Author Archives: Paula

About Paula

I am a brilliant writer with the thoughts of a genius, the habits of a sloth, and the perseverance of an ant.

The Genuine Article (Inspiration series, No. 25)

Once she’s in your life, Kim is the kind of friend you wonder how you ever did without.


Maybe it’s a sign of getting older, but I find myself thinking more and more about the people in my life and how they got there – whether it’s a childhood friend or someone met more recently, all of our lives are filled with these stories of connections. They make great tales in group settings and long after the original meeting, we can turn back to them to reaffirm our loyalty.

I don’t remember exactly when Kim Roots and I first started working together. But there wasn’t a doubt that she brought a lightheartedness (along with wicked writing skills) and good nature to an office always on deadline. No matter how hectic her schedule or what she was called on to do, she seemed to handle each assignment with grace and good humor.

For me, for all kinds of reasons, it was a weird time. Not sure I was in the right place, increasingly stressed about other stuffing my life, it sometimes felt like a challenge just getting to the end of each workday. Doubts I had about my abilities seemed to be contagious, and from above came increasingly frequent feedback that – well, let’s just say it wasn’t anything to write home about.

Things came to a head on a Friday morning, when a mistake turned into a public dressing-down that my frazzled self couldn’t handle. As soon as it was over, I fast-walked out of the room and down into the stairwell, sobbing. I don’t remember a whole lot about the next hour or so; I do recall clearly the first person who come to see if I was okay. 

Kim. She stayed long enough for me to pull myself together; her calm, reassuring voice helped me down off the proverbial ledge and was about the only thing that kept me from tossing my entire sense of self-worth in the dumpster outside. She may not have realized it at the time, but we were bonded after that.

I think there’s some kind of mythical thing, where, when you save someone’s life, you’re responsible for them. While I didn’t hold her to that fantasy obligation, I was smart enough to hold on to Kim, even after leaving the company the next week, when I decided there was just no turning back. And over the subsequent decade (which is a reminder that time freaking flies), I’ve come to realize how much there is to admire about this most special person.

For her first major act of kindness to me – critical as it was – is but one example of the way she lives her life. Kim is one of those people who not only supports everyone around her, she serves as a role model for living one’s best life. 

She is a doer. From yoga to spin cycling to traveling cross-country for work, it’s hard to imagine exactly when she sleeps. And as if having a family (including daughter Grace, who doesn’t even yet know how lucky she is) and hectic job isn’t enough…

The. Woman. Does. Triathlons.

I thought it was incredible when she ran the NYC marathon a few years back And then, there was Kim on Facebook just this month, holding Grace and smiling before setting off to run/bike/swim (in the Hudson!). I am no athlete, but I know that these things don’t happen in a vacuum. So while she was being Mommy, rushing around to interview TV stars, and surely holding a half-dozen more roles, she found the time to train for something most of us wouldn’t ever consider.

I’ve alluded to her career already. She’s gone from covering soap operas to hanging out with the casts of major series. Whether she’s one-on-one with an actor, hosting a show panel at a conference, or goofing around in a group shot, there’s one constant theme. Kim always looks happy.

And not the “I see the camera” kind of happy where everyone has that practiced smile ready. It’s genuine, and she emanates a “how did I get this lucky?” air that makes you cheer for her rather than be jealous. 

Kim brings people together. At her wedding, I got to reconnect with people who I didn’t have much chance to say goodbye to after my abrupt job departure. I even made new friends, including one who I adventured home with in the pouring rain, laughing and once again grateful for my Kim connection. 

It’s not just me. From her social media you quickly get the sense that she is spreading her unique brand of positivity – which embodies sweetness and sincerity that never feels false or exaggerated – across a whole lot of circles. Kim’s got her work crew, her family crew, her exercise crews (multiple) – you won’t be surprised that among her myriad activities she also regularly does charity events, pulling in her “Haul Buns” teams to make them all that much more fun. 

