How the Friends of Emerson Group Began

Lucy created the Friends of Emerson group in Colorado Springs in 2003.  It has met twice monthly for the past fourteen years and continues to welcome new members for reading and discussion. This essay on how the group began was published in The Emerson Society Papers, Volume 25, Number 2, Fall 2014.

The Banian of the Forest: Emerson Thrives in Colorado Springs

    Prone on the couch across from my husband’s empty recliner, I face the start of another day.  I turn on the TV hoping for a few minutes of distraction from the unrelenting pain of Ollie’s death.  Lung cancer ended thirty years of marriage, but I have not accepted it.  The mantra pounds in my brain, “This is too horrible to be true.”  I feel  fragile enough to shatter.

      A newspaper article about a new TV series caught my attention the day before, and I reach for it now.  “American Writers—A Journey Through History.”   I need something to combat my emptiness.

    I find the channel.  It seems to be a call-in talk format.  I’m not in the mood.  I almost turn the TV off when the setting pierces my numbed awareness.  It’s a lake, no, a pond—Walden Pond.  I’ve never been there, but my kids’ favorite high school teacher, from whom they’d both taken four years of Latin, found it captivating.  She occasionally shared tidbits from her annual visits, and as an appreciative mom, I’d look for Walden-themed gifts to give her at the end of the year.

    The program topic is Emerson. Hmmm. “Self-Reliance” pops into my mind.  Have I ever read it?  Don’t think so.  But the speaker, relaxed and sitting in a chair by the shore, catches my attention.  His name is Robert D. Richardson and he has written a biography titled Emerson: The Mind on Fire.

    As he talks about Emerson’s life and the losses he endured, I begin to engage with what he says.  I sit up. The dark cloud in my mind lifts a little as I realize that Emerson’s experiences mirror my own.

    That afternoon I make a quick trip to Borders Bookstore, and in the classics section I spot a copy of The Mind on Fire.  I start it that night in bed, and in the next few days I have read it cover to cover.  Waldo is a kindred spirit.  He loved Ellen the way I loved Ollie.  Utterly lost without her, he gives up his career and possessions, and books a passage to Europe. He looks so haggard the captain almost doesn’t take him for fear he won’t survive the rough Atlantic passage.  

    Emerson spends months in Europe, emerges through the pain and returns home.  He begins life anew but more losses lie ahead.  His two closest brothers die of tuberculosis and his five-year-old son succumbs unexpectedly to what is usually a benign childhood illness.  How does he keep going?

    I need his strength.  I need his words.  I head back to Borders and the classics shelf.  This time I choose a 1990 Bantam paperback titled Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems edited by Robert D. Richardson.  I picture Mr. Richardson sitting by the Walden shore. Yes. He’s my connection.

    I read Richardson’s forward, underlining and starring as I go.  I underline “Emerson was shattered.”  Exactly the word for the feeling I carry.  Above “Emerson was himself bookish, even as a child,” I write “me, too.”  I note in the margin how Emerson’s thinking correlates with Jung.  I underline and circle “How should I live my life?” adding “without Ollie.”  It is my all-encompassing question.

    I devour the essays.  In addition to the thoughts, the words themselves sing healing music to me.  I crave their sounds.  In one of those minor miracles that occur more often than we realize, a Lab puppy comes into my life the very same day of my husband’s death.  I name her Mollie after him and am comforted that whenever I say her name, I say his.

    At night she sits by my bedside as I read Emerson aloud to her:  These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day.  RWE, “Self-Reliance”.   And even though Mollie attentively turns her head from side to side and lifts her ears in a most beguiling manner, I know there must be a better way.

    I submit a note to my church newsletter asking if anyone would like to meet to read Emerson aloud and I am amazed when nine people respond.  Friends of Emerson is born in Colorado Springs.  Some people come once and never return, but over time the number grows.  I send out a background e-mail prior to each meeting, learning as I go.   Several of those unable to make the twice monthly 4:00-5:00 meeting time, opt to read the essays on their own, following the group schedule.

    The mailing list grows to forty and broadens to include people outside of church members.  Of the forty, about a dozen, equal numbers of men and women, become regulars, rarely missing the sessions.  

     While most have only a passing acquaintance with Emerson, trying a group named friends of Emerson does not deter them.   They come out of intellectual curiosity, and they stay because they like the provocative conversations that Emerson inspires.  We wrestle with the text, swear at Emerson’s contradictions, swoon at the beauty of his lyricism, and . . . we laugh a lot.

    The process evolves into selecting an essay with a choice of reading it ahead of time or coming with a fresh “beginner’s mind.”   We sit in a circle, take turns reading one paragraph at a time, followed by discussion.  Sometimes the topic is so potent that two or three paragraphs take the entire hour.

     We began with Essays, First Series, and frequently return to them.  We’ve read several twice, some three times.  We read Nature in 2006 and again in 2013.  “The Divinity School Address” was a three-peat.   Repeated readings increase our understanding and show us how much of Emerson we have absorbed through our regular practice.  We paired Experience with Threnody, Friendship with the Thoreau Eulogy, Emerson’s political writing with election years.    I periodically compile an inventory with “What We’ve Read” printed in black and “What’s Left” printed in red.  No one doubts that Emerson will outlive us all.

    Over the years, Emerson scholars become our comrades-in-arms.  We refer to them like next-door-neighbors.  “You know what Geldard said on that subject.”   “I thought we might get into that, so I brought Gougeon.”

    Emerson leads assuredly to Thoreau and I have become a regular attendee at the Thoreau Annual Gathering held each July in Concord, MA.  This year, some of the Friends of Emerson plan to join me.

    Because of family obligations, I was extremely disappointed to miss the 2013 Thoreau Annual Gathering when Robert Richardson was the keynote speaker.  My next best thing was to write to him, telling him about the group and the part he had played in its formation.  I ended my e-mail with: “Writers don’t always know when they’ve become a link in a chain.  I wanted you to know.”  I was thrilled to receive an e-mail response, closed graciously with “Long may your group thrive.”

    When I began the group, I thought it might last six weeks.  At the end of one year, I said to myself,  “Things run their course.  When I find myself sitting alone here three times in a row, that will be a sign to call it quits.”     But I no longer worry about the longevity of the group.  Emerson has permeated our thinking:  Fill my hour, ye gods, so that I shall not say, “behold an hour of my life gone,” – but rather, I have lived an hour. RWE, “Works and Days.”   We continue our experience with Emerson, one hour at a time.  Our Rocky Mountain outpost, far from the Concord mother ship, is now in its eleventh year.

    Eleven years.  I think back to the question I asked at the beginning of my relationship with Emerson: “How can I live my life without Ollie?”

     Love and loss remain in my heart but they are cradled by Emerson’s words.  Accept, accept, he wrote in the margins of his journal after the death of his young son.  The only ballast I know is a respect to the present hour, he counsels in “Experience.”  He ends “Compensation” by acknowledging a surprising gift, which unthinkable to me the first time I read it, has indeed become true:  The death of a [loved one], which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide. . . and the man or woman who would have remained a sunny garden-flower, with no room for its roots and too much sunshine for its head. . . is made the banian of the forest, yielding shade and fruit to wide neighborhoods of men.