Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Thoreau's three chairs and my Old Home Day weekend

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. - Henry David Thoreau

Over the holiday weekend, I kept thinking of this Thoreau quotation, one that has always appealed to me. For no reason that I could explain, I felt as if I had removed some of the chairs from my holiday room.

Along with leading into the Independence Day holiday, this was Old Home Day weekend in Carlisle. Old Home Day weekend is a huge deal in Carlisle. It’s the weekend the whole town shows up for, or at least that percentage of the town not yet off to their summer homes in Nantucket or their safari vacations in Nairobi – but that’s still a surprisingly large number of people, for such a small town.

People love it for its old-fashioned community spirit, and being in the thick of the crowd is all part of the fun. Most years, I’m absolutely on board with all of that. But for some reason, this year I just wasn’t into it. I didn’t feel like joining the throngs at the country fair or cheering for the soapbox derby. I stepped out of my usual role of chairing the pie contest. I didn’t buy tickets for my family to attend the chicken barbeque at the fire station.

Perhaps most tellingly, I didn’t register for the road race. Running five miles with a hundred other people didn’t appeal to me this year. And yet I did run five miles (actually 5.2 miles) on the morning of the Old Home Day road race, and I started only about a half-hour after the race’s start time. So it wasn’t the distance of the run nor the early hour that turned me off this year. It was just a year that I felt like running alone.

Nonetheless, it’s not like I spent the weekend in solitude. My eight-year-old was intent upon entering our dog in the Old Home Day pet show, so all four of us headed up to the town center in time for that event. And that turned out to be just about enough for us. Rather than spending the whole day amidst the throngs, like we normally do on Old Home Day, we spent fifteen minutes at the pet show (just long enough for Holly to win a free ice cream by answering several questions about the dog), took a walk along the main thoroughfare, bought a couple of snow cones, browsed at the used book sale, and headed back home.

In fact, the best part of the townwide celebration as far as I was concerned was Sunday evening’s outdoor concert, held on the school’s baseball field. It didn’t attract much of a crowd, in part because a couple of hours of drizzle were just winding down and in part because as the very last event of the weekend, it comes at a time when a lot of families are just worn out. Not us, though. We were feeling energized after such a mellow weekend, and we had a wonderful time listening to bluegrass music and eating ice cream. No contests, no prizes, no dunking booth, no blue ribbons, no announcements. At least this year, it was my favorite part of Old Home Day weekend.

In past years, I’ve thrown myself into the town spirit at Old Home Day weekend: greeting, chatting, racing, competing, cheering, taking part in all the activities that make this event what it is. Those are the years I put out my three Thoreau-inspired chairs and welcome society. This year was different. It was a one-chair weekend for me, metaphorically speaking. Maybe next year I’ll be back up for full-on community spirit. I don’t know why this year I felt so different, and I imagine the pendulum will swing back in another year. But Thoreau reassures me that all of those choices are mine to make: solitude, friendship, society. And when the time comes, I’ll be ready to put out all three chairs once again.

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