The other part of her personality, nearly as inspiring as her commitment and stamina, is this mixture of confidence and humility that is utterly charming. I believe Kim’s proud of all she’s accomplished, but she retains a wonderment about it all that is infectious. She’s far more prone to self-deprecation than self-promotion, and  quick to note those who’ve helped her achieve her various victories. She is as genuine as people come, the embodiment of what people mean when they say someone is “down to earth.”

I sound like a total fan girl, I know. And I apologize in advance to Kim, who will never see this coming and would never ask for the attention of even my small blog. But the admiration is real, and so is my gratitude. 

With all of the people who move in and out of our lives, it is easy to stop seeing each one for their unique gifts and talents. We all need people in our lives who not only remind us of the goodness around us, but of the goodness within us. When I spend time with Kim, I come away feeling better about nearly everything. She makes possibilities seem probable and challenges downright exciting.

Everyone should have a Kimberly Roots in their life. I’m really glad I’ve got the original.


  


Man of the People (Inspiration Series, week 25)

Jimmy Carter’s energy and commitment to his fellow man have only gotten stronger over the course of his 92 years


I’ve been slacking – big time. Old habits have been kicking at the door and, without thinking, I opened it. Thus a spate of weeks with no Inspirer and, as is always the case, lost momentum that makes getting back into gear like restarting a diet. 

But I committed, and if I must now play a bit of catch up, so be it. Surely the folks I’ve been chronicling would do no less. They conquered (some continue to) far more than simple laziness, and it is in their honor that I rededicate myself to this yearlong project.

Where better to regain traction than with a man who, after a humble start in life, made his way to the highest office in the world – and after he finished with it, went on to do even greater things? 

Born in 1924, James Earl Carter grew up modestly in Plains, and later, Archery, Georgia. He fulfilled his first dream in 1943 when he was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. It was while there that he would meet and fall in love with his sister’s friend, Rosalynn – they married shortly after he graduated in 1946. 

As a member of the Navy’s fledgling nuclear submarine program, he saw the devastating potential of atomic energy when he led the cleanup after a partial meltdown at Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories. It was an event that shaped his thinking and led him to cease development of a neutron bomb in the 1970s.

Carter began his political career in the early 1960s, as racial tensions in Georgia intensified after the Brown vs. the Board of Education anti-segregation ruling. He became a prominent member of the community and when a state Senate seat opened up on 1963, he ran, with Rosalynn providing sharp political instincts. Though fraudulent voting cost him the race initially, he challenged the results and won a new election. 

A few years later he would run for Governor, and lose. But he had learned to play politics well, positioning himself as a populist as ran against mainstream Democrats. And though he made a priority of civil rights – including an increase in appointments of African-Americans – there were other decisions made to keep conservative supporters happy that were decidedly not progressive ones. Carter reinstated the death penalty (which he later said he regretted), but also pushed education reforms aimed at helping poorer communities. 

He was a relative unknown when he ran for the 1976 Democratic nomination for President – but he beat his primary opponents and in November he beat Gerald Ford to become the 39th Commander in Chief. It was a difficult time economically for the U.S. and around the world, there was turmoil. Carter brought Israel and Egypt together to sign the Camp David Accords, then faced a horrific challenge when the Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy in Teheran – 52 Americans were held as hostages for 444 days, and not released until after Carter had lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan.

He returned to his peanut farm (which he had placed in a blind trust to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest) after the devastating defeat. It’s difficult to contemplate how one returns from such a loss; but like many of my Inspirers, it didn’t take long for his next mission to appear. 

For it is in his post-presidency, now the longest in history, where this ex-President took on causes and global challenges in a way that he never could as America’s chief executive. He established the Carter Center in 1982 to work on issues such as eradicating diseases across the world. The Center has also monitored elections and supported human rights defenders from Haiti and Bosnia to Ethiopia. In 2002 President Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work “to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development” through The Carter Center; he is unique in receiving the award for his actions after leaving the presidency.

Among all of President Carter’s good works, he is perhaps best known for his alliance with Habitat for Humanity.  He and Rosalynn worked on their first project in 1984 and according the the organization’s website:

“To date, President and Mrs. Carter have served with over 92,260 volunteers in 14 countries to build, renovate and repair 3,944 homes.”

