Not long ago, I was at the county courthouse in Barre, Vermont, waiting for the final hearing of my divorce. That courthouse contains the ebb of human life, chock-full of misery and grief, and every time I’ve entered that immense building I’ve witnessed adult women and men crying. I stood alone in a large room whose windows looked into a courtyard where trees were in bloom, and the sunlight shone bright and full of promise. What I was thinking about was a terrible illness in a family member, and how mortality’s knife lies in all of us. Dormant or not, at any moment that knife might turn and slash fatally.
Standing there, I vowed not to let my particular cup of sorrow raise so high that I couldn’t see beyond the vessel of my own brew. Lose a husband, a family life, an occupation, beloved friends: but lose my soul to bitterness, too?
Thoreau’s desire to live as fully as possible, to suck out life’s marrow, to know it as fully as possible is yet my own, despite the bile I naively never expected. Deep in the unlit realms of faith, I know writing is a rope out of that courthouse’s sludge, that art – and making art, like living a human life – holds the potential to burn our hearts in its kiln and emerge with deeper compassion. The sun rose and set on that day in my life, as it’s risen and set for centuries. Even when I was in the windowless courtroom, working through legal litany, I knew the sun would shine in the courtyard when I emerged.
If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods