“We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal and then leap in the dark to our success.” – Henry David Thoreau
Mid-January always sends me into a small, nostalgic reverie, which is perhaps unusual for someone who lives where January is consistently cold, damp, dark and gray. The story starts eight years ago, when I took a trip that changed my life.
When I was in college, I wanted desperately to go to Europe and study abroad. Then came a choice: study abroad or transfer colleges to be with Arthur. By that time, Arthur and I were engaged and had been in a long distance relationship for almost three years. There was an unspoken knowledge on both of our parts that the relationship was becoming strained, and deep down, I knew going to Europe for months at a time would most likely break that fragile bond. The cracks were fine, still easy to mend, but appearing more and more each day as both of us lived disconnected lives in divergent spheres. I could go to Europe or I could be with Arthur, but I could not do both.
Arthur, to his credit, never pressed me to make a decision one way or the other. He promised that we would make it work if I went to Europe. He said he would wait for me. I didn’t doubt his sincerity, and I knew he’d be faithful to me no matter what. What I knew was that if I left, I would change. I feared that those changes might be too deep or too great for our relationship to overcome, that they would break those fine fault lines into chasms we could not mend. So I made a choice, knowing that it would be life-changing and irrevocable, knowing that no matter what I chose it would mean giving up something I wanted very badly.
I chose Arthur.
That’s how I came to take a trip to Maine and Massachusetts for three weeks during the freezing January interim term my college offered. When I signed up for it, my attitude was very much that this trip was a second-best, a plan B. I had some deep regrets and insecurities about my choices. I couldn’t go for my grand tour of Europe, but I wanted to do some sort of travel, and this was within the budget. Some friends had told me how great the professors who taught it were. It was a physical and literary tour of the great philosophers/authors based around Concord and Boston: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Dickinson, just to name a few. For an English major, it was ideal, so I signed up.
Going turned out as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It seems the transcendentalists and their writings speak well to the introverted, introspective, bookish, stubborn, outsider, solitary personality that comprises the majority of who I am. The highlights are too numerous to list without pages and pages of space, but there were a few pivotal moments that every January, and even at other times when I’m feeling vulnerable or stressed come flooding back to me, calming me, comforting me. For just a few moments, I exist in that space before making myself rejoin the real world, and it is a good place to be.
One afternoon, seeking some solitude (introvert sharing a suite with six other girls is not a sustainable situation without periodic breaks), I wandered off and found myself walking around Walden Pond, back to the site of Thoreau’s cabin. Pulling a book out of my bag, I read aloud Thoreau’s immortal words: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Standing there in the gathering darkness, alone, in the quiet, snowy woods, it was a spiritual experience. Transcendent. It was as though something that had been out of place for a long time slipped back in, some wound healed. The worry about whether or not I’d made the right choice to give up Europe as I’d imagined it lessened, leaving only a scar that, in the next years, would ache occasionally but nothing like the open gash of anxiety I’d felt at the time. I was, like Thoreau, going forward deliberately. I would not come to die and realize I’d spent my whole life second-guessing, mourning plan A while ignoring the beauty of plan B, only to have my life slip away wasted.
Today, I often run in the woods near my house in January when it is cold, dark, and dreary. Often I stop along the trail, breathe in the freezing air, and let my running shoes seep in the damp from the snow. I think of Thoreau and renew my pledge yet again to live deliberately. I give myself the gift of being silent and still, leaving my tumultuous thoughts and worries at the entrance to the trail. When I finally leave the woods, it is with a different step, renewal. Today, it’s with a different set of Thoreau’s great words ringing in my ears, applicable to my life now: “However mean your life is, meet it and live it.”