Reading Thoreau in the Middle of the City

LOS ANGELES IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE to live. Wherever we call home, our surroundings provide a pulse of inspiring energy. This vibe radiates through the sounds we hear, the sights we see, and the others who call it home.

The active heartbeat of Los Angeles will always stay with me; its heart is my heart; its soul is my soul.

Whether we live in a city, in the country, off the grid or on a sprawling one, the details around us enrich our existence. I love to read because it’s fascinating to see how a writer conveys the details of a place that lives in their imagination.

A book, a great book, regardless of where it’s read, asks the reader to see through the author’s eyes, hear with their ears, and feel with their heart.

I travel through history when I read my favorite books. I live where the writer lived — in Russian palaces and the small towns of California; on the bustling streets of Paris and the peaceful hills of ancient Japan.

I’ve wanted to read Walden, by Henry David Thoreau for a while. When I recently opened an unexpected package from one of my best friends and pulled out the book, I felt a sense of genuine happiness I imagine to be relatable to forgotten days of yesterday.

Until the telephone, the car, the radio, you know, modern things, were invented, receiving a letter must have been the highlight of the month. I’d be hard-pressed to say this wasn’t the highlight of mine.

We’d talked about Walden when we saw each other last; this friend of mine sent his copy to me, accompanied by a handwritten note that made me laugh out loud alone in my apartment. It’s the simple things that mean the most.

In the book, Thoreau writes a charming perspective in the 1840s from the woods close to Concord, Massachusetts.

Thoreau comes off as a simple man, keen on stripping life down to the bare necessities and living every day with a dynamic spirit. He was a man ardently against conformity; he sought to find what lit his soul on fire.

It seems nature provided him with an eternal ember blazing in his soul. Walden tells the story of his two years living in the woods by Walden Pond, observing and setting down his thoughts.

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,

Thoreau writes.

Reading it has changed my awareness, as Thoreau makes me notice the beautiful details and take note. A city, like the woods, has its quirks and its essential character.

The seasons come to the city and change it. In the blink of an eye, I’m savoring the cold, dark mornings like this one, when the sun takes its time to rise. Shadows and wanderers cross its streets in the moonlit twilight hours.

By Vincent Van Patten

A city, like the woods, is full of spirit. It comes from the hum of humans who call it home. His writing makes me want to simplify, like the shedding trees of autumn.

What more do we need than the freedom to move, to observe, to live? Thoreau writes:

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

At present, the room is silent, save the sounds of flowing time carried through the movement of cars, of water trickling through pipes in the walls, of the gust of wind blowing through the alley outside of the window.

It’s quiet within these walls, yet a warmth comes from the sounds of the earth turning outside of them.

This backdrop of white noise changes throughout the day; the morning is silent, imbued with a spiritual energy that comes with waking from a dream state and a rested mind. Thoreau writes:

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or at the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.

The sounds of the day increase as the world faces reality. We work and find solace in others, taking on the day together in an intertwining pursuit of progression.

The evening twilight brings sounds of leisure. I’m listening to a few plucks at the strings of a guitar, amplified through the alley. Each apartment with an open window transforms into a booth of a Viennese opera house, a collective audience listening to the unknown musician.

At the end of the day, we’re ready to re-enter the dream state. We can’t control what may be conjured up. But what of our daily dreams, the ones we chase when we leave our beds to put our celestial thoughts on hold?

The ones we may act out in this corporeal world, where magic does exist and acts as the unseen web of our existence? Who’s to say what’s the dream and what’s reality?

Every day, the world changes. Our individual lives can flip upside down at any moment. We move, we grow, we experience and love. But the sounds one hears that forever pulse, they hardly change in response to the individuals’ shifting circumstances.

The morning remains quiet; the day reflects our progress; and the night harbors thoughts of what may have been or what could be, told through the thoughtful plucks of guitar strings, echoing through the alley.

A life full of music is a life of joy. Whoever is out there plucking the guitar, I salute you. Without your gentle playing, I wouldn’t be writing this now.

Music can get us through anything. Just like writing, music tells a story about living. These songs connect to a memory, a feeling. Float On, by Modest Mouse, is one of my favorite songs. Whenever it comes on, I’m in a happier place.

And we’ll all float on — five words to live by.

Songs are poetry, an expression of emotion through a few words and a melody. Seldom a day goes by where I don’t listen to music. With music in our hearts, living turns into an everyday symphony.

I look around at the different colors in the room. Within the color wheel lives an entire spectrum of perception — these are the colors we see and know, the infinite cosmos contained in a simple sweep of light.

The color blue is warm and cool. Red is comforting and daring. My metal pen is red and black and has a satisfying weight to it. It’s a simple tool; the red adds a splash of vibrancy.

Within each color dwells an ocean of tones. The hanging picture frame on my wall with the horses at La Course de Chevaux is a rustic cherry red darker than my pen, a natural hue that borders purple, almost like an acorn, although it’s still red.

Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both. Viewed from the hilltop it reflects the color of the sky; but near at hand it is of a yellowish tint next to the shore where you can see the sand, then a light green, which gradually deepens to a uniform dark green in the body of the pond,

Thoreau writes.

I’ll always remember walks through this neighborhood. On a walk, I have all that I need. I’m grateful, incredibly grateful.

The cold wind reminds me of when I first moved to this area of Los Angeles a couple of years ago. I’ve done this daily walk hundreds of times, yet there’s always something new to notice.

The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature, of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter, such health, such cheer, they afford forever!

Thoreau writes.

And such sympathy have they ever with our race, that all Nature would be affected, and the sun’s brightness fade, and the winds would sigh humanely, and the clouds rain tears, and the woods shed their leaves and put on mourning in midsummer, if any man should ever for a just cause grieve.

All of a sudden, it’s cold outside.

A street unfurls before me, alive with the trees which overhang and come together in the center like a bridge. The wind blows the leaves from their withered branches.

The wind takes from the trees and shares their fallen, crackling foliage with the feet who scuttle through. The baren trees are givers. Walking through their fragile leaves brings joy, or perhaps melancholy, to one who notices the earthy scent that evokes a memory.

The overhanging trees observe how people move amidst their shade, diminishing with the loss of leaves until what’s left is a skeletal form.

But perhaps their loss is really gain, for they can better feel the wind without the leaves; maybe these trees enjoy this season of simplicity. The full palms, on the other hand, shed no autumn leaves. They appear golden against the ominous morning sky.

The grey sky is beautiful to me. Autumn clouds look over the city, different from the clouds of summer. They’re darker now in possession of rain and look like they could be unrolled like a rug. Summer clouds are paler, like puffs of a pipe.

I’m taking notes on a flimsy pocket-sized notebook I bought in a Tokyo 711. Without a phone, it feels like I’m here where I stand, nowhere else.  My mind moves, I have my thoughts, I’m outside.

The different colors add character to the street; roses peak through rusty iron fences, fallen flower petals speckle the sidewalks like splatters of paint on a blank canvas — orange, violet, red, colors, wonderful colors.

It’s inspiring to see people out enjoying the day, solo or with others, living in this home we share.

Life is forever taking place — we can hold ourselves down by harboring negativity when we believe we’ve faltered, or we can adhere to the uplifting flow of time and live with joy. People are out; the wind blows cold; life is taking place.

Life is good. Don’t let it pass you by.

  • Carrie S
    Posted at 05:52h, 01 November Reply

    Well done! I love how you express yourself and cant wait to see what’s On the horizon for you…

    • Vincent Van Patten
      Posted at 13:07h, 01 November Reply

      Thank you so much, Carrie! I really appreciate you saying that 🙂 Hope to see you guys soon!

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