A Vase of Flowers

The young Korean lady sitting beside me asks a question. Her words are halting, the syntax broken. Up front at the podium, the speaker leans forward in an effort to understand. Her face is blank. Silence fills the lecture hall.

“She’s asking about Thoreau’s pursuit of truth through the Socratic method,” I explain. “She wants to know if you think he found it.”

The young lady sitting beside me nods in agreement. The speaker now understands her question. Knowing how to answer it is another matter entirely.

“I hesitate answering the question,” the speaker says, “because for Thoreau, truth would have been something entirely different than what we think of as truth today. For Thoreau, truth and beauty and virtue and honesty, although different words, would have all meant the same thing—an ultimate ideal. The ideal itself was the end; the Socratic method was the means to approach that end, even though you never actually got there.”

Always learning, and never able to come to the truth, I think.

The young lady thanks me afterward for clarifying her question. She uses the word translating: “Thank you for translating for me.”

“No problem. I hope that I didn’t put words in your mouth.”

She looks at me, puzzled.

“What I mean is, I hope that what I said is what you meant.”

“Ah, yes!” she nods in approval.

“And now you must tell me about your interest in Thoreau. How did you come to write your doctoral dissertation on him?”

“When I read Thoreau as a young woman, I recognized that he was speaking to me.”

“What did he say?”

“Be pure. Lead a simple life. Be aware. That is very Zen, you know.”

“Live in the present, the here and now.”

“Ah, yes—you know! Are you a Buddhist?”

“No. But I’m familiar with some of the tenets of Buddhism. Tell me, besides Thoreau, what brought you to the United States?”

“I’m here with my husband for one year. He’s a neurophysicist, doing research on the mind at Mass General Hospital.”

“Studying the human brain through MRIs and CT scans and the like?”

“Yes. He wants to know what the human mind is.”

“Deep thoughts,” I muse.

“Exactly,” she says.

“I saw you studying the vase of wildflowers on the table earlier,” I say.

“I was trying to calm myself down,” she explains.

“By looking at the flowers?”

“By trying to see the flowers as flowers only, for what they are. If I am anxious, or fearful, or upset, my emotions do not let me see the flowers. But if I concentrate on the flowers only, the fear and anxiety fall away.”

“Now I understand,” I tell her. “Thanks for the translation.”

She laughs out loud, the sound of one hand clapping.

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