Finally, I understand why Thoreau was such a contented man in his little cabin at Walden Pond. He had made himself safe from the deadly scourge of a virus attack.
I do wonder how Henry David would handle COVID-19 and the resulting social distancing and near-mandatory self-quarantining.
Would he still be delighted in the hypnotic tap dancing of a rainstorm, the skittering of woodland creatures in the night, the soft moan of wind in the trees?
Or would he be binge-watching cable news when he wasn’t reading old emails, trading insults on Twitter, Skype-chatting with Aunt Edna in Cincinnati, desperately scouring his Facebook feed for the latest celebrity gossip and ordering delivery pizza just to have someone to say, “Hi, how’s it going?”
I ask because there is a difference, I think, between isolation as a voluntary experiment and isolation as an official edict, seclusion that is chosen and seclusion that is imposed. It is the difference between being Superman in the Fortress of Solitude and Sir Walter Raleigh in the Tower of London.
A couple of experts will back me up.
One is my sister, who had looked forward to reveling in slothful retirement, sleeping in and never again having to make a list of work-related chores. Now, she feels trapped and confined because she can’t go out to lunch with her girlfriends, a principal diversion for her.
“I never did get used to going to the popular spots like downtown,” she told me on the phone, from a safe distance in another city. “There was never any place to park.”
“Bet there would be now, though,” I told her.
“Sure, but there’s nothing to do there now.”
“Boy, there’s just no pleasing you.”
The other expert is me. I have lived alone since my divorce and haven’t really minded because, frankly, I’m pretty good company. I don’t get mad if I never pick up after myself, and I don’t nag me about getting a haircut, leaving the toilet seat up or drinking straight out of the milk carton.
But lately, I’m getting just a little tired of myself. My taste in music could stand improving, I never tell any new jokes and, no matter how hard I squint into the mirror, I don’t get any better looking. I’d give myself a good talking to, but I know I wouldn’t listen.
I need my office spouse back, the one human connection I most regret losing when I retired. (I used to say “office wife,” but that was before inclusiveness and sensitivity swept through the workplace. For all I know, the correct term these days is office significant other or office life companion.)
The office spouse, for those not familiar with the corporate environment, is the one person at work you can always be yourself with and not fear reprisal or rejection. You can say anything, no matter how politically incorrect, blasphemous or just plain stupid, and not be judged for it, and that person knows she has the same freedom with you.
It makes the most hostile work environment a little more tolerable. And, because the whining and griping tend to cover a range of non-office topics, the sense of well-being created by the exchanges carries over far beyond the 40-hour work week.
So, it would be lovely if my former office spouse would stop by for a few minutes, staying well back from the front door of course, just long enough to listen to me rant and rave a little. I wouldn’t even mind if she felt like nagging me a bit.
Thoreau needed an office spouse. (He was a writer, correct? So, the Walden Pond cabin was his office.) It might have made him a little more tolerant of the limitations of social intercourse and the communication shortcomings of his fellow human beings.
Contrary to popular belief, Thoreau was not trying to escape all human contact, merely those encounters he deemed too superficial to be enriching.
He complained that society is “commonly too cheap” and lamented that people “meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that musty old cheese that we are . . . We meet at the post office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications.”
Take that, you thick, musty louts who thought it might be the civilized thing to do to say a few polite words to a friendly fellow.
Thoreau did enjoy companionship with visitors to Walden Pond, two in particular, with whom he spent long winter evenings “when the snow falls fast and the winds howl in the woods.”
One was an old settler, “a most wise and humorous friend” who told him “stories of old time and new eternity; and between us we manage to pass a cheerful evening and pleasant view of things.” The other was an “elderly dame” whose memory “runs back farther than mythology, and she can tell me the original of every fable, and on what fact every one is founded . . . A ruddy and lusty old dame who delights in all weathers and seasons.”
There you have it. Two old coots who didn’t burden Thoreau with that “more frequency” thing. Thanks for amusing me, you can go now.
Something else that’s not commonly known about Thoreau. That brave stand he took about willing to be imprisoned for not paying his taxes to protest slavery? The one that led to the famous essay on civil disobedience?
He spent only one night in jail — one stinking night.
He was bailed out. Anonymously. But probably by a relative. One who didn’t hang around to chit-chat, just in case misanthropy should be a communicable disease.
Leo Morris is columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].