American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide



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Pages from Jan's Journal

“All the thoughts of a turtle are turtle.”Ralph Waldo Emerson

I was drawn to the water again on this walk. The sound, the constant movement. I walked to a place in town beside a house which has the stream running directly behind it, almost under it. The spot has some still water on the edges and slowly moving water in the middle. The sound soothes and I thinkwhat are the thoughts of the water? Does it know its destinationdoes it care? Does the still water envy its rushing relation or does the constantly moving rush yearn to be still?

Looking up, I wonder of the stars. Seeing the stars from our perspective, I imagine that they look down on me. Perhaps, however, they have far better sights to see than this spinning, thinking planet. This flip of perspective, and the quote I chose to focus on tonight, make me think of my son’s hamster.

Poor thing. Night after night she chews on the inescapable bars of her prison (or safe-haven, depending on your point of view). This hamster, Speedy, can’t escape. We learned from her predecessor, Hammy, about how to keep her in there. But, no matter. She rarely runs on her wheel or gnaws on the innumerable hamster chews we’ve tempted her with. Every night, all night long, she grinds her teeth on the bars of her cage. She has succeeded in chipping away at the coating on the bars, but it would take longer than her short life span to actually make any real progress through the metal. I feel for her, as she scurries from one spot to the next, searching for the right place to chew. What can I do? There are no free-range hamsters. It’s not like I can just set her free. But she knows. Although she has only ever known life in a cageshe knows. She knows that all creatures were meant to be free. She knows that somewhere in this world there’s a niche she was designed for that doesn’t include bars, a wheel, and fluffy pink bedding. Her spirit yearns for China, or deserts, or Freedom where she belongs.

Sadly, she can’t get there from here. But, as all the thoughts of a hamster are hamster, she doesn’t know that she’ll never reach her destination. So night after night she triestries to find that freedom, the niche, that no living creature can find inside a cage.


March 3, 2006

Our garden is a work in progress—as is the house—as are we ourselves. The people we bought the house from three years ago were not gardeners. They kind of liked to plant thinks, but they weren’t much for caring for what they planted.

The first two years we lived here, we spent pulling out the English ivy that persistently clung to the house and crept into the basement through cracks in the window frames. This same ivy was strangling an ancient quince tree. One removed, we realized what elegance and character the constricting ivy had caused. Underneath four inch thick vines that wrapped around the branches, the bark and limbs were twisted and etched—like raffia, tightly wound and strung to hand decorations for a party. As the spring blossoms come, the picture is complete with bright green tender leaves and swet small blossoms. The poor tree, as beautiful as it is, is still struggling from its confinement. It’s still not always full of leaves and blooms and the fruit it bears is inedible—even the squirrels leave it alone. We fertilize it; we water it; and we hope.

Another vine had overtaken the snowball bush. A bush like a tree. So many stalks and trunks come from the ground that it would take two people to get their arms around the base. Now that the vine is taken care of, the branches bloom profusely in spring, so much that the ground and branches are both covered, and the branches bend to nearly tap the ground. (The boys and I have been known to have “snowball” fights in 80 degree weather).

Tending to the garden has proven as good for me as it has been for our trees. I find that I am not so very different from my garden. I thrive when free from constriction. I have to believe that I can heal from old wounds, slowly inflicted; that those hardships have given me character and strength. Just as the garden needs tending with trimming, weeding, and love, so does my soul need tending with prayer, mass, helping others, and caring for our garden.


March 12, 2006

At the African Meeting House Museum

Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Lewis Hayden. Their stories resonate in my soul and overwhelm my eyes until both overflow. People so strong, so fearless, so brilliant. The trials beyond my imagination. How could they live through those struggles and continue to fight? How could they live through it all and not fight? How could others not see their humanity, not see their souls? My mind stretches and dives and leaps but cannot get beyond my own experience. I’m left tired and weepy and confused, yet filled with love and prayer. To feel the souls—the energy—in these rooms; the passion and beauty with which these people spoke, with which they lived.

Could I have lived through their struggles? Could I have walked in their shoes? What struggles are plaguing others now, as I live? Am I doing what I should, what I could?


March 13, 2006

“The hills are reared, the seas are scooped in vain

                If learnings’ altar vanish from the plain”

                                Inscribed in the mantel of Bronson Alcott’s study

I sit upon the wooded bench and trod upon plank floors where all the Transcendental greats have trod upon before me. To think that Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and all the Alcotts (who feel as close as friends) have left their energy within these rooms for me to absorb and carry on. I want to touch everything, walk barefoot upon the floors, stretch my body across the beds, wear Roderigo's boots. I imagine the sisters and their friends, myself among them, exploring through the woods, tramping in the leaves and over the logs long rotten. Those leaves and logs now make the soil on which I walk.

Too short! too short the time I have to write and soak, meditate and pray. How can I leave so soon, not having seen the garret, not having composed a masterpiece in some small writing nook, not having breathed the air of genius long enough?


March 14, 2006
From Walden Woods

I long for a kiss, some loving words, someone to appreciate this beauty with. I stood for a moment, caressing a young pine tree, wet with the rainsupple and soft, like hair fresh from the showerrubbing my fingers gingerly, feeling the soft slickness of wet skin on wet skin. The moss too, plush, deep and damp, moistens my fingertips and lingers, not wanting to fade. The lichen of a tree I pass crumbles and clings on my hands, sandy and rough, but welcome—a contrast to the slippery rain.

When someone joins me, embarrassed, I wipe my hands on my pants—still rubbing my fingers, remembering the sensations left behind.

  Jan Jordan is a graduate student at Shepherd University (Spring 2006).

"American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide" was produced by students in ENGL 446, American Transcendentalism, and ENGL 447, American Literature and the Prominence of Place: A Travel Practicum. These courses were team-taught in the Department of English at Shepherd University (formerly Shepherd College), Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in Spring 2002 by Dr. Patricia Dwyer and Dr. Linda Tate. The courses were taught again in Spring 2006 by Dr. Linda Tate. For more information on the course and the web project, visit "About This Site." © 2003 and 2006 Linda Tate.