Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Things Desired

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the 
stars; you have a right to be here.
-Max Ehrmann 

PBS Host LLewellyn King wrote a syndicated op/ed piece that ran in our local paper yesterday about the advantages of bookstores over e-books. King told stories how sometimes books find you. “Call it serendipity: It is the marvelous thing about books. You can pick them up just about anywhere, and a single volume can change your life or lead you into unexpected realms of delight.”
Has a book ever followed you home like a puppy staring at you with wide lovable eyes? It happened to me a few weeks ago when I picked up Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. It winked at me in Anthropologie, a store that primarily sells house wares and clothes, not books. The Happiness Project inspired me to take blogging in a new direction and more importantly commit to this one year experiment in being more childlike.
Another important, maybe even life changing book, found me last summer. We were on vacation in Newport, Rhode Island in this historic B & B that had a library filled with board games and books to enjoy during your stay. My than 2-year old daughter handed me a little book of poems by Max Ehrmann called the Desiderata of Happiness. The title stopped me in my tracks. The Desiderata was my grandmother’s favorite poem framed above her bed. My parents had the poem made into a stained glass window for my first apartment. I subsequently had the poem printed in calligraphy and framed for my parents as a sentimental gift. You have to understand we are not a literary family. I grew up on a steady diet of TV. Reading was limited to homework. Our idea of poetry was “roses are red..violets are blue”. But this poem was different. It was special. Sort of a manifesto for life. Perhaps it added to the importance that it was so mysterious. I grew up believing the author was an unknown 17th century writer. I was told that the poem was discovered in a church hundreds of years ago. So who is Max Ehrmann? 
Turns out he wrote the Desiderata and copyrighted it in 1927. History of Desiderata Ehrmann was a Harvard law graduate who practiced law in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana than went on to work in his family’s business. At age 40, he gave up everything to pursue his passion for writing. He married his longtime companion just shortly before his death in 1945. He may not have died alone, but the philosopher and writer died in obscurity after a mostly solitary existence with no possessions.  As the story goes, Ehrmann mailed copies of the Desiderata to friends with Christmas cards. Thirty years after it was copyrighted, a minister found a copy and reprinted it for a sermon without crediting the author. From there, it did the 1960‘s version of going viral. By the 1970’s, the Desiderata was known through out the world. It was the subject of songs, referenced in movies and quoted extensively by everyone from Dear Abby to presidents.

Even now, Ehrmann doesn’t make the top ten list for the most famous people who only became famous after they died. Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, El Greco, Vincent Van Gogh, Henry David Thoreau all beat him out. Top Ten Famous People After Death

The Desiderata is by far Ehrmann’s most well known work. I have since found hundreds of his poems reprinted in books such as The Desiderata of Happiness, The Desiderata of Faith, The Desiderata of Love and The Desiderata of Hope. They are all wonderful. It would be hard to pick a favorite.

I love the hopeful tone of the Desiderata, especially as I focus this first month on childlike optimism. Desiderata, by the way, means things desired in Latin.  When his Harvard classmates were leading nations, he lived in a modest three room house with no means to support a family, even if he had a family. How did he maintain his sense of optimism, a sense of self worth? The answer is he followed his dream. He stayed true to what he passionately believed he was put on this Earth to do. He wrote.

In a 2009 newspaper story One of Terre Haute's Most Memorable, the reporter dug up a quote from the philosopher who said he wrote the Desiderata for himself “because it counsels those virtues I felt most in need of.” Ehrmann was the eternal optimist. He once predicted “Perhaps when I’m dead, some browser in libraries will come upon me and, seeing that I was not altogether unworthy, will resurrect me from the dust of things forgotten.”

Of the two books that followed me home and changed my course, one is on the New York Time's Best Sellers List and the other remains an unknown classic. The irony is not lost on me that as I write this, no one yet knows this blog exists. 

I leave you (if there is a you out there) with this question for today: Has a book ever found you and changed your life?


Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; 
and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than 

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it 
is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. 

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

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