As advocates and fundraisers, the couple has helped Habitat to become internationally recognized and their rallying of volunteers has been essential to its growth. Pictures abound of the former POTUS on job sites, not merely serving as a famous face but as a hands-on participant in building houses that change the lives of those who move into them. He has been part of constructions throughout the world, including across the United States (from New York City and Chicago to Memphis and Miami) and in the Philippines, South Africa, and Haiti – 33 years of giving families in need a foundation from which to grow and thrive.

Not one to court the press, President Carter did make news recently when, on his latest Habitat project, in Canada, he was taken to the hospital suffering from dehydration. It was rather amusing to see a few people criticize those who had “allowed” a 92 year-old man to be in that position – they obviously don’t know much about him and his determination. I know I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell him to take a break.

One of the reasons this particular post took awhile is that as I looked to mark Independence Day a few weeks back, the founding fathers confounded me. There is much greatness in them for sure, and gratitude for what they created. Still, their other great legacy – that of enslaving a group people who were turned into commodities, setting the stage for atrocities that still linger – reared its head every time I thought about how to frame them.

Jimmy Carter is by no means a perfect man – surely this is one of the first things he would say about himself. But at a time when there is ever more emphasis on big personalities, loud arguing, and seeking of attention, his steadfast commitment to those in need – and his use of his position to help them – is unparalleled, certainly for a former head of state. 

He speaks to those of us who wonder about our purpose and whether it’s in our power to make a difference. Whether one shot of greatness is all each of us gets, or if it’s possible that beyond what seems to be the pinnacle of success, there is much more to give, and to gain. 

I say “I’m tired” a lot. After I’ve walked a few miles, or sat in front of the computer for too many hours, I complain (sometimes silently, sometimes not) about aching legs or eyes, about how there’s not enough time in the day for me to get all of the things done I say are important. 

Perhaps the next time I am tempted to that frame of mind, I’ll be smart enough to pull up this post and remind myself of the nonagenarian who, after a full lifetime of service, continues to give his all, each and every day. 


The Truth Seeker (Inspiration series, week 24)

Tim Russert wasn’t there to make friends – He was there to get to the bottom of the issues.


History demands truth tellers. For as much as we humans may aspire to be and do good, there is a millenium’s worth of examples of our never-ending capacity to do quite the opposite. And so, throughout time, we have relied on a relatively few souls to dig beyond what is being said to what is actual and true. In a world where communicating information can be done by anyone, our trust is tested on a daily basis.

And so, to honor my chosen profession (despite not being an active practitioner myself), I selected for this week a man who made his name not just for great reporting an punditry, but for his commitment to the truth. 

I’ve heard more than one person on TV lament the loss of Tim Russert. As voices clamor for bigger audiences and layers upon layers of information cloud the facts, it is difficult not to wonder who he would be talking to and what he might be able to unravel. 

Born in 1950 in Buffalo, NY, Russert brought a clear-eyed, practical approach to news and politics, perhaps a natural response to a sturdy, blue-collar upbringing. After graduating from law school he worked as chief of staff to Senator Daniel Moynihan and chief counsel to Governor Mario Cuomo. In 1983 he made the switch to broadcasting – by 1989 he was NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief and two years later, talked to host Meet the Press. 

It was there that Russert truly made his mark,  as he took the show from a half-hour to an hour. He also injected greater depth, as seen though longer and well-researched interviews with high-profile political players. There were no easy questions when one faced Tim Russert. Just clear ones, with the expectation that the answer would be as clear. If not it was sure to be challenged.

In 2000, he confronted Senate candidate Hillary Clinton on her 1998 responses to questions about her husband’s behavior in the White House, calling them out as “misleading.” (Clinton said she didn’t know they were true when she said it). 

Four years later he challenged George W. Bush for saying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and they were the reason for invading that country. And in 2008 it was Russert’s questioning that led to Barack Obama’s rejection of Reverend Jeremiah Wright in 2008.

There were plenty of “gotcha” moments on his Meet the Press. But that was the thing. They really weren’t, not in the sense that they were unfair or in any way inaccurate. They were simply a clear sign of a journalist who’d done his homework and would not be daunted by the title, history, or reputation of any guest. And he wasn’t shy about his intentions to cut through the talking points – no one could say they didn’t know what to expect. 

When he died suddenly in June of 2008, it was as though an actual light had been turned out. This voice, this mind, who had gone after the truth for 16 years on Sunday mornings, would no longer be there to get the answers the public sought. The outpouring, from colleagues and subjects (even the adversarial ones) told the story:

CBS News “Early Show” Co-Anchor Harry Smith: ” Man,  did Tim Russert love politics. He ate it, lived it and breathed it. His knowledge of it was organic, internal and genetic. It showed in his every broadcast, in his every debate appearance. He was not afraid, nor was he intimidated. And because he was so good at what he did, we were the beneficiaries. He was in that chair for us, and we were damned lucky he was.”

House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio: “He was one of the smartest, toughest television news journalists of all time. And he was an astute student of American politics. I can say from experience that joining Tim on Meet the Press was one of the greatest tests any public official could face. Regardless of party affiliation, he demanded that you be straight with him – and with the American people who were watching.”

Nine years later, in a world where truth feels malleable and integrity can seem rare, Russert’s presence is more missed than ever. Listening to the chatter — and the obfuscation — it is hard not to imagine people sitting opposite Tim on set and trying to get past him with spin. Would he yell, I wonder? Or laugh at the absurdity? How would he get to the truth?

Part of my decision to steer away from hard journalism. I think, was knowing that professionals like Russert had it covered. They set a high, high standard for the rest of us. Whether interviewing the President of United States or a local official, those at the top of the field are both experts and students, constantly learning so that no subject could get past them with a sly response or non-answer.

Though he was not here nearly long enough, Russert’s left a legacy that we can still look to – we can demand more of our leaders, and of our journalists. They are often the public’s most visible ally in the quest for facts. 

As citizens, it is all too easy to leave governance to those who choose it as a career; questioning takes time and requires us to be engaged even when it’s not convenient or comfortable. But if we are to preserve our democracy, and this republic that has been handed down over 240 years, we must be willing to stand up and demand more. To ask the hard questions, fact-check the answers, insist on integrity both in action and word from those elected to lead us. 

It’s true we don’t always have direct access to them ourselves, and so we will always need to rely on people we trust to help us keep our representatives accountable. And so today, in addition to remembering Tim Russert, I thank all the journalists who forego the niceties to hold the feet of politicians to the fire when it matters most. They are invaluable and the best are irreplaceable. 


My Dad, the Artist (Inspiration series, Week 23)

Dad on his wedding day, June, 1962

My father never really fit the traditional American father mold – probably because he wasn’t American by birth at all. He was Swiss, and retained a certain European-ness, in his tastes, his speech, his clothes – he loved football but would never have been seen in a jersey (I don’t recall him ever wearing a t-shirt).  He was even cool when smoking – he preferred Benson & Hedges, the brand from London. He had monogrammed shirts and loved James Bond. To be fair, he did also have a fondness for Jack Nicklaus and John Wayne.

What set Dad apart, other than his clothes and his accent, was his creativity. Though he earned his salary in marine insurance, he had an artist living inside him, one who came out often, around the holidays, on birthdays, and even on vacation.

He was famous for his Christmas cards, which were made by hand each year. From a pen and ink rendering of our Teaneck home to linoleum block prints featuring Christmas trees and wreaths, a Roland Rueger original was something to treasure. Many people kept them all and continued to display them year after year.

His handwriting added to the beauty of the things he made. One year, when a dollhouse from Santa to my sister and me would be late, Dad penned a letter from him to let us know. It was impeccable and left no doubt in my mind that it was, indeed from the North Pole.

When a good friend and neighbor turned 40 in 1976, Dad wrote a poem for him that was silly and slightly bawdy. The family has it to this day.

Knowing his love of jigsaw puzzles, that same family presented him with an all red one as a joke. I’m not sure how long it took him, but he finished it – then promptly turned it into art, scrawling graffiti and having it framed, then returning it to the gifters.

