Tom O’Malley: Books offer guidance for a life well-lived - The Buffalo News

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Tom O’Malley: Books offer guidance for a life well-lived

There is a trail of books snaking through my house. It begins in my basement, where tattered copies of Henry David Thoreau’s “Journal” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Essays” lay in repose. Old friends wise beyond their words.

In 1836, Thoreau went to Emerson for advice. He had just graduated from Harvard and, like many recent college grads, needed a push. Emerson asked: “Do you keep a journal?” This question became the first entry in Thoreau’s lifelong writing project. He continued the daily journal habit until his death in 1862.

I, too, have often gone to Emerson for advice and have found guidance, especially in “Self-Reliance” and “Nature.” Advice given. Advice received. Little do the masters know that their ideas continue to spread and bear fruit even here in the 21st century.

“Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us.” Emerson wrote these words while grieving the loss of his wife and living with his grandparents at Concord’s Old Manse. He did not seek emancipation from sorrow. Rather, he discovered he could mourn his wife’s passing without being a thrall to death. In “Nature” he found a continual reminder of the endless striving for life, even amid the shambles of mortality.

As poet Percy Bysshe Shelley reminds us, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Following the trail upstairs, the books lead to the kitchen, which is my favorite place in the house. Here we can eat, read, write and listen to the daily hum of conversation, the music of my home. Look. Over here. There are poems spread across the counter counterbalancing the food: breakfast, lunch and dinner for the body and soul.

There is Mary Oliver’s “American Primitive.” Her arms are ripped by blackberry brambles, her soul is sweetened by the taste of summer fruit: an exact description of her work. Turn around and see Billy Collins lying in a hammock watching a parade of poems compose themselves among the floating clouds.

On the window sill, the grand master Walt Whitman follows the metric line of the noiseless, patient spider, spinning webs of words that form his verse. Coffee for breakfast and a saucer full of poems for lunch.

Perhaps some Thomas Hardy for dinner. A walk through Wessex will burn off any excess calories. My favorite Hardy is, of course, “Far from the Madding Crowd.” How many times have I read his description of Gabriel Oak playing his flute on a Wessex hillside while the eternal dance of constellations illustrate his music overhead? “The twinkling of the stars seem to be the throb of one body timed by a common pulse.”

In this book, the author seems to have sprung full grown from Emerson’s head. The aptly named Oak is unshaken by the winds of change blowing through 19th century England. He, like Emerson, never gives in to tragedy because his spirit is continually renewed by his immersion in nature. For Hardy, a happy ending is filled with the quiet virtues of life and the patience apprenticed in the house gardens and summer fields.

The book trail continues from room to room, on the arms of chairs to the backs of benches. The books form a map of my day, and a path through my life. Steady as a summer stream; silent makers of endless time. Thanks to them I understand where I have been, and I know where I am going.

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