October 2017, I had the pleasure of substitute teaching for six days in an Honors English 9th grade class. One of their assignments was to write a “This I Believe” essay. I told the students that I wouldn’t ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do too. (I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading and teaching “Fahrenheit 451”.) They were a great group of teenagers, we all learned a little more about ourselves. Here’s what I wrote.
When discussing this assignment — writing an essay on “This I believe”— with one ninth grader, I was disappointed when he stated that he was going to write his essay on why assignments like this are a waste of time. It made me sad and reminded me of the quote attributed to Alexander Hamilton, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” Throughout life there have been times when I knew firmly what I believed. And there have been plenty of times due to laziness, ignorance or apathy, I fell for whatever was easy or popular. Maybe I would have felt the same way when I was 14 years old, but I now know how important it is to be able to understand what one believes.
Over the years I have taken countless ‘personal inventory’ surveys. I appreciate how these tools reveal or confirm my strengths and weaknesses. To know that I value knowledge, trust, optimism, devotion, loyalty, service, justice, quiet, responsibilities and traditions helps me to better focus my energies and how I can best use my limited talents, resources and time. In an odd way, I am rather too eager to take these tests as I see them almost as affirming directives. To me they are ‘mountain top’ experiences.
Many in life seek ‘mountain top’ experiences. Those moments when one’s decisions and destiny is so clear that it is as if all we need to do is to reach out our hand and God will be there to hand us an engraved essay stating precisely: “This is what you are to do…” Woo wahhhh. However, mountain top experiences happen infrequently, most of my time is spent in the valley, where ever-changing rivers flow, nurtured and tended grounds are planted and harvested, and I dwell in the presence of the multitude of mundane. However, I love the valley and the people with whom I share every breath I take.
Physicists have proven that with each breath, we take in and release roughly 25 sextillion (that’s 21 zeroes) molecules. These molecules are constantly rearranged and recycled not only in the space we occupy but all over the world and — get this — through time. The molecules don’t die or disappear, they simply continue to move along and exist somewhere else. It isn’t lost on me that the breath I just took might have molecules that were inhaled and exhaled by Michel de Montaigne (the father of the modern essay), Maya Angelou (my favorite female author), or Saint Francis de Sales (patron saint of writers).
Once a man put a book in my hands that was over 500 years old. My museum curator self kicked in, knowing the book would be fragile, I declined. I imagined the book how it would weigh and the fragrance of musty, dusty, old paper, ink, covers and binding.
I said to to the man, “I’m surprised you allow people to handle something so precious.”
He replied, “Each person who has touched it has left a bit of their DNA, the oil of their fingers, a bit of their breath, of themselves on the pages of this book. That’s what makes it special,” he paused, then continued with an air of awe, “through this book…people are connected.”
I regret that I missed this opportunity. The opportunity to mysteriously feel the connection with those who came before me and the future human touches that will come. The thought of it makes me feel small, yet expansively connected to all the invisible others.
I imagine each one of us sitting on mountain tops and in refreshing valleys perusing the pages of a compendium of the history of everything ever written. Upon each page the ink of life is indelibly imprinted. It is colored with wisdom and folly, angst and joyfulness, enlightenment and confusion. Reading only one page, one can only glean minuscule insights, hazy moments of time, or incomplete glimpses of other beings. But if we take the time to be delve deeper, to preserver and seek to be consciously aware, to continually empty and refill our minds and our hearts, to be still, to listen — and to breath in and out…with intention — then we might grasp something akin to that which makes us people of integrity, with purpose and connectivity to the whole of life.