THE cottages are closed; the summer people have gone back to the city; only the farmers and the commuters — barnacled folk — remain as the summer tide recedes, fixed to the rocks of winter because they have grown fast. To live is to have two houses: a country house for the summer, a city house for the winter; to close one, and open the other; to change, to flit!
How different it used to be when I was a boy — away yonder in the days of farms and homes and old-fashioned winters! Things were prepared for, made something of, and enjoyed in those days — the ‘ quiltings,’ the ‘raisings,’ the Thanksgivings! What getting ready there used to be — especially for the winter! for what was n’t there to get ready! and how much of everything to get ready there used to be!
It began along in late October, continuing with more speed as the days shortened and hurried us into November. It must all be done by Thanksgiving Day— everything brought in, everything housed and battened down tight. The gray lowering clouds, the cold snap, the first flurry of snow, how they hastened and heartened the work! Thanksgiving found us ready for winter, indoors and out.
The hay-mows were full to the beams where the swallows built; the north and west sides of the barnyard were flanked with a deep wind-break of corn-fodder that ran on down the old worm-fence each side of the lane, in yellow zigzag walls; the big wooden pump under the rambo tree by the barn was bundled up and buttoned to the tip of its dripping nose; the bees by the currant bushes were double-hived; the strawberries mulched; the wood all split and piled; the cellar windows packed; and the storm-doors put on. The cows had put on an extra coat too, and turned their collars up about their ears; the turkeys had changed their roost from the ridgepole of the corn-crib to the pearmain tree on the sunny side of the wagonhouse; the squirrels had finished their bulky nests in the oaks; the muskrats of the lower pasture had completed their lodges; the whole farm—house, barn, fields, and wood-lot — had shuffled into its greatcoat, its muffler and muffetees, and settled comfortably down for the winter.
The old farmhouse was an invitation to winter. It looked its joy at the prospect of the coming cold. Low, weather-worn, mossy-shingled, secluded in its wayward garden of box and bleeding-hearts, sheltered by its tall pines, grape-vined, hop-vined, clung to by creeper and honeysuckle, it stood where the roads divided, half-way between everywhere, unpainted, unpretentious, as much a part of the landscape as the muskrat-lodge; and, like it, roomy, warm, and hospitable. Round at the back, under the wide, open shed, a door led into the kitchen, another led into the living-room, another into the store-room; and two big, slanting double-doors, scoured and slippery with four generations of sliders, covered the cavernous way into the cellar. But they let the smell of apples up, as the garret door let the smell of sage and thyme come down; while from the door of the store-room, mingling with the odor of apples and herbs, filling the whole house and all my early memories, came the smell of broom-corn, came the sound of grandfather’s loom.
Behind the stove in the kitchen, fresh-papered like the kitchen walls, stood the sweet-potato box (a sweet potato must be kept dry and warm), an ample box, a ten-barrel box full of Jersey sweets that were sweet, — long, golden, syrupy potatoes, grown in the warm sandy soil of the ‘Jethro Piece.’ Against the box stood the sea-chest, fresh with the same paper and piled with wood. There was another such chest in the living-room near the old fireplace, and still another in grandfather’s work-room behind the ‘ tenplate stove.’
But wood and warmth and sweet smells were not all. There was music also, the music of life, of young life and of old life—grandparents, grandchildren (about twenty-eight of them). There were seven of us alone — a girl at each end of the seven and one in the middle, which is Heaven’s own mystic number and divine arrangement. Thanksgiving always found us all at grandfather’s and brimming full of thanks.
That, of course, was long, long ago. Things are different nowadays. There are as many grandfathers, I suppose, as ever; but they don’t make brooms in the winter anymore, and live on farms. They live in flats. The old farm with its open acres has become a city street; the generous old farmhouse has become a button, a tube, five rooms, bath — all the ‘modern conveniences’; the cows have evaporated into convenient cans of condensed ‘milk’; the ten-barrel box of potatoes has changed into a convenient ten-pound bag; the wood-pile into a convenient five-cent bundle of blocks tied up with a tarred string; the fireplace into a convenient moss-and-flamepainted gas log; the seven children into one, or none, or into a convenient Boston bull-terrier pup. But still, let us give thanks, for, convenient as life has become to-day, it has not yet all gone to the dogs.
