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canoe

A Journey Downstream with Friends, Past and Present

The following blog entry comes to us from our colleague and friend, Betsy K. Brown, who teaches and chairs the humanities program at Cicero Preparatory Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona. A graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, with a focus on creative nonfiction, Betsy loves to share the goodness of words and stories with young people amid the beauty of the American Southwest

This summer I spent two days canoeing with my siblings and friends on the Little Miami River in Ohio. We saw woodpeckers and beavers, got soaked by cloudbursts, and even heard the gunshot pop of a falling sycamore across the water.  

As we paddled downstream, several literary “friends” who enjoyed similar jaunts appeared in our thoughts and conversations, particularly Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau. My family and I talked about recent readings of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and started affectionately calling the river “mighty free and easy and comfortable.” Later, as we stood on the porch of our nearby cottage and watched the birds, I remembered Thoreau’s similar observations of creatures near Walden Pond, from red squirrels to ants; we discussed the value of practicing to become “unhurried and wise.”  

My memories of great books invited me to more deeply appreciate those June days on the river with my loved ones. Our literary references sparked good conversations, sharpened our observations, and deepened our gratitude.  

I thought then what a joy it is to have scraps of great books ingrained in the memory, ready to enrich any spontaneous moment. The more often we saturate ourselves in the true, good, and beautiful, the more it is close at hand. I hope and strive to be able to do this more and more as I get older. Back in college I remember being in awe of professors who spontaneously snatched quotations of Plato and Frost out of the pockets of their memories like handy pencils (“Ah, yes, that reminds me of a poem that goes like this…”). Back then I thought it intellectual acrobatics, but now as I grow as a reader and educator and find myself beginning to do the same thing, I realize that my noblest of teachers were doing it neither for show nor ultimately for argument. Rather, it sprang from their great affection.  

Good books are channels in the river of the story of mankind. As we explore this river, we are cast adrift like Jim and Huck. We must submit to the current and let it lead us where it will, since parts of this story will always be beyond our understanding. This journey also requires discipline; we must paddle hard at times and pay close attention. Then, as we journey for so long that we become intimate with the river’s inhabitants, neighbors, and members, our affection grows. Over time we begin to notice how every ordinary moment, from family vacations to grading papers, connects us to the current of this larger story. 

This long journey of love links everything we see and do to the great story of being human. In the words of Thoreau himself,  “For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave.” We are being invited by these books to participate in the nobility of man. As I travel alongside my family, I hope we continue to travel alongside the larger literary family as well, and in their company slowly grow in wonder. 

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