Henry David Thoreau and John Boehner’s Stone Face Sitting Behind President Obama

Watching Speaker Boehner’s stone face during most of President Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress on job creation Thursday night, I began to think of Henry David Thoreau and the beginning of his masterpiece, Walden. Thoreau believed he could find the universe in a few acres near the cabin he built for himself by Walden Pond. He thought that most activities pursued by the farmers and shopkeepers in and around Concord, Massachusetts missed the entire purpose of life. From his standpoint too many people lived to labor and complained about the difficulties of their lives. He believed in a businesslike approach to life, but also thought that one good line of poetry, or an understanding of why a common plant that others overlooked was beautiful, was more important in the long range of human and geologic history. “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” he wrote. “But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

Looking at Congressman Boehner on the seat above the President and the well of the Congress, beside the Vice President, I thought that maybe he should heed Thoreau’s words: “Most of the luxuries of life, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” and realize that the job creators are not after the good of the common man, but after their own good. It is highly unlikely that their good will lead to either the elevation of mankind or even the U.S. economy’s stabilization.

I do not choose to go to the woods and live like Thoreau lived at Walden Pond, carefully keeping accounts of pennies I have spent on seed and materials while making a partnership with the land that feeds me well enough to let me apply myself to thoughts about universal truths and poetry. Although his attitude attracts me like nectar attracts a honeybee, I cannot, for the life of me, throw myself into poetry, philosophy, and science and ignore the daily news. I cannot even discover the wisdom that tells me how to avoid the desperation that surrounds us in these troubled times. Thursday night, driving home after work from Crownpoint through the canyon to Thoreau to Continental Divide, I listened to President Obama on radio and hoped he would get what he was eloquently pleading for even though I am afraid that an even bolder plan may be needed if I and Ethel are going to be able to retire with even a meager comfort.

Later, when I saw Boehner’s face after I got home and watched CNN and the blathering class blathering, I, along with the rest of the world, knew. The Republicans were not going to embrace the President’s proposals and try to rescue the country from its malaise, but were going to parse, give faint praise, and talk about consensus because the disaster they created for themselves out of the debt ceiling fight made them wary of going the way of the charging rhino into the market square again. They are going to dance the macabre dance of middle class destruction while singing as if they and the uber rich are going to make all right with the world again.

One of the questions that plagues me is this, how do we live in a world that seems to be going downhill without falling into a despair so black that we cannot see the horizon even if it exists? While the uber rich enrich themselves while increasing already too high piles of hindrances to the elevation of humankind, how can we, as individuals, smile when we see a field of wild sunflowers shining yellow in a late afternoon sun or laugh for joy when our grandchild hands us a strawberry he has just picked and looks puckishly at us to see if we get that this is his gift even though we are standing inside acres of fields of strawberries? How do we keep the quiet desperation of the mass of common men at bay long enough to live the lives that we could live if Boehner did not look so stone faced while sitting behind the President?

As far as I know I have written poetry since I was twelve years old, and I married an artist and a poet who still amazes me even after forty-three wondrous years of marriage. When Kevin, our son died so young of cancer, about the only solace I had was to sit in his sickroom and try to think through life by writing sonnets. The good lines of poetry Thoreau valued are hard to come by, but when they do come, there is a moment when peace slips through despair and allows us to understand, if only for a moment, the promises in every moment we take a breath.

In the end, in spite of the difficulties of life, John Boehner, and those that are hindrances to the good of humankind, I am a positive rather than a negative human being. I work everyday as an educator, trying my best to touch lives in positive, rather than negative ways. I look at my wife and marvel that she deigned to marry someone as unpromising as an unpublished poet. I write poetry and sing songs that search for emotions and truth that go to the center of what is good, rather than negative, about human beings. I try to keep my ego in check and realize that every time I honor someone that I know or who crosses my path I create a rhythm that pools outward and helps to make this day a slightly better day.

Henry David Thoreau was right. If we can plant a garden and tend it with our own labor and study the colors of sunset reflected off a small pond as the sun sinks in the west, then the day’s news is not as important as it seems. If we can spend a little bit of time working on moments that can make a difference for ourselves, our families, and those in our lives, then the stone faces of the world are not as important even if they are remembered fifty or a hundred years from now for their foolish arrogance. Let them fume, fuss, gather their loot, and place it in the tombs of their vaults. They cannot truly appreciate a single good line of poetry from any poet worth his or her salt.

Let us give them hell and try to limit the damage they are doing, but let us also remember that they are not the substance or the meaning of our lives.

Tomorrow, with any luck, Ethel and I will get up early, work on poems, and drive to Inscription Rock Trading Post for the every Sunday meeting of the Zuni Poets. We’ll forget, for awhile, about President Obama’s speech, John Boehner’s stone face, and the slow, unconscionable withering away of the middle class, and sit on the outdoor patio where the wind chimes sometimes make it hard to hear as we would like to hear as the other poets read their poems. We’ll store up eternity inside who we are as it is unleashed by poems as good as any being written in the world today, and the demons will snarl their deprecations of sanity away from where we are, and we will feel good as we drive around a bend and see the glory of Mount Taylor towering blue in the distance above the slopes of the Zuni Mountains.


Filed under Essays

3 responses to “Henry David Thoreau and John Boehner’s Stone Face Sitting Behind President Obama

  1. John Kelly

    I knew that if I continued to “Google” the rapaciousness and lack of care of our Congressional leaders, particularly Boehner and the equally detestable Mitch McConnell, I might find some refreshment in the honest expression of another American citizen. Would that we could be a force in our opinion on the deceit of “the one-percent” to ruin us. Instead we must do what we did last time: Wait quietly for election day and re-instate Mr. Obama.

    • I agree, although I keep hoping for a better time, but then I’m more of a poet than a politician. There ought to be more equality and justice and less emphasis on the holiness of greed, a sin in the Bible.

  2. It is funny it is 3 years later and while watching the President Obama State of the Union in 2014, I decided to Google “John Boehner stone face” and this is where I ended up.

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