This year has become my “Year of Emerson.” I finished reading the excellent biography Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert Richardson. I’m currently reading the edited collection Nature and Other Writings. I regularly visit Kirk McElhearn’s blog Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson to see what gems he’s uncovered in Emerson’s journals. And soon I’ll be diving into Emerson and Zen Buddhism by John Rudy.
So during our recent annual visit with my wife’s cousin and her family up in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, I made another visit to Emerson’s house in Concord. Once again, my wife’s cousin’s husband Chuck was my companion for my pilgrimage. And there was no better way to visit Concord on a perfect autumn day than in Chuck’s convertible.
The house was a bit different than I remembered it from my first visit many years ago. But what a difference now that I know so much more about the people. It was great to see first hand various rooms and hanging pictures that I’d read about in the Richardson book. To be in the study was thrilling, even though the actual furnishings have been moved to the Concord Museum across the street (which we also visited). I lingered at the study’s fireplace a bit, recalling the beautiful final chapter of the Richardson book wherein Emerson puts out the fire for the last time. I loved the parlor, just trying to imagine the meetings and conversations that took place there, and the myriad luminaries who attended.
I can understand Emerson’s love of the painting in the hallway of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius; the colors are so vivid that it almost looks like a photograph. The Richardson book explained how Emerson may have likened the idea of an Over-Soul to the one huge pool of magma beneath the Earth’s surface, and how we are all each an eruption of that source. It makes me think of the Tao and Buddha nature.
I truly enjoyed seeing Emerson’s walking sticks, his hat, and his lecturing cloak. The tour guides were wonderful, and this time no one said anything about not wishing to discuss Emerson’s philosophy (which we didn’t do anyway because they were so busy). At the end of the tour, I bought Richardson’s book on writing and a couple of postcards, and then sat down and read the opening paragraphs of Nature. Then Chuck and I went round the side of the house to see the grapevine that Emerson had planted. The air smelled like grapes!
After a short tour of The Concord Museum, we made the short drive to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to pay our respects (like we did last year) and found myself more moved by the headstones, particularly little Waldo’s, wife Lidian’s, and Mary Moody Emerson’s. I told Chuck how central “Aunt Mary” had been to Emerson’s development as a thinker and a writer. Of course we also visited Thoreau.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this visit was another bit of synchronicity that again made me believe that I’m on the right track with my “American Zen” pursuits. As we were driving back through the center of Concord, I was talking to Chuck about my interests in the similarities between Zen and Transcendentalism, when off to our left we spotted a Buddhist monk in full saffron robes walking along the street! Again I laughed and felt exhilarated, especially because Chuck had also witnessed this.
I should note that Chuck was a real trooper through all this. He was in the midst of a Yom Kippur fast (he’s Greek Orthodox, his wife is Jewish, and their family observes traditions from both faiths). The fast was ended later that evening in fine fashion.