Dad’s art came out on my birthday, too. He would take fingerprints of each partygoer and under his pen they became animals – fluffy rabbits, a duck – that he would carefully place in a little wooden circle frame. I still have one of mine.

There was perhaps no better outlet for his talent than the beach, where we’d spend two weeks every summer. Dad could only get time off for one, and by the second morning was usually on the sand before most of us were up.

He made us race cars, big enough to sit in and good for hours of fun, especially when the waves were too big or I just didn’t want to get wet. The details, from the wheels to the lights and dashboard, were stunning.

The highlight of vacation, though, was the sandcastle. Dad would haul out his equipment – buckets, shovels, and all of the little carving and shaping tools – and get to work. He was at once serious and light, totally focused and yet peaceful, in a state of calm. Back and forth he’d go to the ocean to fill a pail with water, stopping only for lunch and perhaps a quick swim.

Crowds would gather as they realized this was to be no ordinary structure. Kids would get too close and I’d want to warn them off. The pride was overwhelming. This was my dad building, doing something that was so obviously better than anything around.

The castles came complete with moats, bridges, windows, and towers. They were huge, at least in my memory – big enough to imagine myself in as the princess. I don’t have tons of memories from childhood, but I can picture Dad walking around his creation, sculpting staircases and trees with the wet sand he’d let drip though his hands. It was magical.

Watching him draw was too. He’d sit at the dining room table, instruments in hand, and it was like another person emerged. One day when I was about 12, I found a big red book of Dad’s – the “Famous Artist’s Course,” a correspondence class that taught the basics and then some. It was a sign to me that though art may have been a hobby for Dad, it was also very real and deserved a commitment. Over the years I’ve worked through bits of it. Perhaps that will be my next project.

The circumstances of life meant that time with my father- especially as an adult – was limited, and there are days when the unsaid words and experiences hang heavy in the air. If I could do it again I would open up more, share more, and for sure, get him to talk more about the art he made and what it meant to him. Though I can’t do that, I can remember the very real artistry that ran through his veins and thus, through mine. I can work to fulfill my own creative dreams, in honor of the man never let go of his.

I believe that art – whether done as a painter, a singer, an architect, or a landscaper – runs deep in the genetics of humans. The desire to express ourselves is always present, and we each seek our best and most natural path to do just that. It is one of the most indelible marks of a life well lived. I am forever grateful for a role model whose artistry left a huge impression on me and spurs me to nurture my own.

I miss you, Dad, today and always.


The Unexpected Hero (Inspiration series, Week 22)

Just two weeks after a terrorist attack killed 22 of her fans, Ariana Grande took the stage for all of them.


If someone had told me that I’d be celebrating a 24-year old pop star for this series, I’d have laughed. I knew who she was, having watched her in Victorius and then Sam & Cat with my niece. Cat was goofy, often daft, but always sweet. But I wasn’t going to start listening to her music. 

I went on with my suburban life while Ariana went on tour, building a legion of young fans. And then, after what I’m  sure was like any other wildly successful concert, a terrorist blew himself up outside the arena, taking 22 lives and injuring more than a hundred. Fans – many 16 and under – scrambled and shrieked as they (mostly) escaped. Not old enough to drive, they were made the target of madmen seeking to wreak havoc and destroy whatever they could. Victims included young women and men, parents, and a police officer.

One can never truly know how they’d respond. But I can see myself taking a month – or 3 – to recover from a trauma like that, if for nothing else than fear that someone would try again. Ariana chose a different path. She visited with victims, expressed her horror, and then, two weeks later, despite yet another attack in London, took to the stage once more, this time with an even bigger purpose.

The concert she organized had a name – “One Love Manchester” – and it resonated throughout the show. More than once she looked like she might not make it through, but she held her head high and sang with the kind of emotion that reached far beyond her target demo.  She brought in a high-energy team of pop stars, from Pharrell and Katy Perry to Niall Horan and The Black-eyed Peas. Oh, and Justin Bieber, who I’d previously thought of mostly as an example of not handling fame very well.

He made me cry. 

