A 9-year-old’s wisdom and a trip to Walden Pond

Recently I started volunteering with El Sistema Somerville, based on the famed program pioneered by Dr. José Antonio Abreu in Venezuela in the 1970s, but geared in this case towards children from working-class (and immigrant, in many cases) backgrounds residing in East Somerville, to give them a positive outlet through music and an opportunity for self-empowerment and esteem-building. As a violinist, I’ve been tapped to give private lessons to several of the kids, which has been truly fantastic–it brings back a lot of memories of my JET Programme days, when I also taught kids around this age and had such a blast doing so. What’s interesting this time, though, is that the kids instantly noticed that I’m “different,” because I’m brown-skinned like they are.

It ended up being an interesting way of breaking the ice with the one rather energetic kid who I worked with this past Thursday:

Me: (saying something about my brother)
Kid: “What’s your brother’s name?”
Me: “Nishant.”
Kid: “What’s your name?”
Me: “Smitha.”
Kid: (strange look)
Me: “It’s Indian. Our family is from India.”
Kid: “Ah, okay! I knew you were Indian because you’re brown-skinned.”
Me: (momentarily shocked, then laughing) “Well, lots of people have brown skin, you know!”
Kid: “I mean, I mean, I knew that because you have brown skin, you come from another country.”

And then…

Kid: “Are you a teenager? You look like you are because you have pimples and stuff.”
Me: (half-joking, half-seriously claps my hand over part of my face where I do have a bit of an acne outbreak) “No, I’m not a teenager.”
Kid: “What are you doing?”
Me: “I don’t want you to see my pimples.”
Kid: (suddenly very interested) “What? Where don’t you want me to see?”
Me: “I’m not telling you!”
Kid: “But if you’re not a teenager, how come you have pimples like that?” (gestures higher up at my face)
Me: (realizing) “What–you mean these?”
Kid: “Yeah! What are those brown spots?”
Me: “These are freckles.” (pointing at the brown spots on my cheekbones)
Kid: “Ohhh. But I thought freckles were pink?”
Me: “Nope, sometimes they’re brown.”
Kid: “Oh. But wait, that’s still your cheek?”
Me: “Yeah, this whole area–” (gestures) “–is your cheek.”
Kid: “Oh!”

In mid-lesson…

Kid: (explaining his behavior, as whenever he makes a mistake, he breathes heavily and gesticulates in frustration) “I just get angry sometimes. I’m an angry person, but I know I shouldn’t get angry.”

Circling back around…

Me: “How old are you?”
Kid: “Nine. How old are you?”
Me: (giving in) “Thirty-one.”
Kid: “Oh.” (pauses, thinks) “My dad is thirty-two. My mom is thirty-one.”
Me: “Oh, okay.” (as an aside) “Wow, I’m old enough to be your mom…”

Kid: “Do you have kids?”
Me: “Nope.”
Kid: “A husband?”
Me: “Nope.”
Kid: (surprised) “Don’t you want one?”
Me: (cringing, as this means I’m now being hounded about this from all age groups) “Sure, yeah. I just don’t have one yet.”
Kid: “Well, you have your family, like your parents and stuff, right?”
Me: “That’s right.”
Kid: “And you’re happy to have your parents, right?”
Me: “Yeah, definitely.”
Kid: “Well, I think your parents are really happy to have you. And they probably want you to be happy like them. Try it! You should try it sometime!”
Me: (unable to stop grinning) “Okay. Maybe I will.”

* * * * *

On Saturday I finally moved officially into an apartment of my own–my first time living alone since 2007. My previous roommate situation just went downhill rather rapidly (I could say a lot more, dripping in bitterness and resentment, but I’ll just stop right there) and I broke my lease and got out to save my own sanity and seek my own happiness again. I moved in with a coworker/friend, but due to an unexpected visit from her parents, she needed her spare room back much sooner than we both anticipated, so I moved on, and was fortunate enough to pounce on this apartment.

Anyway, I had dinner plans with some relatives northwest of here, and was so exhausted that I ended up crashing at their place for the night. The next day, on my drive back towards the city, I spotted signs for Walden Pond and decided to go check it out.

The weather was cool and there were more people out than I expected, but it was still possible at times to feel like I was all alone in the woods as I circled the pond. The sight of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin’s remains really evoked a sense of wistfulness within me. Is it possible to live such a life of isolation like that these days? Do I have it in me to do something like that? Or am I too dependent on material concerns in life to consider letting go of them for several years, and living almost solely with what I could make and build?

What was particularly surprising to me was that there’s a major route that cuts right by the pond (between it and the parking lot, in fact), and several planes and helicopters went overhead and disturbed the silence as well. I was also surprised to see several commuter rail trains go by on the far side of the lake, but then read that that railroad track had been there even during Thoreau’s own visit. He wasn’t completely cut off from all traces of civilization.

I managed to distract myself from that self-deprecating “man, I’m not capable of this” train of thought, and focused on the beautiful hike through the woods, with lovely views of the pond. It was easy to imagine what it must have been like during Thoreau’s day; despite the civilization, it was still heavily wooded. It’s an interesting contrast to the intense, semi-claustrophobic bustle of Boston and its immediate suburbs, and a very therapeutic one. I’d started going for acupuncture the preceding week (thanks to a LivingSocial deal) and found the forced 30 minutes of quiet relaxation incredibly valuable, and was able to tap into that same sense of peace as I hiked roughly 1.5 miles partway around the pond and back again.

* * * * *

The common thread between both of these is that they relate so heavily to this struggle to figure out what I want my future to be. Do I want children? Will I even get married first? Will I regret not having children? How can I live more virtuously and be true to myself and to the planet? What are the big priorities for me going forward?

Sometimes it’s simpler than you make it. There’s a lot that you can control, but there’s also a lot that you can’t. All you can do is take steps to be true to yourself, to be good and true to the people in your life and to the world that hosts you for a spell. (Well, I’m still working on letting go and accepting those simple truths as being enough. But I hope to get there someday.) Everyone has their own path there. Mine is becoming clearer, in the sense that I’m happy to be flexible, to embark on adventures in this period of my life and to not be in a hurry to settle down into the expected and the conventional. With luck, everything else will work itself out.

I’m just glad to be in a situation where these tidbits of conventional wisdom make themselves known through such creative venues as the wisdom of a bright-eyed elementary school child and the history and heritage of the wooded area where a man as good as achieved enlightenment. And I am so grateful.

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