…”

Thoreau’s move to the woods was an ideological protest, a lightening rod rooted in a nascent philosophical movement, Transcendentalism, In Europe, famine and revolution were at the epicenter of a massive tidal wave of immigration to America.  Philosophers and intellectuals longed for a Utopian society to mute the effects of social inequities brought on by unrestrained capitalism.  Karl Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto.  Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle began to question the very origins of man.  When Ralph Waldo Emerson published Nature, he urged the pursuit of simplicity – – in spirit, lifestyle and ideology.  To the Romantics, there was dignity and importance in simplicity.  They believed that children descended into corruption as they became adults and that adults were essentially corrupted by society.  Nathaniel Hawthorne considered man a “god in ruins”.  Poets looked instead to the wilderness as refuge and metaphor – – a pathway to self discovery and poultice for an infected soul.

In March 1845, Thoreau moved to Walden and disassembled an old rail worker’s shack, fashioning a functional shanty from old nails and warped boards.  This simple habitation would serve as his home over the next two and one half years.  He raised vegetables and a simple harvest of food sufficient to barter for what he needed to live.  Thoreau was intoxicated by the natural ebb and flow of the woods.  He reveled in its ever changing splendor and its utterly predictable character.   He found himself and a renewed serenity through the sheer simplicity of shedding material needs and communing with nature.

“ This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water.”

Thoreau mourned what he considered to be the “worn and dusty…highways of the world, and how deep ( were ) the ruts of conformity and tradition”.  A modern day Diogenes, he seemed to be advocating that man could only realize his virtue through the simplification of his lifestyle.  Thoreau was not wedded so much to poverty as he was to material simplification and the need to celebrate all that was sacred in nature and in man.

As I stare out of the Metro North and catch glimpses of hidden paths leading into a cat’s cradle of woods, I feel the siren’s call of the Romantics.  I am grateful when I can disappear along the trails of Waveny, Devil’s Den or Pound Ridge State Park and wander along rocky outcrops, get scolded by a blue jay or startle to the sudden bolt of a white tailed deer.   Alas, these moments like the ambitions of the Romantics and the Transcendentalists, never last.  The obligations of my life return to tug at my sleeve like an impatient child.  Yet, Thoreau and his time at Walden remind me to take a deep breath and to seek to simplify my life.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours…If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put foundations under them.

For Thoreau, his experiment led to a lifestyle focused on simplicity and nature.  He left a path for others to follow who also sought a tonic for the pressures of their own time. Upon his deathbed, Thoreau was asked if he had made his peace with God to which he cleverly replied, “I did not know that we had quarreled. “

You and Me

You and Me

 

The spring sun hesitated for what seemed an hour or so, crouching just under the highest ridge of the valley.  Everywhere, denuded trees seemed ready to burst an early season feathered green.  With the twilight, came cool air that settled down into the draws and creek beds in the great Frost Valley.  In the distance, there was movement like a restless breeze as hundreds of The People from every great Indian nation descended onto a gentle slope that fell easily to the edge of a midnight blue lake. 

 

A great fire roared, crackling and swirling devils of smoke that twisted and chased away those who drew too close for warmth.  The hillside slowly changed colors from deep green to restless sienna as Princesses and young Guides gathered for the final ceremony of the season.  Chippewa, Omaha, Mohegan, Pequot – – the list went on and on.  Each chief gave thanks to the Great Spirit and passed the mantle of leadership to another while the braves and princesses looked on in admiration, wonder and anticipation.  The Nation was one and gratefully, the land still provided what the Nation needed to survive.  Everyone mingled in deep appreciation and slowly retreated to their lodges, long houses and teepees for reflection and revelry. 

 

It was my last trip to Frost Valley and Y guides with my youngest child.  For the last ten years ( not withstanding a three year hiatus in London ) , we had been a link in the  YMCA Princesses and Guides chain forging precious time together – “just you and me time” as my older son used to say when we would make our trips together.  This annual pilgrimage to the hidden valley deep in the Catskill mountains was each boy’s favorite rite of passage – – the long drive, the cabins, the hiking, the recreation, the ghost stories and the entertainment all combining for a deeply etched memory of companionship and caring.  It was the Y at its best.

 

The YMCA of New Canaan is rumored to have the most successful Y Guides program in the entire country.  Guides and Princesses begin at kindergarten and create opportunities for time together during those tender years between ages 6 and 9.   These are the years where you are still the center of the universe for your child.  This is the time preceding a parent’s steady decline from sun, moon and stars to distant planet in the galaxy called “Whatever”.  Growing up in Southern California, the YMCA was in many ways the center of my universe for sports, outdoors, summer camp counseling, work and midweek recreation.  It was a safe and important oasis.  

For a town like ours that is often stereotyped as “type A” and “self absorbed”, the community and commitment demonstrated by its consistently successful YMCA programs contradicts those labels and speaks volumes about our possibilities – – as parents, as teachers and yes, even as tribal chiefs!  

Each Y tribe is unique.  Some tribes frankly have issues.  In California, one of the Indian Princess Dads in our tribe had an affair with another Dad’s squaw.  Both men stayed in the tribe.  We renamed the one Dad “Steals Another Man’s Horse”.  Our New Canaan tribe, The Mohegans, is known for its games of chance, inventions, sarcasm, extremely poor nutrition and speed in which we can break camp on the last day of a sleep over.  There are other tribes who are known for things such as gathering nuts, making beads and eating filet mignon.  There are some that enjoy little dominion over their own tribe and descend into chaos and Game Boys whenever they gather as a group.  There have been rumors of firewater in some longhouses but like so many legends of the Nation, it is hard to separate fact from fiction.  Some tribes are apathetic, prone to logistical mayhem and always seem to lose their headbands.  There are those rare but powerful tribes, guided by strong leaders who insist on a strong identity, loud war cries, animal skins for every season and an ice chest in every teepee.  Yes, there is diversity in this Indian Nation.  Although by day, the Princesses and Braves appear quite homogeneous, by night they revert to an odd panoply of behaviors stimulated by the fact that there is no squaw within a hundred miles.

 

As we walk along a path padded with brown pine needles, the boys stomp through dark, brackish puddles of muddy rain water, swinging walking sticks like swords and trading exaggerated stories of what might lie around the next bend of the trail.  We traverse a V shaped cable bridge that hangs precipitously above a rushing stream.  The trail takes us towards The Devil’s Hole – – a destination shrouded in mystery and hyperbole.  Older siblings have already relayed the story of “the counselor who drowned “when he fell into the hole of rushing water.  That story has now distorted into the slaughter of an entire family from Michigan. “ Wha-wha-what exactly is in the hole, anyway ?” I overheard one boy ask another.  “ I think it’s a deep pool of water and there may be something down inside of it that will grab you if you get too close” said another.“  Nervous laughter and the half hearted swing of a hiking stick.  “Whatever it is, if it tries to get me, I will c-c-cut off its head!” declares the bravest of the bunch as he slides back closer to his Dad.  The forest is beautiful here with the path paralleling a wide trout stream that cascades down a pitched canyon.  Later, we discover The Hole but upon witnessing no blood or bones, the boys lose interest and vote for returning to the campsite to catch newts.

 

“Look I caught two newts at the same time” screams one of the boys. Unfortunately for these amorous amphibians, it is mating season and their conjugal bliss is constantly being interrupted by nets and squeals of delight as they are lifted from the water, dropped into a plastic containers and then tossed back into the water.  More hiking, and then dinner.  Our tribe settles down for a dinner of hamburgers, hotdogs, chips and sodas.  Later, a medicine man mercifully offers me an antacid.  A fellow tribe sharing our longhouse unleashes an intimidating display of BBQs, marinated steaks and civility that makes us feel like pagans.  Our boys are oblivious and have once again disappeared into the woods to satisfy some latent genetic need to sharpen sticks, throw rocks and soak their only clean pair of shoes in mud. As silky twilight gives way to night, I rest on the hillside, exhausted but content watching our great nation of people.  A small hand slips into mine and a warm, exhausted little boy leans in and lays his head on my lap, “Dad ?” 

 

“Yeah, buddy?”

 “Today was my best day, ever.”

“Me, too, pal”

“The best part – – was it was just you and me.”  

Never Have So Many

Never Have So Many

True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic.  It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.  Arthur Ashe

It is September, 1939.  The Germans have run the British and French into the sea and only a miracle on the beaches of Dunkirk prevent an entire army from being annihilated.  England stands alone against a Nazi controlled Europe whose light has been all but extinguished by its occupiers.  The US has not yet entered the war and will not join for another two years. England is alone. Hitler knows that a land invasion of the UK will only succeed if he can obliterate the Royal Air Force ( RAF ) and eliminate any possible impediment to a channel crossing from Calais.  While Hitler and his Generals plot the Operation Sealion, Goring unleashes his Luftwaffe.  The Battle of Britain begins.

The initial days of the battle for air supremacy over the Channel do not go well for the British.  They are shooting down Luftwaffe planes at a very high rate but they are also sustaining heavy casualties and cannot provide seasoned pilots fast enough to replace the more experienced killed and wounded airmen.  In this war of attrition, the Germans have the advantage. For weeks on end, the battle rages fought by under trained pilots on little or no sleep. The Germans only increase their attacks on air bases and begin targeting cities.

