Life Is the Greatest of All Statements
How late we grow smart. To be honest, there were times when I thought I knew everything. However, after absorbing the letters contained within this passage, I found I knew nothing. And I am not alone. Millions of people blessed with the miracle of sight never really see the world. Millions with the innate capacity to love, and to know the joy that love brings, wait too long to express it. Too frequently, a visit to a nursing home will reveal the following: Patients who realize that their days are drawing to a close will often say, "I waited too long to start living." You should find their remarks strange. What they're really saying is that they failed to enjoy life even during those years that they were living it most fully. It's like the person who puts the best china and silverware away for some rare, special occasion. Unfortunately, these individuals die before it is ever used.
Few people, it seems, develop an awareness for living. While possessing the greatest gift--life itself--they pass through their days like robots. Even worse, their actions clearly demonstrate that they don't have the slightest idea of life's value, let alone an awareness that life is to be treasured and enjoyed each and every day. It's only when their days grow short and their hour draws near that life's precious value begins to take hold. I find it amazing, but most of us place the greatest value on the cheapest commodities--possessions, that if lost or stolen could easily be replaced--while the greatest gift of all goes unnoticed. The most fortunate people in the world are those who have been taught to place value where it belongs--on an awareness for living.
So if you are about to graduate from high school or college, consider these letters the homework assignment you failed to complete and the commencement speech you never heard. If you've grown weary of an uninspiring religion and find your spirit thirsting for renewal, here's the sermon you missed. If your parents failed to provide the loving guidance and sense of direction that is necessary for fulfillment in today's embattled world, here is the firm but tender heart-to-heart talk you should have received in your youth. At last your life and your future are in your hands--and yours alone. You now possess the power and the means to make all your tomorrows a special heaven on earth. You may now walk with head high and shoulders erect toward the future you deserve. Live your life well!
October 16, 1998, Glenmora, LA
What I learned about life and success in the cotton fields of Louisiana
Mother used to say, "You will hear me long after I am gone." The first time I heard these words I had no idea what she meant. When conveying the facts of life, my mother always spoke in parables and proverbs. This remarkable statement would be an important lesson that neither of us would verbalize during her lifetime. Now, fifty years have come and gone, and I realize she could not have taught me in a more excellent way. As I look back from my lofty perch in academia, sitting behind a mahogany desk in a high-back leather chair, surrounded by walls draped with citations, mementos, and diplomas, my hearing is as sharp as ever. I can only admire the wisdom and subtlety my mother displayed as she prepared me for the future. "You may not agree with all I've got to say, but sooner or later my words will ring true," was the message my mother was trying to convey.
In those days, I was as full of questions as my mother was of answers. A lesser individual would've knuckled under due to the stress and strain long ago, and certainly wouldn't have had the time to guide me. A pillar of strength, here stood a woman who could've easily been overwhelmed with the responsibilities of earning a living, caring for her children, and just plain keeping her head above water. Whoever said no one is irreplaceable never met my mother. Though she is no longer with me, her advice continues to make a difference in unexpected and unexplained ways.
Like those before me, I began picking cotton as a young girl growing up in Louisiana. I was barely twelve years old. Throughout my childhood, though money and means were rare commodities, hard work could be found in abundance. Now, I don't know if you've ever toiled in the cotton fields but Lord, have mercy, I can think of a thousand jobs--from washing clothes to cooking and cleaning, to sweating away in the cabbage patch, you name it--I'd rather do. I've lived and worked the world over and, if I never pick an ounce of cotton in my life again, that would be fine with me. Somehow my mother sensed my disdain. "There's more to picking cotton," she would say, "than just filling a sack. If you look hard and long enough you will find a lesson or two." There was little chance that I would live out my life in those hot and humid cotton fields of central Louisiana, but once again I would lean on my mother's words to pull me through.
The human journey is short. We no sooner realize that we are here than it is time for us to go. Though you may never lift a cotton sack in your life, I pray that you will appreciate and benefit from the pearls of wisdom I plucked from the cotton fields of Louisiana:
Lesson One: The workday began at 3 a.m. sharp, and concluded somewhere between 5 and 6 p.m. The foreman's truck that carried me and other workers to the fields came bright and early and expected each worker to be on time. At an early age I was taught the value of discipline: If I failed to show up at the appointed hour that workday would be rendered wasted. I soon discovered "on time" means on time and success in any endeavor begins early and stays late.
Lesson Two: Never expect something for nothing. At the conclusion of each workday, within full view of everyone, each sack of cotton was weighed. One large sack--a good day's effort--brought at least three dollars, money I desperately needed. But each sack had to be filled with clean, dry cotton. Though human nature might tempt one to cut corners (I've seen field hands throw rocks and dirt into their sacks in an effort to add to their total weight), eventually their shortcuts and deception were uncovered. Never look for or expect more than what you put in. Never expect easy money, success without working, or to get rich quick.
Lesson Three: I was raised in a rundown clapboard house. As I lay in bed each night I could see the evening stars through my roof and the chickens beneath the floor. I dared not complain. Mother was doing the best she could. The following morning, as I moved from row to row with that bag of cotton on my shoulders, I carried my dreams for a better world with me. I took an inward journey and unleashed the power of my mind. I pictured a home in an upscale neighborhood. A house complete with indoor plumbing, carpeted floors, freshly painted walls, topped off with a huge kitchen featuring the latest appliances. As my imagination ran wild I came to rely on a spiritual secret: Trust the unseen more than the visible. I may have never openly shared my dreams, but I knew this was the life I was meant to live. Now, in more ways than one, I finally feel at home. Today, I live in the house that I envisioned--complete with all the bells and whistles--down to the smallest detail. And to think I began laying the foundation nearly half a century ago. It is never too late to become the person you were meant to be. Let your imagination soar. It is the secret language of the soul.
