The Measure of a Man

sidney poitier

This is my most recent read and I found it intriguing. My memories of Sidney Poitier were of seeing films like “To Sir with Love”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, and “A Raisin in the Sun” when I was a teenager. At that time I was enthralled with Poitier though I couldn’t have explained why. Back in those days I rarely heard about the real lives of famous people, so knew nothing of the actor beyond what I saw on the screen. The persona I saw there always seemed serious, and deep in a way that I related to but certainly didn’t understand.

Having read Poitier’s autobiography I think I understand more now. The book was published fifteen years ago. I happened across it in one of my favorite book stores, Green Mountain Books and Prints, a few years ago and it’s been sitting on my shelf waiting. Recently I picked it up for a vacation read and I am so glad I did.

First of all, I had no idea that Poitier had such an interesting and diverse life. I wouldn’t say his is a rags to riches story, exactly, but it is certainly the story of adaptation. It is also the story of understanding where you come from and how important that is to where you are going. I was mesmerized by Poitier’s accounts of his early life.

I often think about my own ties to nature – the value in connecting with the earth – particularly as I watch much of the world get further and further from that essential connection. Reading about his early life on Cat Island, which he refers to as his ‘Cat Island curriculum’, Poitier says:

I had an inner eye that watched the terrain and watched the circumstances, especially when I was in hostile territory. This was my education, my Cat Island curriculum. This watchful way extended to human nature – words, motivations, actions, and consequences. The quiet and simple level of the subtle body language that came at me from my parents and my siblings. On that tiny island I had gotten to know these signals really, really well. I had learned to read them just as I had learned to read the cliff and the tides. I didn’t understand them all, but over time I could use them as a reference point in trying to understand what others were saying, what they were doing, why they were behaving toward me as they were. I think that this is the basis for what has come to be called “emotional intelligence.” It’s a capacity that’s nurtured by silence and by intimacy, and by the freedom to roam.

As I continued reading it was evident that this emotional intelligence learned in Poitier’s early years was invaluable in his life. It seemed to aid him in many circumstances and nurtured his intelligence as he continued to mature and experience life. While discussing his observations of the world around him during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, he says:

Anguish and pain and resentment and rage are very human forces. They can be found in the breasts of most human beings at one time or another. On very rare occasions there comes a Gandhi, and occasionally there comes a Martin Luther King, Jr., and occasionally there comes a guy like Paul Robeson or a guy like Nelson Mandela. When these people come along, their anger, their rage, their resentment, their frustration – these feelings ultimately mature by will of their own discipline into a positive energy that can be used to fuel their positive, healthy excursions in life.

Understanding this led Poitier to recognize that it was

‘. . .some discipline, some vision that allowed them to convert that anger into fuel, into positive energy.’

He goes on to say that while he recognizes that he is unable to live that ideal on a day to day basis he can still believe it. I think reading this about Poitier, in his own words, helps me to understand the appeal he held for me as a teenager. This understanding allowed him to acknowledge his own flawed self,

‘readily admit to [his] sins. . .[his] weaknesses, [his] frailties, [his] shortcomings.’

He also recognized that he was also

‘. . .willing almost always to try [his] best.’

We are of like minds, Sidney and I. This, I think is the essence of life – to understand human forces, to recognize ones own position in the universe, and to be willing to try ones best – that’s all, really.

Later in the book, Poitier goes on to talk about memory and how human beings are able to understand experiences that they have never actually had. His answer:

He goes deep inside himself into a place where all his individual sense memories are stored, and that place then connects him with the universe. That connection gives him access to more than just the memory of what anger is like and what unfairness is or other kinds of impositions or slights or offenses that would trigger anger are like. There’s a network of intuitions and instincts. I mean, the raw instincts – a genuine network of connections of those forces, energies, and awareness that drive humanity.

I was reminded of long ago conversations in philosophy class of the idea of all of humanity having this collective memory of the ages. At the time, and still, it makes great sense to me as a way of explaining so many things in life; ones ability to empathize, knowing a place you’ve never physically been to, sensing that something will happen before it does. . .

Poitier covers a multitude of philosophical ideas, couched in his life experiences and specifically his acting experiences, but at the heart of it all is the book’s title – The Measure of a Man – a spiritual autobiography. This title came from Poitier’s father who said, “the measure of a man is how well he provides for his children.”

The line had me thinking a lot. About men, and fathers, and growing up, and life in general. I think I can agree with Reginald Poitier. How a father provides for his children is a very telling thing, is it not?

Going back to my own ties to nature, as relates to this book, Poitier talks about what I would call a universal consciousness. In his words:

I believe that this consciousness is a force so powerful that I’m incapable of comprehending its power through the puny instrument of my human mind. And yet I believe that this consciousness is so unimaginably calibrated in its sensitivity that not one leaf falls in the deepest of forests on the darkest of nights unnoticed.

Amen.