It is true, however, that there might be fewer dogs, possibly, and more children; fewer fiats and more farms; less canned milk (or whatever the paste is) and more real cream. Surely we might buy less and raise more; hire less and make more; travel less and see more; hear less and think more. Life might be quieter for some of us; profounder, perhaps, for others of us, — more inconvenient indeed, for all of us, and yet a thing to be thankful for.
It might; but most of us doubt it. It is not for the things we possess, but only for the things we have not, for the things we are relieved of, the things we escape,—for our conveniences,—that we are thankful nowadays. Life is summued up with us in negations. We tally our conveniences only, quick-detachable-tired, six-cylindered, seventy-horse-powered conveniences. To construct eighteen-million dollars’ worth of destruction in the shape of a gun-boat! to lay out a beautiful road and then to build a machine to ‘eat it ’! to be allotted a span of time, and study how to annihilate it! O Lord, we thank Thee that we have all the modern conveniences, from cucumbers at Christmas to a Celestial Crêche! Heaven is such a nice, fit, convenient place for our unborn children! God is their home. The angels can take such gentle care of them! Besides, they are not so in the way there; and, if need be, we have the charity children and other people’s children; or we have the darling little sweet-faced Boston bull-terrier pup.
For myself, I have never had a little cherub-faced bull-pup; but at this present writing I am helping to bring up our fourth baby, and I think I see the convenience of the pup. And I am only the father of the baby at that!
To begin with, you can buy a pup. You can send the stable-man after it. But not a baby. Not even the doctor can fetch it. The mother must go herself after her baby — to Heaven it may be; but she will carry it all the way through Hell before she brings it to the earth, this earth of sunlit fields and stormy skies, so evidently designed to make men of babies. A long perilous journey this, across a whole social season.
Certainly the little dog is a great convenience; and as certainly he is a great negation, — the substitution, as with most conveniences, of a thing for a self.
Our birth may be a sleep and a forgetting, but life immediately after is largely an inconvenience. That is the meaning of an infant’s first strangling wail. He is protesting against the inconvenience of breathing. Breathing is an inconvenience; eating is an inconvenience; sleeping is an inconvenience; praying is an inconvenience; but they are part and parcel of life, and nothing has been done yet to relieve the situation, except in the item of prayer. From the several other inconveniences not mentioned above, that round out life (death excepted), we have found ways of escape — by borrowing, renting, hiring, avoiding, denying, until living, which is the sum of all inconveniences, has been reduced to its minimum.
But not for the Commuter. Living for him is near its maximum. I have been reckoning up my inconveniences: the things that I possess; the things I have that are mine; not rented, borrowed, hired, avoided, but claimed, performed, made, owned; that I am burdened with, responsible for; that require my time and my hands. And I find that, for this essay, I must confine myself strictly to the inconveniences incidental to commuting.
To begin with, there is the place of the Commuter’s home. Home? Yes, no doubt, he has a home, but where is it? Can Heaven, beside the Commuter, find out the way there?
You are standing with your question at the entrance of the great terminal station as the wintry day and the city are closing, and it is small wonder that you ask if God knows whither, over the maze of tracks reaching out into the night, each of this commuting multitude is going. But follow one, any one of the bundled throng — this one, this tired, fine-faced Scotchman of fifty years whom we chanced to see during the day selling silks behind the counter of a vast department store.
It is a chill November evening, with the meagre twilight already spent. Our Commuter has boarded a train for a nineteen-mile ride; then an electric car for five miles more, when he gets off, under a lone electric light, swinging amid the skeleton limbs of forest trees. We follow him on, now afoot, down a road dark with night, and overhanging pines, on past a light in a barn, and on, when a dog barks, a horse whinnies, a lantern flares suddenly into the road and comes pattering down at us on two feet, calling, ‘Father! father!’
We stop at the gate as father and daughter enter the glowing kitchen; then a moment later we hear a cheerful voice greeting the horse, and had we gone closer to the barn we might have heard the creamy tinkle of milk, spattering warm into the bottom of the tin pail.
