If I had a blog, today I would write about the lifeline that has sustained me during some of my darkest hours. Today I would write about the inspiring words of others.
The most important thing I have ever read came to me just before I started college. I was at loose ends the summer before I left home for the first time. It was 1990 and libraries were still the end-all-be-all for avid readers so I spent my days haunting the stacks for good distractions. On one of my expeditions, I found a book called Light From Many Lamps by Lilian Eichler Watson. It was a collection of quotes, poems, and passages from Ms. Watson’s favorite literary works and I was, in a word, captivated.
Part of the book’s allure had to do with the fact that I had been collecting the same kind of quotes since I was ten years old. I got the idea from my dad, who also kept a quote book, and by the time I entered college, my collection filled several journal-sized books. I had everything from Robert Frost, to JRR Tolkien, to Ronald Reagan and I treasured those passages as if they had come from the Oracle at Delphi herself. I knew the words of others spoke to me, but until I found Light From Many Lamps, I had never considered making those words my own.
Light From Many Lamps introduced me to a new concept, a way of using poetry and prose that went beyond mere recollection and preservation: The book encouraged me to commit favorite passages to memory and use them as a light when life’s path grew dark. I took Ms. Watson’s words to heart and, over the years, I have used these passages as incantations against fear, loneliness, and despair.
The first poem I memorized was, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. During my first year in college, when I was homesick, I repeated this poem over and over and it gave me the courage to go on. The poem took on new meaning twenty-five years later when I learned it was a mantra of hope for Nelson Mandela during his thirty years in prison on Robben Island.
These are by no means the only words I hold dear to my heart. If I were to count them, they would stagger the imagination. I love Emily Dickinson’s Hope is a Thing With Feathers, Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening, selections from Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and countless passages from naturalists like Sigurd Olson, John Muir, John Burroughs, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, just to name a few.
These men and women are my heroes and through their stories, I find my own. Their poetry, prose, and songs, are my battle cry when I face the dark unknown, my shout of victory when obstacles are overcome, and my whispered prayers when my own words fail. In knowing their words, I am never alone. Indeed, I am in the company of the gods.
Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole. I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced or cried aloud. Under the bludgeoning of chance, My head is bloodied but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears, Looms but the horrors of the shade. And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how straight the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.