I’ve had a love affair with the written word since before I could read. It started in my parents Chicago duplex when I was four years old where everyday found me running to the large picture window to witness the arrival of that iconic yellow school bus throwing open its doors to a jumble of laughing children as they spilled out onto the sidewalk, the mere memory of which brings me much happiness.
My father had taken note of my daily ritual and added to my delight by picking me up and telling me, “Someday you’ll be old enough to ride that bus. It will take you to a place where you’ll learn to read. Once you can read, your whole life will change.” It’s the sweetest promise a parent can give their child. The powerful force of something to look forward to combined with the endless allure that accompanies transformation and change.
When my parents enrolled me in first grade, the anticipation to start school was nearly too much for me. Along with my precious school supplies, my first new school dress stands out clearly in my mind. A little black and gray floral number with a black sash that tied in the back, it was the prettiest dress I’d ever seen. It whispered of royalty. It made me feel that something really, really big was in store for me.
Filled with so much excitement for the first day of school, I woke at 4 AM, dressed quickly in my princess dress only to sit patiently on the sofa staring at the clock as it crawled toward ‘the little hand hitting the 7 and the big hand hitting the 12.’ The moment the clock struck 7, I burst out the front door to catch my first bus, the experience of which was everything I’d dreamed! My beloved bus did indeed change my life, and to this day I can’t see one without a sense of deeply felt gratitude.
The moment I learned to read is just as magical a memory for me as that first bus ride. It was a child’s primer, and the word was ‘island’. I’d sounded it out as IS-land before seeing it in the context of the accompanying pictures of sand, beach, ocean and palm trees. The realization that the word was island was monumental as it was the defining moment when I knew nothing would ever be the same. Metaphorically speaking, I was no longer an island unto myself. I could read! The world was mine! My love affair began in earnest.
From that day forward, I was seldom seen without a book in my possession. I can attest to being teased by members of my extended family for being a ‘book worm’ and a ‘teacher’s pet.’ Names where I took no offense as they were music to my ears and something to which I aspired.
In books I’ve found my greatest joys. Imagination. Creativity. Magic. Travel. Heroes. Hope. Prosperity. Virtue. Transformation. In books I’ve also found my greatest solace.
When darkness prevails. When a sense of despair sets in. When I don’t wish to burden another with my troubles, I’ve found undying loyalty and unconditional love, let alone answers, in books. I echo the 1815 sentiments of Thomas Jefferson when I say, “I cannot live without books.” Today I find myself surrounded by a library of treasured books of which several (a dozen or more) are written in my own hand.
I use today’s blog to confess that the last year has been one of personal growth and reflection. Though happiness did not elude my daily activities, I’ve questioned my purpose, my passions, my preferences and prejudices. I’ve flogged myself for my faults. Chastised myself for my failures. Grabbed myself by the scruff of my neck and shaken myself vigorously … all the while turning to my books in search of answers, guidance and inspiration. Little did I realize the relief I sought would come in the form of books written, not by modern day guru’s like Wayne Dyer, Don Miguel Ruiz, or Deepak Chopra, but in the timeless wisdom of America’s Founding Fathers. Ben Franklin. John Adams. Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln.
Having devoured ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’, I was steered towards reading about the men who gave birth to our nation. Currently I’m deeply engrossed in ‘John Adams’, by Page Smith. Published in 1962, it’s primarily a collection of letters written to his wife, Abigail. The life stories of Jefferson and Lincoln wait in the wings.
What I’m finding as I read these books is not the mere retelling of the magnificent events that built my beloved country … but the unexpected depth of respect and admiration for our Forefathers, who, despite their daily struggles against their faults, failures, disappointments and frustrations (as well as the physical hardships of the time in which they lived), went on to accomplish great acts, acts which have withstood the test of time.
One particular passage set my hand to writing todays blog. In it I learned
“John Adams was convinced that “human nature, with all its infirmities and deprivation,” was “still capable of great things.” Education was the key. “Education,” in Adams’ view, made “a greater difference between man and man than nature has made between man and brute [underscore mine]. The virtues and powers to which men may be trained, by early education and constant discipline, are truly sublime and astonishing.”