Heaven knew whither, over the reaching rails, this tired seller of silks was going. Heaven was there awaiting him. The yard-stick was laid down at halfpast five o’clock; at half-past six by the clock the Commuter was far away, farther than the other side of the world, in his own small barn where they neither sell silk nor buy it, but where they have a loft full of fragrant meadow hay, and keep a cow, and eat their oatmeal porridge with cream.
It is an inconvenient world, this distant, darkened, unmapped country of the Commuter. Only God and the Commuter know how to get there, and they alone know why they stay. But there are reasons, good and sufficient reasons — there are inconveniences, I should say, many and compelling inconveniences, such as wife and children, miles in, miles out, the isolation, the chores, the bundles — loads of bundles — that keep the Commuter commuting. Once a commuter, always a commuter; because there is no place along the road, either way, where he can lay his bundles down.
Bundles, and miles in, and miles out, and isolation, and children, and chores? I will count them all.
The bundles I have carried! And the bundles I have yet to carry! to ‘tote’! to ‘tote’! But is it all of life to be free from bundles? How indeed may one so surely know that one has a hold upon life as when one has it done into a bundle? Life is never so tangible, never so compact and satisfactory, as while still wrapped up and tied with a string. One’s clothes, to take a single example, as one bears them home in a box, are an anticipation and a pure joy — the very clothes that, the next day, one wears as a matter of course, or wears with disconcerting self-consciousness, or, it may be, with physical distress.
And here are the Commuter’s weary miles. Life to everybody is a good deal of a journey; to nobody so little of a journey, however, as to the Commuter, for his traveling always brings him home.
Now with his isolation and his chores it is different, because they really have no separate existence save in the urban mind, as hydrogen and oxygen have no separate existence save in the corked flasks of the laboratory. These gases are found side by side nowhere in nature. Only water is to be found free in the clouds and springs and seas — only the union of hydrogen and oxygen, because it is part of the being of these two elements to combine. So is it the nature of chores and isolation to combine — into water, like hydrogen and oxygen; into a well of water, springing up everlastingly to the health, the contentment, and to the self-sufficiency of the Commuter.
At the end of the Commuter’s evening journey, where he lays his bundles down, is home, which means a house, not a latch-key and ‘rooms’; a house, I say, not a ‘floor,’ but a house that has foundations and a roof, that has an outside as well as inside, that has shape, character, personality, for the reason that the Commuter, and not a Community, lives there. Flats, tenements, ‘chambers,’ ‘apartments’ — what are they but public buildings, just as inns and hospitals and baths are, where you pay for your room and icewater, or for your cot in the ward, as the case may be? And what are they but unmistakable signs of a reversion to early tribal conditions, when not only the cave was shared in common, but the wives and children and the day’s kill? The differences between an ancient cliff-house and a modern flat are mere details of construction; life in the two would have to be essentially the same, with odds, particularly as to room and prospect, in favor of the cliffdweller.
The least of the troubles of flatting is the flat; the greatest is the shaping of life to fit the flat, conforming, and sharing one’s personality, losing it indeed! I’ll commute first! The only thing I possess that distinguishes me from a factory shoe-last or an angel of heaven is my personality. Shoe-lasts are known by sizes and styles, angels by ranks; but a man is known by what he is n’t, and by what he has n’t, in common with anybody else.
One must commute, if one would live in a house, and have a home of one’s own, provided, of course, that one works in New York City, or in Boston or Chicago; and provided, further, that one is as poor as one ought to be. And most city-workers are as poor as they ought to be — as poor, in other words, as I am.
Poor! Where is the man rich enough to buy Central Park or Boston Common? For that he must needs do who would make a city home with anything like my dooryard and sky and quiet. A whole house, after all, is only the beginning of a home; the rest of it is dooryard and situation. A house is for the body; a home for body and soul; and the soul needs as much room outside as inside the house, — needs a garden and some domestic animal and the starry vault of the sky.
