Leaving The Woods

Autumn at the classroom window
Autumn at the classroom window

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand… Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Wednesday, the rain pours on the suddenly brilliant Black Forest as my students begin, in high-school voices hesitant about 19th-century prose, to read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Nine years into this teaching adventure, there is still almost nothing I love more than hearing familiar words read by the well-loved voices of my students. Each year around this time, we stumble into the Transcendentalists, hurtling out of the end-of-quarter busyness marked by The Scarlet Letter, final dress rehearsals for the school play, and fall sports tournaments that this year took our students to northern Germany and northern Italy. We are tired.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” they read, pausing charmingly over the five syllables of deliberately, pronouncing it with the care due its meaning. “And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…”

The forest, dying in a blaze of color, calls to me as I sit at my desk, listening to my students. It would take very little persuasion today for me to hole up in a cabin by a pond, spending my days watching ants and the ripples on the surface of the water, charting the change of seasons and their effect on my soul. If I’m honest, Thoreau’s life is more tempting to me than any living celebrity, than the educated affluence of Bill Gates, the  happy-go-lucky fame of Taylor Swift or the powerful potential of a political figure. I’d rather be Thoreau than any of them.

“If I told you that you could abandon school, and gave you a cabin with food to live in, how many of you would do this?” I ask my students. Half a dozen hands go up.

“Is there wi-fi?” someone asks.

“No, no wi-fi. You only get what Thoreau had. Books, paper, pen, food. That’s it.”

They think about it, and keep their hands raised.

We long for simplicity, the one or two affairs that Thoreau wrote of. We think of the cabin by the lake, the unburdening of responsibility, as a glorious freedom. How happy we’d be to just get away. How often have we said it, thought it?

John Green, a young adult author beloved by my students and me, once said that “Truth resists simplicity.” I agree, and then some. Community, relationship, responsibility, calling–much of life resists simplicity. If we’re engaged in this journey with other travelers, it’s inevitable that every turn will greet us with complexity.

Both my virtual and literal desks this week are emblems of my complexity. There are blueprints for the Christmas Banquet, drawings of centerpieces and stage design that will come to three-dimensional life in the next two weeks. There are lesson plans and handouts, waiting to be printed and executed. Shopping lists and dinner plans lurk somewhere, waiting for a shopping trip. An ever-growing list of students to recommend for college demands my attention. Somewhere in the corner there’s a number, signaling the number of words I should have written by the end of today for the novel I’m trying to write this month, both as a personal challenge and point of connection with one of my new students who is undertaking the same task. Complexity.

The desk itself represents only the inanimate entities desiring my attention, giving no picture of the living, breathing people who walk in several times a day, or the commitments that keep me traveling the school from first bell to last. Living in relationship, whether work or family or church bodies, will always be complex.

And yet, at the root of it we’re still called to simplicity. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus asks us. First. Rooted in this simple longing for Christ, we can reach far into the details of life. Without the roots, we’ll be torn apart by the winds around us, tossed by every new task and person we meet. Without the roots, the complexity will force us to the woods.

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there,” Thoreau wrote, my students read. “Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

Even Thoreau left the woods. And while we can and must withdraw into solitude sometimes, spending time reconnecting to our rootedness in the love of Christ, we can’t stay in the woods forever. Resisting the simplicity of isolation, we’re called to community, to the beautiful, tricky complexity of knowing and serving one another in the body of Christ.

Juniors read Thoreau on a crisp November day.
Juniors read Thoreau on a crisp November day.

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