In the late 1960’s i left home for a high school seminary in New Jersey. Though just kids, our schedule was like that of well-seasoned monks, lights out very early, as we rose before the sun for prayer. i was quite the compliant boy.
But, in the Spring of 1970 a Harvard Classics professor, who had stolen St. Valentine’s Day with a love story to leave you faint, put me under a spell and lured me into disobedience. As i was returning to the Prep from a vacation, passing through Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC, copies of his book were jumping off the racks, and i couldn’t resist. That night, back at the dormitory, i waited for the order-to-sleep, and when the last bulb was out, i snuck off through the bathroom to a tiny closet on the other side, where we kept the mops. i took a seat on the floor under the slop sink and spent the night with Erich Segal, whose “Love Story” changed my life forever. i often say that my life really started there.
It soon became my unholy habit, and that unlikely hole became my cloister within the cloister, much like San Francesco’s tiny cave atop Assisi’s mountain. He called it his “Carceri,” his prison where he locked himself up til he learned how to see the world in a new way. i escaped to my cell – with a blanket sometimes for a bit more comfort – and book after book after book, in search of Life’s Real Treasure. Oh, sometimes i just had fun, and often thought maybe fun, maybe laughter, IS the treasure, as i did all in my power not to wake up “the brothers” even through two walls with wild laughter, as i nighted with J.D.Salinger in the raw “Rye”or Ken Kesey in his Cuckoo’s Nest. i fell madly in love with Harper Lee and her Scout and Jim and Atticus, and i sailed the seas with Hemingway. O what adventures!
Though completely cramped in that space, i never traveled so far as i did there. Though my legs could literally move not an inch, it was there that i went on awesome jaunts with Wordsworth and Coleridge through the beautiful Lake District of northwestern England, meeting all of their great little common friends along the way. Willie made me see just what wonders lie in the dusty, dirty, ordinary people. But, that was nothing! Heck, i covered the whole of Middle Earth with Bilbo Baggins…and did it again with Mr. Frodo! Back closer to home i wandered from the Maine Woods to Cape Cod and back home to Walden with David Henry (or as his fans would call him, Henry David Thoreau.) For me – under the slop sink – these men and women, both real and imagined, were more than heroes; they became like my brothers and my sisters. As St. Francis would say, “If I so love him who is my brother in the flesh, how much more ought I to love and cherish those who are my family in the Spirit?!” And this was my Spirit World, a quite unlikely place in a janitor’s closet.
Charles Dickens became my closest confidant, but i also began THERE in my “cell” to get serious in my study of the Saints and in my reading, or should i say EATING of the Bible and of all of the great spiritual writers. So very much thanks to Erich Segal. He loved and passed on his love of the Classics, and to me every poet, every novelist, every observer of life was a Classic, though perhaps none quite like this funny little Frenchman.
One of the wisest men i ever encountered was Antoine de St.Exupery, most famous for his tiny book of wisdom well-learned on a journey through the universe by “The Little Prince.” i read it over and over in my sloppy den. But, so did i STUDY Antoine’s lesser work, “Wind, Sand and Stars.” And to this day i haven’t found words that sum it all up better than his. i often say that his are the words, the only ones, that i want written on my gravestone. TRUE STORY: Antoine was a mail pilot and flew into North Africa, and after crashing and being lost in the Sahara Desert day after day right up to the point of death, he opened up his very last piece of nourishment, an orange. And just before he ate it, knowing that it might be his last meal, he stared down in ecstasy, the bright golden ball cupped in his trembling hands, and said, “MEN DO NOT KNOW WHAT AN ORANGE IS.”
i remember my daughter having to read certain books for English lit and to come up with the GIST. i’d say, “What’s the gist, Molly, what’s the gist??” To which she’d say, “Dad, you’re crazy!” BUT i THINK THIS LITTLE MAN WITH THE SILLY FACE CAME UP WITH GIST OF GISTS, the very, very HEART of the MATTER. Imagine if we all lived with such appreciation for every WONDER, with endless GRATITUDE. Why, one orange or grape or smile or kiss could be enough to make one’s day or month or year!
Just now my wife and Molly and i ushered in a New Year. We did it with Anderson Cooper and his Crazy Kathy. But nothing compares to when the Ball drops and Louie sings ANEW, “What a Wonderful World,” – if only i have eyes to see…
Happy New Year, Everyone, One of New Vision, New Purpose, New Peace…and a thankful heart at every step.