Friday, August 3, 2012

In Thoreau's Shadow

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. 

Henry David Thoreau, Walden: What I Lived For

Growing up I was not much of a daredevil.  I didn't like climbing trees.  I was tentative about jumping into swimming holes.  I was scared to light a firecracker.  I never rode a roller coaster until I was 21.  So, you can imagine my sense of equal parts dread and joy yesterday when Cooper and Jacoby told me they were swimming across Walden Pond.

Since moving to Massachusetts ten years ago Walden Pond has always held a certain mystique on me.  Thoreau made it famous, but my own experiences have cemented it as a "favorite place:"

  • On my first 30+ mile run, running around the pond as the sun came up, totally alone, save the loon that was calling through the mist rising off the water;
  • The first hike that the boys and I took with my father, the smell of autumn hanging in the air;
  • Seeing Liz enjoy the cool water on a sweltering day, just days before Cooper was born and our lives were changed (for the better) forever;
  • The humid summer run, my first with a handheld water bottle, when the skies opened and thunder rolled.
Some say that Walden is overcrowded, that the fences along the paths go against Thoreau's ethos of living free.  But it is still a special, beautiful place, and since today was a boy's day (Liz was working), and it was over 90 degrees, we drove the 15 or 20 minutes to swim.  

As we walked down to the pond (you come out to the main, roped-off, life-guarded swimming area), Cooper kept asking how far it was from our place.  I told him about 11 miles the way we came.  "I could run that or I could ride my bike here," he said.  He's 6.  I was proud.  Seeking a bit of adventure, we shunned the crowded "beach" and began walking around the pond to one of the "private" entries.  Jacoby (who can, at times, be less than enthusiastic about these "hikes") picked our spot, and climbed down the steep rocks to the pond first.  Both of the boys were a bit tentative about getting in the water - this was one of the first times we were actually swimming in wild (more or less) water - no ropes, no life guards, just us.  And so it was, after both boys dunked their heads, I decided to jump in and swim out - to encourage them to push their limits a bit, to live fully and in the moment.

We spent about an hour in the water, trying to catch fish with our hands, and swimming a little further out at times, but always returning quickly to the shore (because of Walden's depth, once you get a few feet from the shore, you can't see the bottom - it's pretty intimidating, especially for a 4 and 6 year old!).  When the boys got cold, we decided to walk a little further around the pond, and ended, auspiciously, at "Thoreau's Cove," a small inlet near the site of old Hank's cabin.  It was here, where I had been expecting to simply enjoy some more "fishing" and easy soaking, that Jacoby said he wanted to swim across the inlet, to the other side (Cooper had wanted to swim the ~0.5 miles across the entire pond earlier).  At first my mind said, "NO WAY!" The water is deep, it is further than Cooper has ever swam, and there is no chance that he can simply bob to the bottom and come back up (the water is probably about 25 feet where we crossed).  Plus we didn't have our googles, and the boys, who are both incredible swimmers, are not quite as confident without them.  Yet, they persisted, and after agreeing that Jacoby would hold onto my back (tightly!) the whole time, and that Cooper would stay within arm's reach, I was floating on my stomach and Jacoby was climbing on.  We were off.

Thoreau's Cove is only about 70 meters across.  Yet that small distance led to one of the toughest and proudest moments of my life.  It was difficult to put my kids into a potentially dangerous situation - I knew they could both make it, but still, what-if?  I was incredibly proud of the confidence both boys showed.  Jacoby for wanting to do something like this and for cheering both me and Cooper the whole way and staying cool as we swam (he was a bit upset that I didn't let him swim alone, but I wasn't ready for that).  Cooper for diving right in, and as he struggled a bit towards the end, for sticking with it, for staying calm and reaching the other side.  Despite my reservations, seeing the joy and sense of pride from both boys made it worth it.

The boys' original plan had been to swim both ways (we had to get our stuff!).  Cooper summed up our decision to hike back along the path as such, "Jacoby (who was all for swimming back), that was hard!  My chest is pounding so hard!"  So was mine.

Perhaps my two boys will forget this day in the near future.  I will not.  I will remember the day when both of my children, together, "fronted only the essential facts of life," and truly challenged themselves, and truly lived.  The mystique of Walden continues to grow.

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