Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What my mother taught me

I grew up in a family with five children (I was the fourth), and we ate dinner together every night around a large square table, two to a side. Early on, my mother started the tradition of "sayings" before each meal. We'd go around the table, and each of us would quote words of wisdom from Ehrmann's Desiderata, If by Rudyard Kipling, the Outward Bound book of quotes, or any place else we could find them.

It was always a challenge to find just the right words to say, because my mother would always ask why we'd chosen that particular quote. Of course, there were "code" quotes. If something bad happened, you'd say "Whether or not it is clear to you, the universe is unfolding as it should." and if you were fighting with someone (but didn't want to make a scene) you'd say "discretion is the better part of valor" or "as far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all people." (from Desiderata).

In retrospect, I can see that my mother used this ritual as a way to understand us. We were encouraged to find new sayings and fresh interpretations of the old ones. She was teaching us how to think, how to read, and how to see bits of ourselves in the words of the authors and thinkers who came before us.

As writers, publishers, readers, and citizens of the world, it's our job to look to literature for guidance in our present. If my mom asked me to say a saying tonight, I would have said:

"Seek the lofty by reading, hearing, and seeing great work at some moment every day." --Thornton Wilder

What would you have said?


Beth said...

Still thinking about what I might have said, but your family sounds like a real life Brothers and Sisters--which just happens to be my new favorite show...

Julia Henderson said...

Ha! I love that show, too. It's a lot like us, actually, minus the illegitimate daughter and the lifelong mistress. I think I'm Sarah. I'm definitely not Kitty.