Lesson Four: Truth be known, I wasn't the fastest cotton picker in the field. To be honest, not only was I the slowest, but my inability to develop a rhythm (yes, there is a rhythm to picking cotton) many times caused bottlenecks as I struggled from row to endless row. To my surprise the older workers didn't seem to mind. As a matter of fact, they overlooked my shortcomings and wrapped me in a blanket of encouragement. Collectively, they knew of my dreams of going to college, and eventually earning a graduate degree. To them, I represented faith and hope for the future. Not just my future, but the future for every overworked and underpaid brother and sister who slaved away in those fields. With my head down, and back and knees aching, I can still hear them leading me on: "Come on, Baby. You can do it! You're gonna make it." Their words of hope and redemption touched me in a healing way. Since the day I set foot on the Grambling State University campus to the day I walked across the stage at Texas Southern University to receive my doctorate degree, I have lived by this lesson. Like those field hands who had the utmost faith in me, their daily words of encouragement set the tone for all that I would accomplish. On a word and a prayer, I pressed on.
Well, my mother was right. "There's more to picking cotton than just filling a sack." It was my mother who not only pointed me to the cotton fields but who knew I would uncover a number of life-changing lessons as well. Within each of us blooms a wellspring of abundance and opportunity. For in each of us rests a deeply personal dream waiting to be plucked. When we cherish our dreams and invest in hard work, faith, and discipline, we will achieve long-lasting success.
I have faith that you will hear my words long after I am gone,
Doris Price, Ph.D.
September 10, 1998, Nashville, TN
To dare guide a life
Well, where do I start? The best advice I've been given rests on the following: Life is oh so precious. In that brief space of time between birth and death each of us discovers life's true meaning. My life has been enriched by the lives I've touched, shaped, and molded in more than forty years of teaching. It has been gratifying to see those whom I have taught discover their unique talents and gifts. My job was no less than that of my parents who had the daunting task of convincing me, though I couldn't eat at certain lunch counters or use public restrooms or participate in a system that overlooked my abilities that, in spite of it all the indignities and injustice, somehow, someway, I could still reach my goals. No small chore.
Only a few, if any, of the lives that I've embraced will approximate the discoveries of a George Washington Carver or the commitment and contributions of a Dr. King, a Booker T. Washington or a Harriet Tubman. Nonetheless, driven by a compulsion for success, many of my former students have blossomed into doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, and public servants. To dare guide a life and to help a young child discover his or her innate gifts is especially meaningful to me. This is the best way to put meaning into your life. The Man Above only asks that we begin.
Cora R. Goodwin
April 25, 2001, Baltimore, MD
A good book is your most treasured possession
The year was 1933--the bottom of the Great Depression. My father, born and raised in Barbados, came to this country with high hopes and even higher expectations. Though his entrepreneurial dreams fell short, my father was determined that his journey to America would not be in vain. After all, here was a man who had immigrated to the U.S. from Barbados at the turn of the century and immediately experienced a string of business failures. Here was a man who didn't think twice when faced with the prospects of risking his life to go abroad in order to feed his family. Before immigrating to the U.S., he took a job nearly one thousand miles away to work on the Panama Canal. Like thousands of ditch diggers who fought the jungle heat, disease-carrying mosquitoes, and the constant threat of landslides, he dug day and night until his blistered hands were nearly covered with blood. It's amazing what you'll do when responsibilities must be met. Years later he moved his family to Harlem and set his sights on the ministry. After my grandmother died from an insidious tuberculosis outbreak, my mother, a stately-looking woman from Jamaica, came to the U.S. with her God-mother through Ellis Island. Dedicated to educating her children, she took a job as a Gregg Shorthand stenographer for a small New York City law firm. Her earnings were meager but they enabled our survival.
Together, my parents had many endearing qualities--hard working, thrift, loyalty to each other, and high moral standards--not to mention their love of learning and books. My father ruled his roost with both an iron fist and a velvet glove. He was hell-bent on personal achievement. He had a thick, old leather strap that he judiciously applied whenever we willfully broke the rules. My brothers, sisters, and I were considered to be well mannered and, on numerous occasions, our parents were complimented as to our impeccable deportment. My fondest memories of my mother were our trips to the library where she made sure that her children had collected their share of positive reading material. I can still remember her reading to us from an old, dusty red book brought from her native land which profiled African kings and queens. If time permitted, she would shuffle us off to the Museum of Natural History where our little inquisitive minds would run wild. We were also regulars at the Schomburg Library on 135th Street and Lenox, and even took picnics at Grant's Tomb overlooking the Hudson. On Sunday afternoons after church, in Carnegie Hall, our entire family could usually be found in the front row listening to the classical music of Chopin or Grieg, or pondering the words of great orators or inspiring poets of the day who happened to be in the area, leaving an even bigger imprint on our lives. This was the era of the Harlem Renaissance during which intellectual giants like Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar filled many auditoriums and churches. Few can remember that in 1951 W. E. B. Du Bois, the famed educator and activist, ran for the New York Senate seat as a third-party candidate. Father insisted that I work on Dr. Du Bois' campaign.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from What Keeps Me Standing by Dennis Kimbro. Copyright © 2003 by Dennis Kimbro. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.