Emerson Society

Emerson Therapy

Mary Barford, PhD ([email protected])


It’s a sweltering summer day in central Illinois. My brother and I are walking miles along a railroad track toward a tow yard to retrieve the car we currently share, our parent’s old Toyota station wagon. At some point along the way, when all irritations have melted away and we find ourselves deep in the easy rhythm of our companionship, Dan throws a rock at a far away tree, hits it square and says, “ok, give me an Emerson.”

During the many years that Dan and I lived in the same places, much of our time was spent on walks, and Emerson became one of our most cherished walking companions. We invented something we called “Emerson Therapy,” which was an imagining of how certain passages could relate to our present circumstances. We also imagined what advice Emerson might give us. “Up again old heart?” During a summer in grad school when I was steeped in Emerson, but also raising two young daughters alone, Dan would send me encouraging letters.  I recently found this passage in one of them, “…don’t put foreign desires into limited circumstances. Find the expansive possibilities in all terrain. I’ll need plenty of Emerson therapy when you come.” For us, Emerson was not only someone we could talk about, but somehow could also talk to. We especially delighted in Compensation, Experience, and Fate.  I remember asking him what he meant by foreign desires and he said “Well, don’t try to go skiing in the Sahara.”

Emerson could also make us laugh.  When Dan would say “give me an Emerson,” I would relate to him a passage, or an idea, or one of Emerson’s most delicious one-liners. From there, with Dan’s incredible intelligence, and imagination and sense of humor a whole world could emerge. Most scholars do not note Emerson for his humor, but Dan could take Emerson’s observations and make them side-splittingly hilarious. I wish I could convey this magic. Maybe this passage from one of Dan’s letters gives some sense,

It seems one writes for one’s own types and kindred spirits. You and Emerson would have a good time together (and do). His spirituality is so broad no religion can claim him. His message is the same as Jung and Campbell and Aurobindo and Vivekananda, etc. Be universal not sectarian, see the unity. While the spiritual practice of Yoga is so central to the Indian conception of spirituality, I don’t think Emerson was doing stretches and Oms in his living room. He came out, like many Western geniuses, fully armed from the head of Zeus. Or did he start out as a lawyer? Love Dan.”

I would have laughed imagining Emerson doing Warrior pose in his living room, and the image of him popping out of Zeus’s head in his austere New England magnificence also delights. Pop!

After Dan died, in January of 2018, many passages from Emerson came to me, like golden visitors. In my shattered state I found comfort in knowing that Dan had truly lived, tapped into that well of divinity that Emerson also swam in. When Emerson says in Self-Reliance “I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost,” that is Dan. For a period when Dan couldn’t afford paints he went into the woods and used flower petals, sticks, and dirt, always creating with an unwavering fidelity to his Being. He was always what he was, and even though that could be difficult, for me it was an expansion and a joy.

Autumn Hymn for R. W. Emerson by Miles D. Braford

In the process of going through Dan’s things in the weeks after his death, I came across a series of four paintings that I had forgotten about.  The paintings were dedicated one to Dickinson, one to Whitman, one to Thoreau and one to Emerson. The one for Emerson is titled, “Autumn Hymn for R. W. Emerson.” It reminds me so much of a sacred spot in the Great Mosque/Cathedral of Cordoba where the ancient Moorish architecture gives the impression of a beating heart.  Autumn Hymn is flush with golds, oranges and yellows and in the middle, a circle, an eye, a red beating heart.

Later, my mother and I were combing through one of Dan’s many many books of drawings and we found this passage:

Tonight Emerson strode through my soul. He put a hand to my nervous lips and pushed wide open the doors to bright infinity. He rose high a hammer and smashed the dam of raging waters-then put me on his broad back and swam out into the mysterious depths where he baptized me and called me brother. And in the silent music of his eyes I drank me in again – struggling and afraid, but restored and filled of the familiar awe of living.”

 Dan would have written that when he was much younger, but it is a beautiful image of Emerson, and to know what Dan must have felt first turning those sagely pages is a gift to me.

I took the Complete Works to his funeral as our sacred text.

Lastly, here is a passage from a letter that Dan wrote to my daughters, Sofia and Johanna, in the fall of 2013:

I hope autumn is as lovely in Lafayette as it is here. November swallowed October for extra beauty and there is a quiet peace in the air. I think of both of you everyday beneath the glorious birch making leaves like giant pancakes with the maples of radiant reds and yellows, besides the royal oaks and sultry elms. I walk up and down my street after I practice and sideways too. Sometimes I fly to the moon on the pegasus of my dreams and clear a space for you to do the same.”

It occurs to me that so much of loving someone is clearing space for them. Emerson clears space for all of us to find what it is we are. And though not many people in the 20th/21st century got to go on walks with the Sage of Concord, we did, and for anyone reading this, you can too.

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How to cite this post

MLA 8th Edition:

Mary Barford. “Emerson Therapy.” The Transparent Eyeball, Third Series, The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, May 25, 2021, emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emerson-therapy/. Accessed [date of access; ex. 5 Aug. 2021].

APA 7th Edition:

Barford, M. (2021, May 25). Emerson Therapy. The Transparent Eyeball. https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emerson-therapy/.

Chicago 17th Edition:

Barford, Mary. “Emerson Therapy,” The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. The Transparent Eyeball, May 25, 2021, https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emerson-therapy/.