It is better to be cramped for room within the house than without. Yet the yard need not be large, certainly not a farm, nor a gentleman’s estate, nor fourteen acres of woodchucks, such as my own. Neither can it be, for the Commuter, something abandoned in the remote foothills, nor something wanton, like a naked brazen piece of sea-sand ‘at the beach.’
The yard may vary in size, but it must be of soil, clothed upon with grass, with a bush or a tree in it, a garden, and some animal, even if the animal has to be kept in the tree, as with one of my neighbors, who is forced to keep his bees in his single weeping willow, his yard not being quite large enough for his house and his hive. A bee needs considerable room.
And the soul of the Commuter needs room, — craves it,— but not mere acres, nor plenitude of things. I have fourteen acres, and they are too many. Eight of them are in woods and gypsy moths. Besides, at this writing, I have one cow, one yearling heifer, one lovely calf, with nature conspiring to get me a herd of cows; also ten colonies of bees, which are more than any Commuter needs, even if they never swarmed; nor does he need so many coming cows.
But with only one cow, and only one colony of bees, and only one acre of yard, still how impossibly inconvenient, how unnecessarily expensive, indeed, the life of the Commuter is! A cow is truly an inconvenience if you care for her yourself — an inherent, constitutional, unexceptional inconvenience are cows and wives il you care for them yourself. A hive of bees is an inconvenience; a house of your own is an inconvenience, and, according to the figures of many of my business friends, an unwarranted luxury. It is cheaper to rent, they find. ' Why not keep your money in your business, where you can turn it?’ they argue. ‘Real estate is a poor investment generally, — so hard to sell, when you want to, without a sacrifice.’
It is all too true. The house, the cow, the children, are all inconvenient. I can buy two quarts of blue Holstein milk of a milkman, typhoid and scarlet-fever germs included, with much less inconvenience than I can make my yellow-skinned Jersey give down her fourteen quarts a day. I can live in a rented house with less inconvenience than in this house of my own. I am always free to go away from a rented house, and I am always glad to go. The joy of renting is to move, or sublet; also to be rid of taxes and repairs. ‘ Let the risers rot! It is n’t my house, and if I break my neck I ’ll sue for damages!’ There is your renter, and the joy he gets in renting.
There are advantages, certainly, in renting; your children, for instance, can each be born in a different house, if you rent; and if they chance to come all boys, like my own, they can grow up at the City Athletic Association — a more or less permanent place, nowadays, which may answer very well their instinctive needs for a fixed abode, for a home. There are other advantages, no doubt; but however you reckon them, the rented house is in the end a tragedy, as the willful renter and his homeless family is a calamity, a disgrace, a national menace. Drinking and renting are vicious habits. A house and a bit of land of your own are as necessary to normal living as fresh air, food, a clear conscience, and work to do.
If so, then the question is, Where shall one make his home? ‘ Where shall the scholar live?’ asks Longfellow; ‘in solitude or society? In the green stillness of the country where he can hear the heart of nature beat, or in the dark gray city where he can feel and hear the throbbing heart of man? I make answer for him to say, In the city.’
I should say so, too, and I should say it without so much oracular solemnity. The city for the scholar. He needs books, and they do not grow in cornfields. The pale book-worm is a city worm, and feeds on glue and dust and faded ink. The big green tomato-worm lives in the country. But this is not a question of where scholars should live; it is where men should live, and their children. Where shall a man’s home be? Where shall he eat his supper? Where lay him down to sleep when his day’s work is done? Where find his odd job and spend his Sunday? Where shall his children keep themselves usefully busy and find room to play? Let the Commuter, not the scholar, make answer.
The Commuter knows the dark gray city, knows it darker and grayer than the scholar, for the Commuter works there, shut up in a basement, or in an elevator, maybe, six days a week; he feels and hears the throbbing heart of man all the day long; and when evening comes he hurries away to the open country where he can hear the heart of nature beat, where he can listen a little to the beating of his own.
Where, then, should a man live? I will make answer only for myself, and say, Here in Hingham, right where I am, for here the sky is round and large, the evening and the Sunday silences are deep, the dooryards are wide, the houses are single, and the neighborhood ambitions are good kitchen-gardens, good gossip, fancy chickens, and clean paint.
