Words that Teach Me How to Live

I’m drawn to books and words that offer me new ways of looking at life and teach me how to live in a good way. I dip into the ancient Greek philosophers and some modern ones, but reading novels and poetry resonates with me more than theory. For instance, in Middlemarch, George Eliot has Caleb Garth say something about “’tis the duty of us old ‘uns to help the young ‘uns….” ‘Tis true—or what’s the point of life? The Garths are the model family in this book—even though they do espouse Victorian values of hard work and morality and as a child I yearned for a family like this, with right values. I see now that I felt at odds with my birth family’s values but had no means of articulating my feelings. (My one wish as a child was to be sent to boarding school to be with soulmates, like the Four Mary’s. Yes, yes, I know…) Caleb Garth’s words remind me of my paternal grandparents, who helped me and were the steady foundations of my childhood. They and the words in books helped me survive. Maybe one day I will go through Middlemarch and note all the wise sayings and it will be my manual for the rest of my life.

Mary Oliver is a contemporary poet who never fails to give wise guidance for life. Poets say things that we ordinary mortals feel but don’t have the words for. You read Mary Oliver and are stunned by a blow to the belly as the words unlock your frozen heart–the sudden blow that sends us reeling—for someone else has witnessed our pain. One of my favorites is Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” in Dream Work. It’s like the voice of God as she says to you:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

I’d like to be a modern Caleb Garth, capable of giving wise advice like the poet’s to myself and others. There is a sad lack of wise sages and mentors in real life and we must turn to books. I wonder if our lack of wise mentors is because we pay no respect to the middle-aged and elderly and don’t value their experience?

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