Last Thursday, on my way back to Massachusetts from New Hampshire, I stopped at Walden Pond, which was thronged with swimmers and sunbathers, to say pay my respects to the statue of Henry David Thoreau that stands outside the replica of his famous one-room shack.
Thoreau moved to Walden Pond–where he would live in that one-room shack, write, and grow beans–on July 4, 1845: his own declaration of independence. Thoreau believed freedom is acquired through relinquishment: the more things you let go, the freer you’ll be. And so it seemed perfectly apt to stop and say hello to Henry on my way back home from Keene State, where last Thursday I cleaned out my office after having let go, at last, my teaching job there.
Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years, vacating his shack in September, 1847 because he suspected he had “several more lives to live” and “could not spare any more time for that one.” I vacated my office at Keene State after having taught there for nearly eleven years–from September, 2001 until this June–because I also suspected it was time to move onto other things.
When I started teaching at Keene State, I was married and living in Hillsboro, NH; over my years teaching at Keene State, my then-husband and I moved to Keene, I completed my PhD, my then-husband and I separated then divorced, I met then married J, and I ultimately moved to Massachusetts. It made sense to keep my job in Keene while I was teaching there full-time, but when my course-load was cut, commuting between two states for a part-time job made increasingly little sense. Why complicate your life by clinging to something that has lingered past its season?
Last Thursday night, I drove from Walden to Cambridge to give a talk at the Zen Center, my trunk still packed with piles and files: the accumulation of a nearly 20-year teaching career. At the Zen Center, I talked about letting go. The second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths says we suffer because we cling to impermanent things, and my practice has taught me that sometimes there’s great solace in simply letting go: instead of clinging with a tight fist, relief comes from opening your hands into a gentle, receptive shape that simply gives way to gravity.
At Walden, a bronze sculpture of Thoreau shows him with both hands open, receptive: Henry carries a bag over one shoulder, but nothing else, his fingers cupped into a gesture of acceptance. At the Zen Center, I compared the experience of letting go my job at Keene State to the experience of putting Reggie to sleep: sometimes, after spending precious years of your life tending to something you loved without limit, the time comes when you need to let go, loosening your grip so that both you and the thing you loved can move on.
After Thoreau left Walden Pond, he moved in with the Emersons, looking after Lidian Emerson and the Emerson children while Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled abroad. During this time, Thoreau worked as a handyman and surveyor, and he spent the next seven years polishing and perfecting the book–Walden, or Life in the Woods–that would become his masterpiece.
Now that I’ve left Keene State, I’ll spend the next few months teaching online, then in September I’ll start teaching first-year writing at Framingham State University, a college much closer to home. I hope to spend more time walking and less time driving; I hope to spend more time writing and less time fretting about a job I always worried I wouldn’t be able to keep. Once you’ve let go of a thing, you don’t have to worry about losing it: you’re free to simply live without limit, your hands no longer clenched but cupped, receptive to whatever windfall the Universe decides to cast in your direction, the float of time being enough to support you, for now.