There is a story of Churchill visiting Biggin Hill, an RAF airbase in Kent, south of London.  As he walked in unannounced, he found an exhausted and distraught group of young pilots, many in their teens, shattered by the experiences of the previous weeks – –  already having experienced the trauma of watching friends killed in aerial battles.  Often one British Spitfire or Hurricane would fight against multiple Stukas and Messerschmitts.

Churchill looked at the young men and paused in thoughtful reflection.  They were too exhausted to even rise from their chairs or cots to honor their Prime Minister.  Winston looked at them and asked two simple rhetorical questions: “If not you, than who?  If not now, then when?“ The Prime Minster went back to London and the pilots went on to win an improbable victory and arrest the sinister march of tyranny.  The famous phrase, “Never have so many owed so much to so few” was Churchill’s eternal tribute to the RAF.  The story of this epic battle and triumph of the human spirit is detailed in a remarkable BBC series and book called ” Finest Hour” by Phil Craig and Tim Clayton.

As a child, I would spend hours, painting soldiers and recreating battle fields constructed of chicken wire and paper mache.  Thirty years later, my den is still jammed with detritus of war – – history books, maps and soldiers, a living museum to a lifetime fascination with the dark gods of men, arms and conflict.  As I grew older, I realized that war was not something to be glorified and that too often old men would make wars and young men were left to fight them.  The carnage and chaos of countless millenniums of battle have left a jagged scar across much of our world yet we seem so determined to never truly learn from our past.

I was reading an article recently in Military History magazine that attempted to graph the time line of civilization and armed conflict.  The author, with the obvious benefit of hindsight, evaluated the social, psychological, economic and societal consequences of  war on those who were “ victorious” and those who were “ vanquished”.  The article contends that war as a tool of foreign policy should always be a last resort.  Wars have never proven to be viable, long term solutions for any country.   Warfare drains national treasuries, deflects attention from critical domestic issues and devastates a generation of young men and women.  War has proven in some instances a necessary evil to rid the world of tyranny.  However, too often, warring nations’ national, economic and geopolitical agendas are obfuscated, self serving and myopic.  History, as author Barbara Tuchman described it, is “a distant mirror“ which allows us the opportunity for reflection.  But like many mechanisms of self deception, we often avoid hard examination ‘lest we see something we do not like.  Tuchman depicted the hapless repetition of war in her book “A March of Folly”.  Her subliminal question ? Is mankind destined to keep repeating the same mistakes ad infinitum until it finally succeeds in its own extinction?

The USA is at war.  Violence, indescribable tragedy and casualties continue to escalate in Afghanistan and continue in Iraq, a land once considered the cradle of civilization and now the snare that grips the heel of the Western World.  As I walk our streets and travel domestically, I am rarely reminded that we are at war.  Few live in communities who routinely give up their young to the armed forces for the opportunity to avoid a future that seems so stacked against them.

For most of us, there is no rationing or personal sacrifice beyond those whose families serve in the military.  We have an impatient need to resolve the bloody confusion and heal sectarian fault lines that trace back thousands of years.  Irrespective of how we got there, we are in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We have dispatched brave men and women to assist a process that is not too dissimilar to Reconstruction after the Civil War.  How long did it take for true societal change to occur following Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865?  I think it was about 100 years after the Jim Crow that we began to actually see civil rights transformation in our country.  As we consider the political, social and theological conflicts in which we are now enjoined, it challenges us to remember history – – are we Rome on the cusp of its great decline? Or are we bridging theological divides to create an important secular oasis in a sea of Middle Eastern petro-authoritarianism?  What happens if we stay?  What happens if we leave?  I don’t really know the answers but I love living in a country that affords me the freedom to openly debate the gray edges of issues and challenges where there is no clear moral imperative.

On a recent trip to Washington DC, I visited Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, and was reminded of the high price we pay for our freedom.  Arlington reminds us that our democracy is not secured by private equity, political parties or petroleum but on a bedrock of sacrifice, informed political activism and selfless service.  Those of us who benefit by the freedoms afforded by those who fight for us would be well served to remember on Memorial Day that somewhere out there is a real soldier, crouching behind a real wall, pinned down by real gunfire.  Let’s hope in their darkest moment that they are reassured by a belief that back home, everyone in this nation is doing their duty to be relentlessly debating the best course of action necessary to preserve our nation’s security, improve our standing in the world community, and to honor and protect those who protect us.  If not us than who?  If not now, then when ?