Monday, May 3, 2010

A point d'appui

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe....through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake.

An English literature professor named Bob Davis introduced me to Thoreau and to this, his favorite passage from Walden.

Bob's class was at 3 o'clock in a third story room in the corner of the humanities building. Even in the air conditioning, it got too warm in there in the afternoons. Dr. Davis sat on a stool in front of a bunch of overheated, lethargic college students. They gazed out the windows at kids drinking beer from Nalgene bottles and playing frisbee golf, counting down the seconds until they could join them.

In this group of Gap kids, I stood out like a sore thumb in the scrubs I wore to class because, right after, I had to go to be a nurse's aide until midnight. I dug at the wedding ring that cut into my swollen finger on hot days like this. I added a few things to a grocery list I had started in the corner of my planner...paper towels, ground beef, Tide.

Then, he read Thoreau. And suddenly, I was swallowing hard to keep from crying all over my scrub top.

Thoreau was like a gift. I felt like I must have been incredibly hard to buy for. Nothing else I had--the job, the ring, the grocery list--really fit. But then, Bob Davis read from Walden, and it was exactly right.

At the end of the passage, he laughed a little and said, "In a couple months, I'm going to give all of you a final exam. You're going to write for me for a few hours. At the end of that, I've always sort of hoped someone would throw it at me and say, 'This is, and no mistake.'"

A few months later, he gave us a final exam. I wrote for him for three hours. At the end of it, satisfied with every last word, I laid it on the desk in front of him, looked him in the eyes, sat my finger on the page, and said, "This is, and no mistake."

Then, I straightened my scrubs and went to work until midnight.

It took me a few years to find the hard bottom and rocks in place. I still lose it from time to time. But then, there is the gift--the voice of Thoreau reminding me to settle myself, and work and wedge my feet...


Eric said...

Very nice, thanks for sharing it, T.

Terroni said...

As always, thanks for reading it, Eric.

Susanlee said...

Excellent writing today, T.

Tim Koppenhaver said...

What a great story. Thoreau Rocks.

MmeBenaut said...

I'd love to read what you wrote for that exam and I love the air of confidence when you looked your professor in the eye and quoted back at him. Well-educated attitude can be rather attractive :)