There are other legitimate ambitions, and the Commuter is not without them; but these go far toward making home home, toward giving point and purpose to life, and a pinch of pride.
The ideal home depends very much, of course, on the home you had as a child, but I can think of nothing so ideally homelike as a farm, — an ideal farm, ample, bountiful, peaceful, with the smell of apples coming up from the cellar, and the fragrance of herbs and broom-corn haunting store-room and attic.
The day is past when every man’s home can be his farm, dream as every man may of sometime having such a home; but the day has just arrived when every man’s home can be his garden and chicken-pen and dooryard, with room and quiet and trees.
The day has come, for the means are at hand, when life, despite its present centralization, can be more spread out, roomier, simpler, healthier, more nearly normal, because lived nearer to the soil. It is time that every American home was built in the open country, for there is plenty of land — land in my immediate neighborhood for a hundred homes where children can romp, and your neighbor’s hens, too, and the inter-neighborhood peace brood undisturbed. And such a neighborhood need not be either the howling wilderness, where the fox still yaps, or the semisubmerged suburban village, where every house has its Window-in-Thrums. The Commuter cannot live in the wild country, else he must cease to commute; and as for small-village life — I suppose it might be worse. It is not true that man made the city, that God made the country, and that the Devil made the village in between; but it is pretty nearly true, perhaps.
But the Commuter, it must be remembered, is a social creature, especially the Commuter’s wife, and no near kin to stumps and stars. They may do to companion the prophetic soul, but not the a verage Commuter, for he is common and human, and needs his own kind. Any scheme of life that ignores this human hankering is sure to come to grief; any benevolent plan for homesteading the city poor that would transfer them from the garish day of the slums to the sweet solitudes of unspoiled nature had better provide them with copies of The Pleasures of Melancholy and leave them to bask on their fire-escapes.
Though to my city friends I seem somewhat remote and incontiguous, still I am not dissevered and dispersed from my kind, for I am only twenty miles from Boston Common, and as I write I hear the lowing of a neighbor’s cows, the voices of his children as they play along the brook below, and off among the fifteen square miles of treetops that fill my front yard, I see two village spires, two Congregational spires, once one, that divided and fell and rose again on opposite sides of the village street. I often look at those spires, and as often think of the many sweet trees that wave between me and the tapering steeples, where they look up to worship toward the sky, and look down to scowl across the street.
Any lover of the city could live as far out as this; could live here and work there. I have no quarrel with the city as a place to work in. Cities are as necessary as wheat-fields and as lovely too — from twenty miles away, or from Westminster Bridge at daybreak. The city is as a head to the body, the nervous centre where the multitudinous sensations are organized and directed, where the multitudinous and inter-related interests of the round world are directed. The city is necessary; city work is necessary; but less and less is city living necessary.
It is less and less possible also. New York City — the length and breadth of Manhattan — and Boston, from the Fenway in three directions to the water-front, areas unfit for a child to grow up in as the basement floor of a china store for a calf. There might be hay enough on such a floor for a calf, as there is doubtless air enough on a New York City street for a child. It is not the lack of things — not even of air — in a city, that renders life next to impossible there; it is rather the multitude of things. City life is a threeringed circus, with a continuous performance, with interminable side-shows and peanuts and pink lemonade; it is jarred and jostled and trampled and crowded and hurried; it is overstimulated, spindling, and premature — it is too convenient.
You can crowd desks and pews and work-benches without much danger, but not outlooks and personalities, not beds and doorsteps. Men will work to advantage under a single roof; they cannot sleep to advantage so. A man can work under almost any conditions; he can live under very few.
Here in New England — as everywhere— the conditions of labor during the last quarter-century have vastly changed, while the conditions of healthful living have remained essentially the same, as they must continue to remain for the next millennium.
Some years ago I moved into an ancient house in one of the oldest of New England towns. Over the kitchen, one day, I found a room that had to be entered by ladder from without. That room was full of lasts and benches — all the kit necessary for shoe-making on a small scale. There were other houses scattered about with other such rooms — closed as if by death. Far from it. Yonder in the distance smoked the chimney of a great factory. All the cobblers of these houses had gathered there to make shoes by machine. But where do they live? and how? Here in the old houses where their fathers lived, and as their fathers lived, riding, however, to and from their work on the electric cars.
