Author's job of balancing nature and suburbs mirrors Thoreau
When author Tom Montgomery Fate talks about working on his new book during one of his solitary nights in the cabin his family helped build in the Michigan woods, it's easy to imagine him as a modern-day Henry David Thoreau plucking profound truths from nature.
Then his wife, Carol, car keys in hands, sticks her head out the back door. Speaking over the steady buzz of a neighbor's mower, Carol, an ordained minister and social worker who helps young children and their families for the local school district, reminds Tom that, since she is leaving, he needs to watch for their 9-year-old son, Bennett, who walks home from school a short time later and immediately asks, "Can I invite Will over?" -- a question Tom considers before he realizes that there can be no play date today because they have to get ready for a soccer game. Meanwhile, Abbey, 14, is home and in the kitchen, and Tessa, 17, has finished her shift as a lifeguard and is catching a nap (and a few more rays) on the gently sloping roof of their house. And every single thing about this scene just screams out the news that Tom is a very busy 50-year-old suburban dad and not Thoreau, and that this is a house in Glen Ellyn and not a cabin on Walden Pond.
"I'm happy here," Tom says as a smile emerges from beneath his bushy mustache. "This is where I live."
His latest book, "Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild," explains Tom's quest to live "a more deliberate life."
The word "deliberate" is tied to "libra," the two-pan scale of justice, explains Tom, a graduate of the University of Iowa's prestigious Nonfiction Writing Program. He got a master's degree in religion at the Chicago Theological Seminary and has spent the last 21 years as an English professor teaching literature and creative writing at the College of DuPage.
"A deliberate life is a search for balance -- in mind and body and spirit -- amid our daily lives," Tom writes in his opening chapter.
In "Cabin Fever," Tom, who spent a year's sabbatical reading and studying Thoreau, uses the 19th-century writings of the essayist and naturalist as a tour guide on his mental pilgrimage. But Tom frequently ventures off from where that natural path may lead to confront his life as a middle-aged suburban dad.
Cabin fever used to be a term used by people stuck in the middle of nowhere who longed to escape to a civilized place with all the trappings of modern society. Now, Tom notes, we desire the middle of nowhere as a way to escape our 24-7 email, iGadgets and incessantly chirping cellphones.
"I grew up on a farm and learned about the natural world by walking beans, castrating hogs and detasseling corn," says Tom, the youngest of four boys born to a preacher and music teacher in small-town Iowa, where he started at middle linebacker and fullback for a winning high school football team. He wrote his first book in graduate school about living in war-torn Nicaragua and his second book after he and his wife finished seminary school and taught at a college in the Philippines.
"I'm not a scholar, I'm just a reader," Tom says. But Jeffrey S. Cramer, curator of the Thoreau Institute, praises "Cabin Fever" for the way it "echoes 'Walden' without pretense" and serves as "an antidote to the ills of the day."
"It's not about arriving, it's about the journey, blah, blah, blah. But it is what I believe," Tom says. "It's not about looking. It's about seeing. Pay attention to the world."
Watching a pair of cardinals defend their hatchlings gives him a greater appreciation for "the relationships between humans and the animals," Tom says. "You recognize yourself in the animal and that you are both in the same creation."
The patience and passion of backyard cicadas waiting 17 years underground for their chance in the sun mirrors the human attributes needed to cope with a serious health problem. Finding a piece of broken glass polished for years by the lake water brings to mind a story from his childhood and helps him realize how lives are shaped by years, decades and lifetimes.
"Writing and art is a way of living," Tom says. "A writer or an artist puts a frame around the moment."
The moment of an ending school year for two educators with three children can be hectic. But they do have that cabin in the woods outside Sawyer, Mich.
"I'm looking forward," the suburban dad says, "to going there for Father's Day."
•"Cabin Fever," published by Beacon Press, goes on sale today. Tom Montgomery Fate will discuss and read from his book at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Glen Ellyn Public Library and at 7 p.m. Monday at Anderson Books in Naperville. For more information, please visit tommontgomeryfate.com.