I believe this as well. Thus, my teenage relationship with Poitier is understood. Perhaps it was some aspect of collective memory, or universal consciousness that tied me to Poitier 45 years ago. Whatever it was, I am grateful it brought me to his book and look forward to returning to his films – the ones I’ve seen already, and the ones I have not.

I will leave you with his closing words:

We’re all imperfect, and life is simply a perpetual, unending struggle against those imperfections.

sidney poitier

A Passion for Books

I am a reader.

I love to read.

I love books.

I love to talk about reading.

I love to talk about the books I read and ones I haven’t been but want to.

In the present moment I worry about the many young people who do not have a passion for reading because I have found that reading can enhance ones life. I want the young people of today to have fulfilled, happy lives and I wonder if that can happen if they do not embrace the reading experience.

There are many reasons I am passionate about books and reading. Here are a few learnings I’ve taken away from books:

power of one
The protagonist, Peekay, was an amazing character who was dealt a lot of bad cards, yet he remained a person of grit and integrity. He didn’t let others have control over the good person he was.

memooirs of a geisha

An incredibly detailed story about a culture so far removed from my own that it kept me spellbound. AND, author Arthur Golden, whom I heard speak at a conference once, explained that his first draft of the book took 17 years to write, was 750 pages , and he tore it up and started over. THAT, my friends, is dedication to be admired.

cat in the hat
This was one of my all time favorite books as a young girl. I was enthralled by the adventures that happened to the brother and sister when they were left home alone, and it used to spark my imagination and seemed to give me permission to imagine the wildest and craziest of adventures for myself.

the river why

This book – besides having amazing characters, delightful wittiness, and a most interesting writing style – reminds me of one of the times my boys and I connected over good books. I can still hear my youngest laughing out loud to himself as he read it, and me yelling up, “What part was that?”

terabithia
I am reminded of my childhood and time spent imagining with friends. It also reminds us that we can learn from children how to have grace when faced with diversity.

speak
Reading this book helped me understand the value of having a voice – even if it was only internally. Sometimes that voice in our head is the most important one we can hear.

power of now
Tolle reminds us that we create our own lives, and that the life we want IS possible. A friend, as he handed this book to me, said, “This book changed my life!”

the long walk
painted bird
night

These three books took me places I hope I will never go. However, the fact that some people have been on these tragic journeys is important for me to know. In order to better understand the world around me, and the people in it, I need to know where time has taken them. I need to know their stories. Through books I can.

The Night Circus

night circus

Based on the recommendation of a friend I recently read this magical book by Erin Morgenstern.
Once I started reading I became so fascinated that I couldn’t put it down. Morgenstern has a way with fantasy that I have not experienced before and it left me feeling like I did when I was much younger and my imagination sometimes became my reality, at least for a short time. There were many wonderful quotes in the book, and so I decided to share some of those to give you a sense for what the The Night Circus is about, and a sense for some of the themes covered within its pages.

“We must put effort and energy into anything we wish to change”

“People see what they want to see. And in most cases, what they are told to see.”

“This is all a lie … The dead are not hovering nearby to knock politely at teacups and tabletops and whisper through billowing curtains.”

“How is anything better than anything else here? How is one tent comparable to another? How can any of this possibly be judged?

“I cannot use anything she does for my own purposes. The sides need to remain separate. If we were playing a game of chess, I could not simply remove her pieces from the board. My only option is to retaliate with my own pieces when she moves hers.”

“The finest pleasures are always the unexpected ones.”

“The most difficult thing to read is time. Maybe because it changes so many things.”

“The past stays on you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers. Some people can get rid of it but it’s still there, the events and things that pushed you to where you are now.”

“Magic,” the man in the grey suit repeats, turning the word into a laugh. “This is not magic. This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it. Look around you,” he says, waving a hand at the surrounding tables. “Not a one of them even has an inkling of the things that are possible in this world, and what’s worse is that none of them would listen if you attempted to enlighten them. They want to believe that magic is nothing but clever deception, because to think it real would keep them up at night, afraid of their own existence.”

“Old stories have a habit of being told and retold and changed. Each subsequent storyteller puts his or her mark upon it. Whatever truth the story once had is buried in bias and embellishment. The reasons do not matter as much as the story itself.”

“You’re in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that’s enough.”

Wonder

wonder

I came across the book in a most serendipitous fashion and, as serendipity would have it, I was thoroughly taken with the novel by R.J. Palacio.

The story is about 5th grader, August Pullman or Auggie as family and friends call him. August was born with facial deformities that most people react to negatively when they first encounter him. Because of multiple surgeries in his early years, Auggie was home schooled. As a reader I suspected this was in large part due to his parents unwillingness to expose their son to what they knew would be a cruel world. But at the age of 10, with an opportunity to attend a nearby middle school, Mr. and Mrs. Pullman encourage their son to attend school for the first time, reassuring him that he can return to home schooling at any time he chooses.