I am now living in an adjoining town where, on my drive to the station, I pass a small hamlet of five houses grouped about a little shop, through whose windows I can see benches, lasts, and old stitching-machines. Shoes were once made here on a large scale, by more recent methods. Some one is building a boat inside now. The shoemakers have gathered at the great factory with the shoemakers of the neighbor town. But they continue to live in the hamlet, as they used to, under the open sky, in their small gardens. And they need to. The conditions of their work have quite changed, the simple, large needs of their lives remain forever the same.
Let a man work where he will, or must; let him live where only the whole man can live — in a house of his own, in a yard of his own, with something green and growing to cultivate, something alive and responsive to take care of; and let it be out under the sky of his birthright, in a quiet where he can hear the wind among the leaves, and the wild geese as they honk high overhead in the night to remind him that the seasons have changed, that winter is following down their flying wedge.
As animals (and we are entirely animal) we are as far under the dominion of nature as any ragweed or woodchuck. But we are entirely human too, and have a human need of nature, that is, a spiritual need, which is no less real than the physical. We die by the million yearly for lack of sunshine and pure air; and who knows how much of our moral ill-health might be traced to our lack of contact with the healing, rectifying soul of woods and skies?
A man needs to see the stars every night that the sky is clear. Turning down his own small lamp, he should step out into the night to see the pole star where he burns or ‘the Pleiads rising through the mellow shade.’
One cannot live among the Pleiads; one cannot even see them half of the time; and one must spend part of one’s time in the mill. Yet never to look for the Pleiads, or to know which way to look, is to spend, not part, but all of one’s time in the mill.
‘The dales for shade, the hills for breathing space,’ and life for something other than mere work!
The Commuter is bound to see the stars nightly, as he goes down to shut up the hens. He has the whole outdoors in his yard, with the exception of a good fish-pond; but if he has no pond, he has, and always has, to save him from the round of the mill, a little round of his own — those various endless, small, inconvenient home-tasks, known as ‘chores.’ To fish is ‘to be for a space dissolved in the flux of things, to escape the calculable, drop a line into the mysterious realms above or below conscious thought’; to ‘chore’ is for a space to stem the sweeping tides of time, to outride the storms of fate, to sail serene the sea of life — to escape the mill!
Blessed is the man who has his millwork to do, perfunctory, necessitous, machine-work to do; twice blessed the man who has his mill-work to do and who loves the doing of it; thrice blessed the man who has it, who loves it, and who, besides, has the varied, absorbing, self-asserting, self-imposed labors about his own barn to perform!
There are two things in the economy of unperverted nature that it was never intended, I think, should exist: the childless woman and the choreless man. For what is a child but a woman with a soul? And what is a chore? Let me quote the dictionary: —
' Chore, char, a small job; especially a piece of minor domestic work, as about a house or barn; . . . generally in the plural.’
A small, domestic, plural job! There are men without such a job, but not by nature’s intention; as there are women without children, and cows without cream.
What change and relief is this small, domestic, plural job from the work of the shop! That work is set and goes by the clock. It is nine hours long, and all in the large or all in the infinitesimally small, and all in the singular. It may deal with millions, but seldom pays in more than ones and twos. And too often it is only for wages; too seldom is it for love — for one’s self.
Not so this small domestic job. It is plural and personal, to be done for the joy of doing it. So it ought to be with these Freshman themes that I go on, year after year, correcting; so it ought to be with the men’s shoes that my honest neighbor goes on, year after year, vamping. But the shoes are never all made. Endless vistas of unvamped shoes stretch away before him down the days of all his years. He never has the joy of having finished the shoes, of having a change of shoes. But recently he reshingled his six by eight hencoop and did a finished piece of work; he trimmed and cemented up his apple tree and did a finished piece of work; he built a new step at the kitchen door and did a finished piece of work. Step and tree and hen-coop had beginnings and ends, little undertakings, that will occur again, but which, for this once, were started and completed; small, whole, various domestic jobs, thrice halting for my neighbor, the endless procession — the passing, the coming, the trampling of the shoes.