Ariana was more than the concert organizer. She was the lynchpin of the event, joining friends on stage, talking about the need for peace, and serving as a beautiful example of what humans can be – a poignant counterpoint to the disregard for life that had brought her there. Standing with her arm around the young and tearful lead singer from Manchester’s Paris Wood High School choir, she took on the role, as comforter, that she surely hadn’t expected. 

I remember another concert, decades ago, that brought together the biggest stars alive to raise awareness and money for AIDS. I watched hours of coverage and marveled at the effort. The passion left a similar impression. To me, the timeframe, her age, and the personal trauma make Ariana Grande’s amazing act of kindness perhaps even more remarkable. 

By the time the first few bars of her last song played, I was in tears. Few songs are as wistful, hopeful, and sorrowful all at once as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She performed it as though directly to those who had lost their lives, and as a message of healing to those they left behind. 

In a time of uncertainty, when radicalism and hate can reach across the world, powerlessness can seem like the prevailing (and permanent) state of being. But as long as we have artists who will stand up and declare our resistance to the messages of hate, we retain our humanity. As Grande told the crowd:

“I think the kind of love and unity you are displaying is the medicine the world needs right now. So thank you for being just that.”



Lasting Lessons (Inspiration Series, Week 21)

With the voice of a grandfather, the smile of our favorite teacher, and the calm of a Buddhist monk, Fred Rogers brought an air of quiet kindness with him every time he opened the door of that little yellow house. Singing as he changed his suit jacket for a sweater (all knitted by his mother), his shoes for sneakers, he’d ask us to be his neighbor and we knew that, for at least the next half hour, we were in good hands. 

He entered show business in 1951, when he decided he didn’t want to pursue the path he’d started toward seminary. After experiencing the advent of television, and recognizing its potential (good and bad), he switched directions, getting a job at NBC as a writer for several musical shows. 

When it became apparent that his desire to educate and enrich young audiences wouldn’t come on commercial TV, he moved to public station WQED in Pittsburgh. Rogers worked as a puppeteer for a local children’s show and it was here that he developed the memorable characters who would inhabit his own Neighborhood of Make Believe.

Fast forward through a move to Toronto and the first version of his show, and by 1966 Fred was back in Pittsburgh. Three years later, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood would debut

It was not the place to be if one wanted bells and whistles. There were no smart-alecky characters or crazy songs to catch your attention. Mr. Roger’s voice was warm and never, ever loud. He would go about his little home talking as if you were in the room, sharing his thoughts and letting you in on  the lesson for the day. 

Whether it was  dealing with anger, starting school, or visiting a crayon factory, he served as a personal guide, all the while tapping into your imagination and sometimes even your fears and anxieties. Regardless of subject, he remained fiercely committed to authenticity. He wasn’t acting when he spoke, and he wanted his audience to know it:

“One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”

I don’t remember if I watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood when I was little – I’m guessing I probably did, it was the perfect speed for a quiet kid who valued consistency over excitement. I have the vaguest memory of being scared by lady Elaine, who had a red nose and cheeks (rosacea?) and an odd voice, which I didn’t realize was Roger’s. But it wasn’t really until I was an adult that I could appreciate how the show was such a perfect reflection of the man.

He was just – kind. It was baked in and readily visible whether he was doing a 4 1/2-hour interview for the Archive of American Television or accepting a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award, when he encouraged the audience to take 10 seconds to think about someone who had helped them succeed. It was something to watch that room fall silent – afterwards, Rogers said a few more words of thanks before heading off stage.

For the children who counted on him – relied upon his showing up each day to impart a bit of wisdom, he was like the warmest blanket. For he went beyond the “easy” topics to tackle big ones, like sadness and grief (using the death of his goldfish), and gun violence. To each of these, he brought the reassuring tone and understanding that marked his entire life.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the news, the fear, the rush to get somewhere. Being an adult means we’re supposed to know where we’re headed. And while I may no longer need a lesson on what the first day of school will be like, it would be kind of nice to have Fred Rogers around to explain some of the other stuff that lingers beyond childhood.

I think about his Neighborhood and the friends who lived there, from Daniel Tiger to Mr. McFeeley, the mailman. Every character had a place and even when there were problems, we could be sure that Mr. Rogers would have an answer. 