He goes on to say, in a letter to his wife, Abigail,
“It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them … an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.”
So overcome with emotion from this passage (written 236 years ago!), I could do nothing else but write about it in hopes to pass on the wisdom to those who might be struggling (as am I) with issues great and small. Our choice. Excellence in every capacity … or groveling and creeping. Hmmm.
As powerful as this insight, each page of John Adams life story is filled with his thoughts and reflections, self-flagellations, deepest sorrows and greatest joys. His is a journey that liberates me, gives me hope, and makes me ever grateful to have been given the education required to mold myself into the woman I long to be. I encourage you to read John Adams’ story if what I’ve shared thus far touches a chord.
Far from where I envisioned myself to be when I first rode that school bus, I work daily to make progress towards my idealized self. I struggle and reach. Read, write and reflect. Stumble and get up again. And, I seek solace from trusted friends, one of whom told me as recently as last week, “Your beating a protracted retreat and sucking your thumb doesn’t look too good on you, Cindy.” Tantamount to a good swift kick in the behind, Holli’s words were precisely what I needed to hear (never underestimate the love of a sister!).
It’s my hope that each of us does our part to refrain from groveling in our infancy (and small minded, limited, defeatist thinking) and to reach deep within ourselves ‘in order to elevate our minds and find the courage and ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty and virtue’ made available to us. It’s all that John Adams requires of us for having dedicated his life to creating a country that produces heroes, and statesmen, and philosophers who … at the very least … are capable of changing their lives, if not the world.
Forget about collapsing in front of the incessant gloom and doom of cable news or the sordid tales of Jersey Housewives or the rantings of madmen like Charlie Sheen tonight. Instead, aspire to greatness. Read a great book. Watch an inspiring biography. Call a friend and talk about something that matters.
Today’s question? What will we do, today? … What will we read, today? … Who will we ask, today? … to help us as we fail forward, licking our wounds and/or celebrating the tiniest of successes as we make progress in the direction of our dreams?
In the words of those great philosophers, Rascal Flatts, ‘God bless the broken road, the written word and the yellow school bus that brought me here today’ … the place which prods me to second the motion that:
“Human nature, with all its infirmities and deprivation, is still capable of great things”
“The virtues and powers to which men may be trained, by early education and constant discipline, are truly sublime and astonishing.”
~ John Adams, Statesman and Second President of the United States of America
These words conjured up the image of that four year old girl in Chicago who waited with baited breath each day just to get sight of her future. I hope President Adams’ wisdom reached across the ages to bring a lightness to your step, a song to your heart, and as overwhelmingly a sense of hope [to you] as it did for me.
Until we meet again … I’ve a bus to catch.
With the exception of a few short years of my life, I’m naturally inclined to have a sunny disposition and a positive attitude. My beloved aunt reminded me of this recently when she recounted the first time she met me.
I was four years old and had lived in the Philippines until my [Kentucky born] father was able to get his young family transported to America via the USS Patrick. Back in Indiana, crossing each day off the calendar in anticipation of getting her hands on us, my father’s loving sister, my priceless Aunt Millie, was anxiously awaiting our arrival. The journey took three very long weeks.
My mother, who’d never been on a boat, suddenly found herself on a warship. My father had gone on ahead, leaving my seven months pregnant mother to travel with two little girls in tow, my sister, 16 months, and me. My only question is, “Who thought up THAT [travel] plan?!”
Not surprisingly Mom was sea sick the entire time it took us to sail from Manila to San Francisco. So sick, my little sister was confined to her crib for most of the day. With the lights out, Mom stayed in bed in our tiny cabin rolling over only to vomit in a bucket placed by her side. She couldn’t tolerate even the thought of eating let alone going to the mess hall so, each day, a kindly nurse brought a small amount of food to our cabin just to make sure my sister and I didn’t go hungry.
