Some people argue that we are born who we are and that, to a large extent, our lives are preordained. But I believe in the redemptive power of learning and its ability to shape us and our lives.
I was born in Idaho when Eisenhower was president and most of the country thought electrification was on a par with the second coming of Christ. I read broadly and learned from books about places back east like Ticka-RON-diga—a town located in the uh-DYE-run-dack mountains—and a park in California called Yose-might. As a child, I bought a record by a singer called “Eddie Gorm” who’d left the second “d” out of his first name and sang like a girl.
And as a child in that distant land of Idaho I learned that honesty is always the right policy, that confessing mistakes lightens the load of error and that apologizing is never out of fashion. Perhaps it was because of early lessons such as these—so hard to adopt but so solid in their influence—that I was able to go forth and learn more.
I learned, for instance, that pappardelle are exquisite fat buttery noodles that hold rich sauces in their folds and that opera can be compelling as well as cartoonish. And that 200 tubas playing holiday carols out in the winter air can be strangely moving. And that, in fact, each season holds its own kind of truth.
I worked on a kibbutz in Israel where I discovered that gefilte weren’t actually a variety of fish. I strolled the boulevards of Seville and learned that one never ever refers to the Virgin Mary as “la mujer.” I taught English to refugees from Laos and learned that humans who have been subjected to unspeakable crimes can still laugh like children at silly English phrases such as “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
I learned that having too many lovers can lead to a barrenness of the flesh but not having enough love can lead to a barrenness of the heart. And that children—who long for absent parental love—suffer an awful ache that has no balm.
I learned that the death penalty has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with our human impulse to cruelty. And I learned that it is not as hard to tell people how you feel about them as it is to wait too long to do so.
But most importantly, I have learned that life is revealed not through possession but through creation and action. Through the quiet courage of individuals, through choices that prove the indomitability of the human spirit, and through the fact that each and every one of us has the ability to make our lives our own and to make them worth living each and every day.
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