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November 26, 2009

Wade Rouse: Wade's Walden

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Wade Rouse, author of the memoirs AMERICA'S BOY, CONFESSIONS OF A PREP SCHOOL MOMMY HANDLER, and AT LEAST IN THE CITY SOMEONE WOULD HEAR ME SCREAM, recounts summers in the Ozarks with his grandma and how that special time helped to mold him into the man he is today.

I spent my childhood summers at a log cabin in the Ozarks with my grandparents. It sat on a beautiful bluff overlooking a shimmering ribbon of water called, sweetly, Sugar Creek. On summer Sundays, I would join my grandma on a barn-red glider that sat on a bluff beside the cabin, and she would read to me from her two favorite books: The Bible and WALDEN.

My grandma, one of God’s true foot soldiers, used to tell me in our “Creek Coffee Chats” that she felt the Bible was more for her after-life but that Walden was for her here-life. Now, in the Ozarks, that was a courageous thing to admit, considering, as my grandma used to tell me, such an admission would earn her the cuckoo whistle at the Piggly Wiggly.

My grandma was a very wise woman, but, as a woman born in the early 1900s, she was never in a position to follow her dream of being a fashion designer. Rather, she was worked as a seamstress out of her church’s basement. Which is why my grandma, I believe, always told me to pursue my passion and to not, as Henry David Thoreau --- a man who serves as my inspiration in my current memoir, AT LEAST IN THE CITY SOMEONE WOULD HEAR ME SCREAM --- wrote in WALDEN “fall into a particular route,” meaning once we became adults and got our tires firmly entrenched in the mud of life, they usually refused to ever go off track.

Due to her encouragement, I used to journal about everything going on around me in my tiny Ozarks town: Whether I was forced to go cowtippin’ with the country boys or watch my brother nail rabbit pelts to our giant oak tree, it seemed to be only the only way a boy with a fondness for ascots and dreams of being a writer could make sense of his rural world.

For a while when I was young, I called my mom, a nurse, “Digit,” because she became infamous in our little town for being the go-to gal whenever a local cut off a toe with a lawnmower or whacked off a finger with a chainsaw. My mother would answer our giant red, rotary phone, the kind presidents use in comedy skits when they are about to launch a nuclear bomb, and calmly say, “Do you have your big toe? Well, can you locate it? Good!”

And then she would rush out of the house, often barefoot, in a nightgown, with a little Igloo cooler filled with ice. She would retrieve the detached digit and personally rush the injured idiot to the ER of the neighboring hospital where she worked.

“Good stuff!” my grandma said, when I’d read her such passages from my journal.

It was largely because of her that I applied and was accepted to graduate school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In fact, my grandma willed herself --- as she was dying of cancer --- to help drive me to Chicago to see the campus firsthand. And during my first semester, she wrote me long letters asking if I were, à la Thoreau, “on the right/write path.”

My grandma held on long enough for me to return home on Christmas break to show her some of my writing. “Good stuff!” she smiled.

My grandmother was buried days before Christmas, but she left me two special gifts to open: Her old copy of WALDEN and a journal filled with letters she had written me but never mailed.

And those gifts would eventually change my life.

When I hit 40 with a hideous thud --- a crash that I write about in my second memoir, CONFESSIONS OF A PREP SCHOOL MOMMY HANDLER, which chronicles my tenure as PR director at one of the nation’s oldest, richest, most prestigious prep schools, where I eventually realize my real job is to cater to a catty Lilly Pulitzer-clad clique of “Mean Mommies” --- I rediscovered WALDEN and my grandmother’s letters and finally asked myself if I were “on the right/write path.”

And so, remembering my grandma, my partner and I leapt off a bridge without a parachute. We --- in spite of people telling us we should be institutionalized --- quit our high-paying jobs, left the city, cable and consumerism behind, and moved to the woods of Michigan in order to recreate a modern-day WALDEN and pursue my dream of being a writer, all of which is chronicled in my latest memoir, AT LEAST IN THE CITY SOMEONE WOULD HEAR ME SCREAM, which was selected this year by NBC’s Today Show as a Must-Read.

There is a quote in WALDEN that my grandmother earmarked for me long ago, which I re-read nearly every week:

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

Such is the enduring power of words, of letters, of dreams, of books.

They can, and do, change lives.

-- Wade Rouse

This evening, Celia Rivenbark reminisces about a favorite picture book, and reflects on the lighter side of being a born-worrier.