Under these circumstances, it was all my mother could do to keep the three of us clean and presentable. When I wasn’t emptying her bucket or fetching wet wash towels for her, I spent long periods of time outside our cabin on a walkway perched high above the water. Staring at the endless ocean through a [widely spaced] barrier fence I can remember thinking I could easily slip through and fall several stories to the water below. Imagine. An unattended four year old on a battleship filled with high slippery places, dangerous equipment, and who knows what kind of riffraff!
That said, it was 1961, and Mom never once worried about my safety. It was a day and age where it’s easy to believe I was surrounded, not by riffraff, but by a couple thousand American GI’s each playing Guardian Angel to a Little Girl. I was never afraid. Instead, I enjoyed the solitude. The wind. The warm sun on my face. I was happy. And, I never once got seasick.
After we arrived in San Francisco, we boarded a plane to Chicago, landing at O’Hare in the middle of a
terrible [late] February blizzard. This was especially exciting because my father, who had a habit of not thinking things through, had forgotten to tell my mother to make sure we had warm clothes for our winter arrival in Illinois. To that end, his three tropical island born women were dressed in sundresses and sandals when we stepped off the plane! I’ll never forget the beautiful woman who swept me up in her fur coat and carried me across the tarmac to the terminal. I learned early in my life that the kindness of strangers is life-giving and angels always appear precisely when you need them.
Within minutes of arriving in the terminal and in the hubbub of my parents being reunited, someone stole my mother’s purse and with it their life-savings of $500. I remember how sad I felt for ‘my mommy’ as I watched her cry and how harried my father looked as he worked to get a handle on getting her settled down.
Despite the theft, my mother’s tears, and the commotion, deep down inside I was abundantly happy. I was in America. The country my mother told me would bring us good fortune and a better life. Life couldn’t get any better than this. How could I not be happy?! Which brings me back to my beloved Aunt Millie.
We drove from Chicago to Lafayette, Indiana, where my Aunt Millie and Uncle Ernie lived with their four children in a beautiful old farm house on Old Romney Road and true to form, the instant I walked through the door, my aunt swept me into her arms, covered me with kisses and danced around the room. Happy tears flowed freely and there were warm hugs and lots of attention from my new found aunt, uncle and cousins alike.
Aunt Millie tells me that at that moment she was filled with all kinds of questions for me. She wanted to know everything about us and our life back in the Philippines but she especially wanted to know about our journey from Manila all the way to Indiana. She said the first thing I ever told her was, “Oh Aunt Millie! Everything about our trip was so wonderful! Everywhere we went! Even on the airplane! The beautiful stewardess was SO nice! She brought me a paper bag every time I needed to throw up!!!”
God bless my Aunt Millie. She loves children beyond measure, she has a memory that doesn’t quit and she’s a wonderful, wonderful story-teller. When telling this particular story her eyes always light up and she softly adds, “Of all the things you could have told me, Cynthie, you picked the story of how kind this stewardess was to you! Isn’t that something?! No matter what happens, you’ve always had a positive outlook on life! From the moment you were born … our Little Miss Sunshine. You have always been so very easy for us to love.”
Of all the Guardian Angels I’ve had in my life … my Aunt Millie has always been there for me and I attribute much of my wonderful life to her love and constant devotion throughout my formative years. She was (and still is) Christmas everyday and the simple thought of her turns my heart round and round and makes me want to dance.
Thank you, Aunt Millie, for being one of the greatest loves of my life. And, for reminding me that no matter how difficult life got I had the innate ability to see the good in all adversity and setbacks, to keep my chin up, to smile, and to see each and every silver lining in every dark cloud. Would that everyone could have an Aunt Millie all their own.
You are my Little Mrs. Sunshine. I love you! And I know, because of you, I came by my sunshine ways honestly. And, by the way, happy anniversary! I arrived in America and hopped into your arms 50 glorious years ago this very day. Let’s dance! xoxox.