Auggie’s facial anomolies are described here by his older sister: “His eyes are about an inch below where they should be on his face, almost to halfway down his cheeks.They slant downward at an extreme angle, almost like diagonal slits that someone cut into his face, and the left one is noticeably lower than the right one. They bulge outward because his eye cavities are too shallow to accommodate them. The top eyelids are always halfway closed, like he’s on the verge of sleeping. The lower eyelids sag so much they almost look like a piece of invisible string is pulling them downward: you can see the red part on the inside, like they’re almost inside out. He doesn’t have eyebrows or eyelashes. His nose is disproportionately big for his face, and kind of fleshy. His head is pinched in on the sides where the ears should be, like someone used giant pliers and crushed the middle part of his face. he doesn’t have cheekbones. There are deep creases running down both sides of his nose to his mouth, which gives him a waxy appearance. Sometimes people assume he’s been burned in a fire; his features look like they’ve been melted, like the drippings on the side of a candle. Several surgeries to correct his lip have left a few scars around his mouth, the most noticeable one being a jagged gash running from the middle of his upper lip to his nose. His upper teeth are small and splay out. He has a severe overbite and an extremely undersized jawbone. He has a very small chin.”

As you might imagine, people’s reactions to Auggie are often cruel – staring and name calling. Despite the school head’s attempt to integrate Auggie respectfully, kids will be kids and follow the lead of a few short minded individuals. Author Palacia handles this beautifully, showing us the pain that Auggie endures, the meanness of unenlightened children and adults, and the kindness of a few who seem to rise above and see Auggie for the intelligent and funny young man that he is.

One of the aspects of the story I particularly enjoyed was the development of the characters. The book is divided into sections told by different characters. Each of them proved to be unique, honest, and real. There is Jack Will struggling with his inner turmoil, on the one hand wanting to be the kind of person he knows he should be, and on the other hand wanting to be one of the ‘in’ crowd among his peers. And Summer who knows her young self so well and is able to maintain that self throughout the story, even when others question her. Auggie’s sister Via is incredibly strong and supportive of Auggie, but we do see the moments of darkness for her when she wants nothing more than to think of herself – for a short time to imagine a life without a brother in it.

And then there is Auggie’s homeroom teacher, Mr. Browne, who shares monthly precepts with his students. The first, in September, is “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” While we only see glimpses of Mr. Browne through the story there is something about his character that gets under the skin. You have the sense that he is a good person, one who reflects all the others in the school and, at least for me, that reassured me along the way that Auggie would be okay in this place.

Through the story we mostly come to understand and care for Auggie in the same way many of the characters do. Palacio shows us a young man with inner strength most of us only dream of having, and in doing so she gives us faith to believe that maybe, maybe we can be as strong as he is.

By the end of the book, at the very least, I believed that I could go through life looking at others with a bit more kindness and compassion.

Part One, told from Auggie’s point of view, is prefaced with a quote from Natalie Merchant’s “Wonder”, which I’ve shared with you here.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

5 people cover

I’ve had this book kicking around the house for ages – probably ever since I read Tuesdays with Morrie, also by Mitch Albom.

I’m sure Tuesdays with Morrie is the reason I bought another Albom book. I loved meeting Morrie – his attitude, strength, and wisdom came through in full wonder and glory that only can when dealing with a person as full of grace as Morrie was.

I will be teaching a three week course on loss and grieving this month and decided to finally read The Five People You Meet in Heaven as research. I’d already decided that if the class is amenable I will read Tuesdays with Morrie aloud. There are two books I’ve read (so far) about death and dying that have left an impact on me – you guessed it, Tuesdays with Morrie, and The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav. I am now adding The Five People You Meet in Heaven to the list.

In this story we meet Eddie – an older man going through the motions of his life as he has for over 80 years. Albom introduces Eddie to us through a series of birthday celebrations that seem like some of the most significant moments in Eddie’s life. Throughout the story Eddie often reminisces about his father who seemed to vacillate between abusiveness and disinterest toward his children. An event on Eddie’s 21st birthday marked the last time the two of them spoke to one another.

When Eddie’s life ends suddenly he enters a heaven that is different from the stereotypical versions of the afterlife that most of us may have grown up with. There are no pearly gates; Eddie’s deceased relatives are not there to greet him; no meeting with God. Instead Eddie encounters five people, some of whom seemed, at the time, to be a very small part of his life. Acquaintances, if you will. Some of these people he barely remembered after meeting them. But now, in ‘heaven’ they have some valuable insights into Eddie’s life to share with him. Some of the insight they impart gets at the heart of the story.

For instance, the Blue Man asks, “Why do people gather when others die,” and his explanation is the essence of what the story is about: “It is because the human spirit knows, deep down, that all lives intersect. That death doesn’t just take someone, it misses someone else, and in the small distance between being taken and being missed lives are changed.”

To think of our lives this way – as a series of souls intersecting to help one another understand the greater meaning of life, beyond our day to day existence – reminds me of the importance of being ever present and attentive to our daily encounters with one another.

I often say that the best books are the ones that keep me thinking about them long after I’ve finished the last page. The Five People You Meet in Heaven certainly fits that bill.

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