Even at the age of eight Sarah dreamed of visiting far-away places. She would lie in bed and imagine lush, exotic islands, and grand cities with great cathedrals and towering spires. Her favorite subject in school was world geography, and she would press the pages of her texts open and study the pictures of nomadic Laplanders, ocean-liners, snow-capped mountains, and South Sea Islands. She would stand in front of the family globe, and spinning it, would watch the world race by.
After working in a large department store until she was twenty-two she married and in ten years had four children, two boys and two girls. She was a stay-at-home mother, and was wonderful at raising the children who loved her dearly. For the first twenty-five years of her marriage she was never gainfully employed outside the house. She and her husband were never able to save enough money to travel very far, as she still dreamed of one day doing. She came into her own and found fulfillment as a wife and mother, but when the youngest child reached his teens she realized it was time to change her life and venture outside the home to start a career.
She suffered the same fears and insecurities most people would who had been out of the job market for a quarter of a century, and didn’t know what to do to find a job. One day, on a whim, while passing a travel agency she had driven past hundreds of times on the way to and from errands, she went in and applied for a job. She was hired and now, in her late-forties organizes and accompanies group tours to Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific. She is doing what she dreamed of as a child, and is happy. Life offered her the opportunity for a fresh start, a new life path, a second birth, and she took it.
The Wright brothers–Wilbur and Orville–were the first to demonstrate controlled, mechanical flight. But their insatiable interest in building a machine that flew began when they were children. Their father, Wilton, went on frequent business trips, and made it a point to bring home from each trip something for his children. He brought home from one trip–when Wilbur was eleven and Orville seven–a small toy helicopter made from bamboo paddles and a rubber band that when the rubber band was wound and released could lift off the ground. The brothers fell in love with the toy and played with it constantly, until it broke.
Then they disassembled it to see how it was made, and then built endless copies of it, even getting in trouble in school for playing with them. The toy made an indelible mark on them, got them started on aeronautical design, and they never forgot it. Even as older men, long after they had invented the flying machine and were world renowned, they would make helicopter toys for their nieces and nephews.
I asked my nurse in the hospital why she had gone into nursing and she said, “When I was a young girl I was sickly and I had to have a nurse. We were together night and day, and she was a good woman who seemed very happy. We became close, and it was then I decided that when I grew up I would be a nurse too. I’ve had such a wonderful life, and nursing has been so rewarding, that I’ve never regretted that decision.”
When Harry Truman was a boy, while he and his father worked together in the corn fields of Missouri, his father entertained him with exciting stories of the great ancient Greek and Roman orators and statesman, stories which Harry vividly recalled when he went into politics and when he had to make critical war-time decisions as President of the United States. Many times he called those stories his father told the most beneficial education he had ever received and an important reason he pursued the career he did.
When my friend Rebecca was a young girl she would play “office.” She would pretend to be the president of a company and would have her younger brother play her assistant. She would spread papers every which way in front of her on the kitchen table as if it were her desk and she was very busy. She would call to her assistant-brother, “Bring me my pen” and he would bring it and she would then scribble her signature on papers. In her mid-thirties she founded and is president of what is now one of the most successful mid-size advertising agencies in the Midwest. She still signs papers all day long.
They are professional guitarists who as children were given an old battered guitar by an uncle and taught themselves to play. Or they are accountants who have always loved working with numbers, or a movie director whose parents loved movies and took their child to the show along with them, or a car dealer whose parents owned a dealership.
Innumerable artists–writers, musicians, composers, dancers, painters, architects, performers, and professional people, particularly engineers and physicians–became seriously interested in what would be their adult pursuit as young children.
A distinctive quality of many people leading fulfilled lives is that quite early in life they became interested in the subject matter they later pursued as a vocation. The continual deepening of their interest and the development of appropriate skills was what guided them to their careers and that largely accounts for their success. They find their greatest achievements in occupations which build on their childhood interests.
