Oct 5, 2011
When I was 16, I fell in love with Ralph Waldo Emerson.
You think I’m kidding? Oh no. I would never speak lightly of such passion. Yes, it was 1982. And yes, Ralph died in 1882, but no matter. He had that je ne se quoi that makes a long-dead philosopher irresistible to a teenage girl. Or, at least this teenage girl. I appreciated Henry David Thoreau, but Emerson’s bombast I found, in retrospect, frankly sexier.
In Humanities class, junior year, when I learned that Socrates had said “The unexamined life is not worth living” my god did I love it. I wasn’t crazy after all! These were the days of Deep Earnestness, when I carried a journal with me everywhere. When I believed there was nothing that occurred that wasn’t worth recording and analyzing. Evenso, it was Emerson, my Ralph Waldo, who kicked it up a notch.
Emerson said the things I barely dared think.
Emerson said: “Know thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
Emerson said: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”
Emerson said: “Whoso would be a man would be a nonconformist.”
I was certain he intended “man” to be inclusive of “woman.” After all, he hung out with Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott. Wherever Ralph wrote “man” I assumed him to be speaking, unequivocally, to me.
And my favorite essay, the essay that spoke most clearly to the girl who was trying to rationalize the impossibly conflicted external realities of her life with a blooming sense of iconoclasm, was Self Reliance.
"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841
Twenty-nine years later, I can’t help but wonder what ol’ RWE would say if he could see me now.
If we met over tea (a nice aromatic blend of nettle, yarrow, and mullein perhaps) would he give me a “yes, but” when I quoted his 170-year-old words back to him? Perhaps he’d argue that he was, indeed, promulgating an interesting philosophical argument, an intellectual entertainment of the type highly valued in 1841, but that he certainly never intended anyone to attempt to live it. Let alone a woman on an Allegheny mountaintop in 2011. A woman struggling with all the practical survival issues well-known to the 19th century, coupled with something nearly as insidious and unstoppable as a plague of small pox: The expectation of electrons-on-demand, of pumps that move water at the flip of a distant switch, of worldwide communication at the click of a piece of plastic called a mouse.
I imagine his bemusement at the peculiarities of my plight. But even more compelling, I feel his nodding recognition of my struggle with Expectation and its corrosive impact on my sense of Self, even as he lambasts me for it.
I imagine him saying something along the lines of: “The man who stakes claim to a mountaintop and endeavors to carve his life upon that rocky earth would do better to build an Ark and wait for the Flood than expect the solace of regular society to carry him away from the Self he seeks. The valley and the ridge are joined by the land between them, each rod of which, once advanced, cannot be foresworn save by the liar or the fool.”
With all due apologies to RWE, I do imagine him “getting” me.
I imagine him prefiguring the best of the existential authors of the 20th century, when he’d say to me: “Once your Self has claimed its authentic home, celebrate, grieve not. Resist the siren call of conventionality and the safer drudgery it promises. Your trust in conformance is what restrains you, it is the barometer of your Self-defined failure. Leave it behind, as the hair your mother cut from your brow so you might see.”
Unless there really is some chamber of the afterworld where Meeting of Minds (the 1970’s-era PBS series hosted by Steve Allen) actually occurs, I’ll likely never know what words RWE would say to me personally.
I do know that I’d likely not be here today, at Brightside, if I’d never heard the words he wrote way back then. Words that continue to bolster and cajole me even as they irk me. “Yes, but” I want to argue. I want to give him a personal laundry list of grievances. A list so long he’d be moved to…what? Applying a gold star for “non-conformancy” to my furrowed forehead?
Much more realistically, I imagine his hawk-nosed countenance peering at me (not unkindly, oh, not at all unkindly), and after hearing all my woes and sorrows, simply inquiring this: "Who do you wish to be? Your Self? The woman who has endured great suffering to be here, and who is even now carving a life on this rocky earth. Or the woman who now believes she’d been better off never having taken the first journey up this mountain because, well, to be honest, up here it is really difficult attempting to conform to all the expectations of 21st century life?"
“Who are You?” I hear him ask.
(Beyond RWE’s voice, I hear the tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the Meeting of Minds parlor. Steve Allen looks so snappy in his ascot. Our tea has grown somewhat cold.)
RWE leans back and crosses his legs. He knows I know that he knows I know.
We smile at each other over our tea cups.
One inescapable truth of my life is this: Growing up in post-assassination Memphis with parents who established a hazardous waste recycling business in the heart of the African-American ghetto, I learned early not to define what I was capable of. Which is to say, I learned not to put an arbitrary limit on it. Limits didn’t matter. Coping with the situation was what mattered. Enduring was what mattered.
This is not to say that everything I’ve endeavored since has been a roaring success. Far from it. It is to say I’ve rarely shied from the attempt.
If you’ve learned early on that there’s no point in limiting what you can endure, then there’s little sense in limiting what you can attempt.
Quite literally, trite as it might sound, how does one know what it is she can do until she has tried? And this 45-year-old woman, like that girl who first read RWE 29 years ago, sees little point in living life sheltered from the discovery of what it is that she can do. (Which is not the same thing as saying I don’t have my dead-dog-discouraged moments, or long days and weeks of doubt.)
I also know something else, taught me with incomparable efficiency by my childhood in Memphis, and my later tuition under RWE. And it is this: There is no certificate of competency, no graduate degree, no class grade that would somehow qualify me for living here, at Brightside. No imprimature from an outside authority that would give me special dispensation in dealing with the weather or the wilderness or the wild animals or the manifest difficulties of off-grid life. To be sure, various societal authorities have endowed me with their seal of approval, but unless backed by my personal integrity and my steadfast belief in my ability to see it through, come whatever is required, of what worth is such a seal?
It is worth nothing. When snow is falling and the generator stops working and there is no communication with the outside world short of 15 mile drive, no diploma is gonna bail me out. And no government agency or local utility either. I’m on my own. Left to my own wits, my own, perhaps previously untapped capacities. Capacities I must be willing and ready to tap. And fearlessly so.
This was RWE’s most important point.
What society authorizes you to do is one thing. Societal authorization creates a feedback mechanism which, today, I would call co-dependence. (RWE might call it conformance.) In society, you can only do what you do if you’re authorized a priori from an external authority. Such authority must continue to support you in what you do in order for you to continue to believe you are worthy and capable of doing it.
What you can do by pushing yourself to find out if you, indeed, can do it (regardless what all those outside authorities might say) creates a different sort of feedback loop.
I really don’t think RWE would mind if I call it Self Reliance.