Many times after a tragedy someone, somewhere, will bring up Mr. Rogers. As we struggle with the insanity that seems to pervade the world, even 14 years after his death the strength of his voice and message rings true. 

In an episode about gun violence, where he talked with kids about why people do bad things, he reminded us of a lesson from his own mother, repeated again after this week’s bombing in Manchester. For after the terror, there was news about hotels where children could be safe; taxi drivers giving free rides to get people home or to help. Mr. Rogers has told us about these folks, too, and on his simple statement, helps us to keep room for the light that often shines brightest in tragedy:


Master of Simplicity (Inspiration Series, week 20)


“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

“This world is but canvas to our imaginations.”

Let’s be honest. One could devote an entire post to quotes by Henry David Thoreau. I’m sure he spoke ordinary old sentences once in a while, but they must have been squeezed in between the words of wisdom he imparted though his incomparable writings. 

Born in 1812, Thoreau grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, the son of a pencil maker. He graduated from Harvard in 1937, then took a job as a schoolteacher, where he lasted two weeks before resigning rather than administer corporal punishment. After a stint in their father’s factory, he and  his brother John opened a grammar school that included unusual experiences for students such as nature walks and visits to town. The school came to an early end when John contracted tetanus after cutting himself shaving. He would die in his brother’s arms.

It was soon after that Thoreau would meet the man who changed the course of his life. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fellow Concord resident who had taken an interest in Transcendentalism and would become a mentor to the young man already gaining interest in the more ethereal aspects of life. Emerson encouraged Thoreau towards writing, and in 1941 had the younger man move into his house as a handyman. 

After a time he returned to the pencil factory, but it was not where he belonged. He began to plan for a different kind of life, in a place that would allow him the space and freedom to pursue an altogether different kind of living.

And so, in 1845, Thoreau began the process of building a home for himself on Walden Pond. Framed in May of that year, the 10′ x 15′ structure cost $28.12 and was completed on July 4, when he moved in. 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

It was everything he needed. In his book, Walden, he goes over the materials and the construction – in its final form the cabin featured

 “a bed, a table, a small desk, a lamp, and three chairs – one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

Thoreau would spend the next two years in his little house, mostly with his own thoughts and observations. His goal, as he noted, was to reduce his needs to a minimum. To make the small amount of money he needed he planted a bean garden, while reversing the tradition of a six-day workweek and 1 day off. This allowed him to study nature, read, and philosophize on the benefits of simple living and virtues of civil disobedience and self-sufficiency. 

Walden‘s chapters include “Economy,” “Where I Lived, What I Lived For,” “Reading,” “Sounds,” “Solitude,” and “Visitors” – as he contemplates nature Thoreau’s eyes and ears sharpen and he is able to distill the human experience in a way few have. It is as though by shedding the wardrobe of regular society he becomes a more pure being, bound only to laws and norms set forth by the natural world. 

He reads the classics (in the original Greek and Latin), ponders the value of vegetarianism – along with chastity and teetotaling – and moves through the seasons with a watchful eye that catches each one’s distinct blessings and beauty. 

It is this engagement with the Earth around him, along with his pursuit of simplicity and meaning, that propels Thoreau to the top of my Inspirers list. Despite being born into a time when each day brings new noise, I find myself longing to pare down, scale back, get to the essence of my own human experience. 

It  seems all but impossible. In most moments, it appears I have at least a dozen things I could be doing. Distractions buzz at my ear like flies, while problems (past, present, and as yet unknown) hover in the air. With each breath, it sometimes feels, I am commanded to do some new thing to achieve some deadline or fulfill some obligation. On and on it goes, until the routine movements smother the original ones looking for an entrance. 

The ghost of Thoreau beckons – if I try,  I can hear him ask, “Do you think you are immortal?” I look down at a desk full of papers, an in-box full of messages, and wonder how much time I will have to build my cabin in the woods. And if indeed I can, how much time will I have left to spend there?

For today, I read Thoreau’s words and am grateful – but this time, as I thank the universe for teachers of wisdom and truth, I also make a silent promise to do as he advised:


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