And here are the teachers, preachers, writers, reformers, politicians — men who deal, not in shoes, but in theories, ideals, principalities,and powers; those large, expansive, balloonish commodities that show the balloon’s propensity to soar and to explode — do they not need ballast as much as the shoemaker, bags of plain sand in the shape of the small domestic job?
During some months’ stay in the city not long ago, I sent my boys to a kindergarten. Neither the principal nor the teachers, naturally, had any children of their own. Teachers of children and mothers’ advisers seldom have. I was forced to lead my dear lambs prematurely forth from this Froebel fold, when the principal, looking upon them with tears, exclaimed,
‘Yes, your farm is no doubt a healthful place, but they will be so without guidance! They will have no one out there to show them how to play!’
That dear woman is ballooning, and without a boy of her own for ballast. Only successful mothers and doting old grandfathers (who can still go on all fours) should be allowed to kindergarten. Who was it but old Priam, to whom Andromache used to lead little Astyanax?
Indeed all of the theorizing, sermonizing, inculcating professions ought to be made strictly avocational, strictly incidental to some real business. Let our Presidents preach (how they love it!); let our preachers nurse the sick, catch fish, or make tents. It is easier for the camel, with both his humps, to squeeze through the eye of the needle than for the professional man of any sort to perform his whole duty with sound sense and sincerity.
But ballast is a universal human need — chores, I mean. It is my privilege frequently to ride home in the same car with a broker’s book-keeper. Thousands of dollars’ worth of stock pass through his hands for record every day. The ‘odor’ of so much affluence clings to him. He feels and thinks and talks in millions. He lives over-night, to quote his own words, ‘on the end of a telephone wire.’ That boy makes ten dollars a week, wears ‘swagger clothes,’ and boards with his grandmother, who does all his washing, except the collars. What ails him? and a million other Americans like him? Only the need to handle something smaller, something realer than this pen of the recording (American) angel — the need of chores. He should have the wholesome reality of a buck-saw twice a day; he might be saved if he could be interested in chickens; could feed them every morning, and every evening could ‘pick up the eggs.’
So might many another millionaire. When a man’s business prohibits his caring for the chickens, when his affairs become so important that he can no longer shake down the furnace, help dress one of the children, or tinker about the place with a hammer and saw, then that man’s business had better be put into the hands of a receiver, temporarily; his books do not balance.
I know of a college president who used to bind (he may still) a cold compress about his head at times and, lying prone upon the floor, have two readers, one for each ear, read simultaneously to him different theses, so great was the work he had to do, so fierce his fight for time — time to lecture to women’s clubs and to write his epoch-making books.
Oh, the multitude of epoch-making books!
But as for me, I am a Commuter, and I live among a people who are Commuters, and I have stood with them on the banks of the Ohio, according to the suggestion of one of our wisest philosophers (Josh Billings, I think), and, in order to see how well the world could get on without me, I have stuck my finger into the yellow current, pulled it out, and looked for the hole.
The placid stream flowed on.
So now, when a reasonable day’s work is done, I turn homeward to the farm; and these early autumn nights I hang the lantern high in the stable, while four shining faces gather round on upturned buckets behind the cow. The lantern flickers, the milk foams, the stories flow — ‘Bucksy’ stories of the noble red-man; stories of Arthur and the Table Round, of Guyon and Britomart, and the heroes of old; and marvelous stories of that greatest hero of them all — their father, far away yonder when he was a boy, when there were so many interesting things to do, and such fun doing them!
Now the world is so ‘full of a number of things’ — things to do still, but things, instead of hands, and things instead of selves, so many things to do them with — even a thing to milk with, now! But I will continue to use my hands.
No, I shall probably never become a great milk-contractor. I shall probably remain only a commuter to the end. But if I never become anything great, — the Father of my Country, or the Father of Poetry, or the Father of Chemistry, or the Father of the Flying Machine, — why, I am at least the father of these four shining faces in the lantern light; and I have, besides them, handed down from the past, a few more of life’s old-fashioned inconveniences, attended, to be sure, with their simple old-fashioned blessings.