Illegal Swimming in Walden Pond

Chapter 7, Part 2

After going Back to Walden, I now have much keener insight into the gutsy friends around me who have met their own challenges to arrive at the ultimate meaning in their lives. I begin to recognize the people who have discovered true purpose, not by worshipping the false gods of ego, but by bowing to their own infallible intuition, ideals, and talent.

Walden Pond at Sunset

Let's all do a little illegal swimming in Walden Pond

These folks have all gone Back to Walden in their own way. As Jonathan Levin wrote: “In Walden, Thoreau is clear…about the location of meaning and value. He is saying that it does not reside in the natural facts or in social institutions or in anything ‘out there,’ but in consciousness. It is a product of imaginative perception, of the analogy-perceiving, metaphor-making, mytho-poetic power of the human mind.”

Speaking of which, one of my charming friends, Bree Carlson, an environmental engineer who founded the campus chapter of Engineers Without Borders at UMass Amherst and is about to go on an eight-month leave of absence from her job to hike the Appalachian Trail, wrote this “analogy-perceiving, metaphor-making, mytho-poetic” message to me during the summer of 2010:

“I spent last night at Walden Pond doing a little illegal swimming. Thoreau would be proud of me!”

I like to think that all my cherished friends, as described in the sections below, spend their lives doing a little illegal swimming in Walden Pond.

One of these Transcendental swimmers is my wonder-bending friend Diane Wald, the best example I know of Thoreau’s “mytho-poetic power of the human mind” (though she would probably gag at that academic phrase). As a “poet” in every sense of this word, Diane reduces language to its bare bones, rather than fleshing it out into academic flabbiness. Her medium is poetic over-soul, not bookish overstatement.

Diane lives with her husband, novelist Carey Reid, in a house full of mercurial cats that move from room to room like tiny unpredictable weather fronts, butting into each other and creating an atmosphere of constant climate change. Mark Twain would have been greatly amused by the New England feel of the place. If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.

Diane is also the best poet nobody ever heard of. That statement, of course, is an exaggeration, because Diane is well-respected and admired among poets. But there’s an unfortunate truism during the current Age of Distraction, in which the principal tool of self-awareness is the smart phone: Nobody reads poetry anymore except other poets.

Diane is a poet’s poet. She writes witty, surprising, well-crafted, profound verse that leaps off the page and slaps you in the face. What’s even more remarkable, her poetry is she, and she her poetry. As she once wrote to me, “I hope my readers are interested in my poetry because they’re interested in me.” There’s no gap between the writer and the written.

As one of her former poetry professors once said, “Don’t hear the bell. Be the bell.”

Diane Wald and friend

In February of 2011, Diane published her third book of poems, Wonderbender, following up on two earlier masterpieces: Lucid Suitcase and The Yellow Hotel. Here’s a tidy, delicious slice of life from The Yellow Hotel:

“It occurs to me that there are two ways to poetry, not two ways of poetry though that may also be. Two ways vital, two and a lot of others. The deep internal personal and – the sustaining. When these two come together there is yes for me yes for you, always yes you feel it. It occurs to me that the sustaining can be learned or absorbed by great desiration (desiring), and that the deep internal personal must be released. Before it.”

It occurs to me that Diane has made the deep internal personal and the sustaining come together through three interlocking purposes, in which the yearnings of her soul combine great desiration and deep internal personal release. One purpose is her poetry, of course.

Another is her love of animals. She pours much of her passion into her job of almost 10 years, working for an animal welfare organization in Boston. Going above and beyond the call of duty in her job, she annually sends out an impassioned plea to all her friends, asking them to support her own personal CATS FOR PEACE! march in an annual “walk” fundraiser, thus campaigning for pacifism and saving countless abandoned pets in the bargain.

Her third interlocking purpose is undying support for her friends who are writers, including me. Here, for instance, is part of an email she sent me after reading my first post on backtowalden.com during the summer of 2010: “WOW. i’ve just spent a most enjoyable and enlightening 30 minutes racing through what’s on your website — that is to say it begs for a closer reading, but it was too much fun to savor the first time around (does that make sense?). it’s brilliant!  it’s just such a fucking good read, first of all. and then of course it’s all so wise. i love it.”

If I had a cover, virtual or otherwise, I’d stick Diane’s remarks on it. As it is, Diane has a lasting place on the cover of my life. The above email message, in fact, is only one of many from Diane. She is perpetually encouraging. How can you not love a friend who is so accomplished in her own right, so dedicated to her own causes, and yet so devoted to her own friends? Diane’s life is a fine case of purpose over ego, mind over matter, cause over affect. Her meaning in life is both selfless and self-perpetuating. She went Back to Walden before Back to Walden ever went Back to Walden.

It’s no accident she’s married to Carey Reid, author of a haunting 1994 novel entitled Swimming in the Starry River, about an enchanting little girl, suffering from a terminal and deforming disease, and the gritty parents who must cope with it. The suspension of disbelief is so potent while reading this book that Carey often meets fans who mistakenly assume that he actually is the father from Swimming in the Starry River, and he really raised the deformed little girl in the story.

“Few novels appeal so directly to the human spirit,” raved one reviewer. “Simply lovely, a treasure, a shining star,” wrote another.

So is Carey, himself, lovely, a treasure, a shining star. He has found his own purpose in much more than the lilting prose and poetry he has written over the years. Carey is a Staff Development Specialist for World Education, which provides training and technical assistance in literacy education, among other subjects, around the world. His job is to train teachers of adult basic education. As such, he’s a passionate advocate for all the refugees around us who must face the most debilitating prejudice of all: language and reading handicaps in a land where these skills are absolutely critical for simple, everyday survival.

I am truly blessed to have two such Thoreau-ly inspiring friends as Diane and Carey. In my next section of Back to Walden, I’ll focus on yet another couple paddling around, both purposefully and quite illegally, in Walden Pond, much to the delight, I’m sure, of its most famous squatter.