From the earliest years on, patterns of choices show remarkable consistency, even over long periods of many years. Our lives of today often were foreshadowed and our intended destiny laid out for us years ago. Foreshadowing is a clue to our life’s most important purposes, though at times the path to fulfillment is not direct, but roundabout, with many side-trips, delays, and false starts.
Many highly accomplished people in varied fields find fulfillment pursuing their childhood interests in avocations–parallel careers.
A strategy when you are confused and don’t know which career direction to go in is to remember what excited you as a child, for it may be that in what comes to mind then is the most promising and most fulfilling direction.
One warm afternoon when I was five or six I was playing on the floor in front of the television that my mother had left on while she went away to vacuum in another room. I was playing with my fleet of toy trucks, and as poet Dylan Thomas would say, I was “As happy as the day is long.”
But from time to time I found myself glancing up at the screen and then after while found myself putting my trucks aside completely and getting closer to the screen and folding my arms in front of me and watching an old black and white movie very intently. I realize now that the semi-strange language the actors were speaking was British English.
One person in particular on that screen mesmerized me. I wanted to watch him and listen forever—the way he moved, the way he spoke, his voice, how he gestured, everything about him. What was happening to me was beyond me to describe. I was young; I didn’t have the vocabulary. But I still do not have the vocabulary, not because my vocabulary is deficient, but because when you see or read or hear something that is so out of the ordinary, you are unprepared for it and no words in all the lexicons, even the most expressive, are sufficient. You are mute.
All you know is that what you are feeling is jubilation; is joy. In my little child’s way I knew that on that screen before my eyes a performance that was not commonplace, but extraordinary was occurring, and it was because of that man’s skills and his presence, his being. My mother walked by and I touched the screen with my finger and said, “Who is that man?” And she answered. “That is Laurence Olivier. He’s the greatest actor in the world.”
How did I know that? How could I tell? What in my little boy’s mind was responding to an artistic achievement of the very best? I was so young. But even when you are so little, true art has a way of breaking through to you and declaring its power, and as you can see, you remember it all your life and cannot forget.
One day in the third grade my favorite teacher (at any level), Miss Gross, standing in the front of the room, started reading aloud an essay I had written. She had had us describe something that had happened to us, and because I loved to run and could run like the wind and ran whenever I could, I wrote about running while playing football.
I heard her read (very dramatically as only Miss Gross could) my words: “The boys tackled me and I fell to the ground like a blob of jelly coming out of a jar.” Then I heard Miss Gross say, “That is poetic language. That is an image. David has made a simile.”
So, I’ve made a simile, I thought. Isn’t that something?
Then running home under the maple trees after school, I got to thinking that if I wanted I could make similes all the rest of my life. So, why do I write, and why do I try so hard, and why have I been doing it with extreme passion and happiness and commitment these years, and why do I find that there is nothing I would rather do than study and learn and write about artists—Debussy, Cassatt, Faulkner, Graham, Baryshnikov, Hepburn Gershwin, Stravinsky, Wright, the Beatles, Satie, Calder, O’Neill, Chekhov, Chagall–any artists at all, and fill my life with their desires and aspirations, their capacity for hard, sustained work, their sacrifices, their single-mindedness and persistence, their devastating setbacks and colossal achievements, their strengths as human beings, and their frailties that all contributed and made possible works that I can actually hear, and look at, and read, and touch?
Because, you see, the glorious experience of that pleasant afternoon in front of that screen—the finest actor of his era and I alone together in my living room–had somehow made a tribute to other creators of such beauty seem necessary and inevitable. And because of my need to make similes, I can’t help myself.
Let Me Know
These are childhood stories of human destinies being set in motion—a direction, a future–taking shape. I would like to hear your story. I would like to know about the experiences that set you on the right course and led you to what has consumed you most. What key events from your youth led you to becoming what you’ve become?
© 2014 David J. Rogers
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