Book recommendation – “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

Walden Pond2

Walden is a such a famous book, whose reviews and analyses sum up to many times the length of the manuscript itself. My review is mostly about the waves it generated on the lake of my mind. I finished reading the book a couple weeks ago, and initially felt sorry not to have read it before; but I am glad I had read it now, because I enjoyed many more aspects, that the younger me would not have taken into consideration.

Thoreau narrates two years of his life in the woods near Walden Pond, in Massachussets, in 1845. He built a minimalist cabin with his own hands (with an accurate description of the process, and a precise account of costs and time), practiced a little agriculture, fished and hunted, interacted with the few people who lived or worked there. He recalls many moments of contemplation of the surrounding nature, that he describes in his lyrical prose, that sounds now maybe oldish and pompous, but immensely reverent.

His survival experiment is both simple and extreme. Simple in its practical steps, extreme in the meaning it can convey to the society as a whole. He returned to civilisation after two years, not because the life in the woods ended up as a failure or a delusion, but because he realised that he had learned the lessons he needed. Through his experience, I feel more easy on my own decisions, especially the ones that sound drastic, because they show a true need for changement, even if for a given time of my life, and as such should be heard and handled.

From Chapter 18 – Conclusions:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

Thoreau’s experiment made me immediately think of the more permanent one (so far) of Simone Perotti, who left a promising career to dedicate himself to seafaring and art. His book Adesso basta [Enough of it – own translation] is definitely an angrier and irrevocable refusal of civilised modern society, but I feel that he and Thoreau had something in common when they realised that society (and career in particular) could not give everything they needed. You can follow Simone’s blog, regularly updated, and savour his terse and shiny Italian prose. I remember reading his book in a time where I was angry and disappointed myself, and it only made me angrier to hear relatives and friends that such a definitive refusal of society was not possible. I think I got to that point anyway, but slower and with unneeded waste of energies.

A more similar meditation parenthesis is the diary of Sylvain Tesson, Dans les forêts de Sibérie. The author settles for a few months in a small cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, with even less human presence than Walden Pond, and a less forgiving climate. I enjoyed Sylvain’s reflections, blooming from unbroken hours of silence, of stillness. They look so similar to Thoreau’s , despite the 250 years and half of the world’s distance between them. I’ll make a more detailed review when I get back the book from my mum 🙂

Lake Baikal (15849197826)
Baikal lake, by Aleksandr Zykov

These experiences made me think about how societal occupations changed in time (jobs, pastimes, duties), while the reflections of the mind, when it is given an appropriate amount of time off, converge in so many countries and ages. Is that the common ground of our humanity? I hope so, and even if there is no solid fact behind it, I like to see it as a fil rouge that is suitable to connect us all.

Drawing streak – the end

I have not posted any more doodles in the last two weeks, as I felt that the streak had came to an end. I had more and more trouble finding subjects for my doodles, delayed them until bedtime, and did not experiment with techniques anymore. The daily doodle had became a chore, instead of a positive exercise. It’s time to find another routine.

I have then thought about which activities bring me joy and let me improve my skills. There are not many in my planning, that is nevertheless full: most of what I do is walking on known paths. How can I reach the appropriate ratio of known to new?

The known. Upon own reflection and some hints from Moshé Feldenkrais’ method, I realised that the mere repetition of a movement or a routine does not automatically bring improvement. The real step forward is guided by awareness of what is being done, that gives the ability to evaluate changements in the practice. I struggle with that quite often, just like a wanderer feels he’s walking in circles in a wood, unable to know if he is making progress in any direction. So, after a long time “just practising”, I feel that I need meaningful feedback on what I draw and play. As I am not good enough a judge for myself, I think I need someone with a better trained eye and the ability to filter and reorder the list of what I need to improve. When I do that myself, I usually notice a pile of things to work on, feel overwhelmed and delay/quit, or start with the most apparent but the most difficult hurdle with little success. I am able to give myself feedback, but on things I know really well, so I don’t find myself able to be my own guide on uncharted land.

The new. It is not enough for me to go through the usual exercises every day, but I find it very difficult to just pick up something new and try to do it. The biggest blocker for me is not knowing if I am doing the new thing right, or at least, in a way that I can improve without needing to unlearn it first. This is again a feedback issue: I need more experienced eyes than mine to guide me around new topics. I have had the chance so far to find great guides in their domains, who showed me their way. I walked with them and enjoyed learning completely new skills, not much for a genuine love for those topics, but rather for the way they were presented.

For all these things I benefit so much from my drum lessons: I enjoy the balance of challenges, strenghtening of known routines, and simple enjoyment of a well-played sequence, that my teacher builds up for me. I bask in the gentle attention to all my movements, and the measured feedback – measured on what I am able to realise and improve in that moment.

I have never understood how someone could approach new activities by “just try doing them, you’ll get better on the way”. I used to see that as immensely arrogant and self-sufficient, especially when it was proposed as the main way to learn. There are however a few activities that I can improve on my own feedback only, and a few more if I content myself with slow/random improvement or minimal goals. For faster pace and higher targets, I need additional external advice. When I said that, some people thought I meant that I needed to trust that external feedback – but it is not a blind trust, it is more an acceptance of informed hints. I have left teachers and schools when I realised we didn’t match, and we both experienced frustration, and felt that our energy was more dissipated than transformed.

There is also a difference between learning how to do an activity that involves only objects, and one that involves sentient beings (animals and people). With objects only, you can make huge progress by learning from others, because the steps are reproducible and the progress is measurable, and you are the only variable element. With animals and people, it’s another story. Your situation is unique: the combination of minds can be understood only by who is in it, decisions can be taken only by the involved parties. External advice can be immensely useful, but never binding. I re-read Lynne Gerald’s post about expert advice, and found it so spot on.

Ha! Lots of reflections came out of my doodling crisis. Hope they help clarify other unclear corners and let me start afresh. And help you readers as much as you help me by sharing your thoughts online, that’s why I write here.



From the kitchen – two cooks

Yesterday, during a dinner with friends, we talked about cooking together. The discussion arose when I remembered the first time I cooked with Enrico, and how it went so seamlessy that we both found it so unexpectedly… beautiful. It is a common belief that too many cooks ruin a dish, but how many is too many? For some people it could be just one. We all remembered situations at home where any extra person in the kitchen was only a nuisance and was firmly sent away… not mentioning most cookbooks and recipes, which are tailored (implicitely) for one cook only.

On the other side, I have several memories of cooking together with my mum and with friends, with unspoken simplicity. I thought about how I find it so easy, and concluded that paying attention to each other is key: it makes possible to both to take care of the recipe’s steps, plan ahead at need/will, have time to look at details and enjoy them fully. It’s easier to have a freer mind when working on a well-tested recipe, but it’s also wonderful to try a new one and work on it together. I have no clear idea how one can learn it (because I didn’t), but it is probably a quite diffuse maturation of the self.

my chocolate chip muffins