March 29, 2011 | Posted in: Philosophy
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.