When I was 16 my parents sent me to spend the summer with my older brother in Anchorage, Alaska. He was in the Air Force and he was stationed at Elmendorf AFB. He'd only been married for a few years and he and his wife had one child and were expecting their second. There was a great deal of tension between them which was palpable and made for a rather uncomfortable living arrangement. Alaska is an amazing place, however, and I found respite in the great outdoors and in the new friends I was making. I was 16 and had all the optimism anyone could have in a new place. I wasn't allowed to leave the base--my brother had a fear of drunk 'natives' doing me bodily harm or of my getting Shanghaied. After a few weeks with them in their tiny apartment, I began considering the concept. In any event, one afternoon my brother decided that we should all go and see the city. It was exciting to be off the base and walking around a place surrounded by the lurking dangers my brother had warned me about. All in all it was a pretty tame outing but a welcome change nevertheless.
One happenstance of that day--so innocuous, so commonplace--had the most profound effect on my life that I will ever experience. On the street were several young people handing out fliers to passers-by. It was an 8 x 10 sheet of goldenrod coloured paper with a rather wordy text printed on it. I took one because it was handed to me and I didn't want to be rude. I folded it and put it in my pocket thinking, 'Hey, a free souvenir'. I had every intention of reading it sometime later when we'd returned to base. By the time we got back I'd completely forgotten about it. In August I returned home to Maine and when I unpacked my suitcase there it was--that goldenrod sheet of paper--a little the worse for having been shuffled around so much. Curiosity returned and I sat on my bed and unfolded it. What I read was the closest thing I have ever had to an out-of-body experience. The words were simple, the phrasing was gentle and the message reached down inside of me and embraced my soul. I could feel, hear, smell, taste. and see the purest light surrounding me. For a few moments I was not in my little bedroom behind the backwoods of rural Maine. I was nowhere and everywhere all at once. Time had absolutely no bearing on my being. As cliche as it may sound, I believe that in that brief span of time I was truly one with the cosmos.
That little piece of prose is called "Desiderata" ('things desired') and it was written my an American philosopher-poet named Max Ehrmann in the 1920's as a response to the horrors of World War I. I have never read anything as timeless as this. It still guides my actions to this day 35 years later. Today was 9/11 and it was a day of reflection for all of us. I urge all visitors to this blog to read this simple message. No matter how busy or stressful your life may be, no matter how much pain and suffering you may be experiencing, no matter how jaded you may have become, some part of this will touch your heart and perhaps reach down and embrace your soul, too. It is the polestar by which I try to live my life. It takes about three minutes to read. Invest the time--your soul is worth it.
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