September 22nd is my father’s birthday. He would have been 91 this year. In his memory, I thought I’d revisit this personal story and share a dose of his philosophy, which I think is relevant for anyone. (This borrows from a post sent to Bordertown Publishing subscribers five years ago.)
“Dead yesterday, unborn tomorrow”
In the fall of my junior year at Duke University, I received a note from the dean’s office, requesting that I schedule an appointment. There was no elaboration regarding why, so I became nervous. Was this like being called into the principal’s office? Had the dean figured out that I actually didn’t belong at such a prestigious school, that I’d somehow managed to hoodwink admissions, and that I needed to leave? At the very least, I assumed I must’ve done something wrong.
The dean couldn’t have been nicer. When I sat opposite his big desk, he leaned forward with a smile and simply said, “you need to declare a major.”
Now, this might not seem like a big deal, but it was a “major” issue for me. I’d been riddled with anxiety around this, because I thought that declaring a major was the same thing as formally declaring what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I still had no idea what that was. In contrast, most of my peers at Duke had set their trajectories beyond college long ago. They knew exactly what they wanted to do and declared their majors with no hesitation. What was wrong with me?
I told the dean that I’d declare soon. As soon as I got home from that meeting, I wrote my father a long letter, sharing my insecurities, questions, and doubts, and asking for his advice. He was a compassionate person and I knew that he’d give good counsel.
It took seven to ten days for a letter to travel one way between North Carolina and Singapore, where my parents lived at the time, so I knew that he’d replied immediately when I saw his letter in my mailbox three weeks later.
In his handwritten letter, he noted the value of a Liberal Arts education, emphasizing that no matter what I chose as my major, I’d be better prepared to navigate the world by virtue of my well-rounded education, my interpersonal skills, and my ability to think openly and critically. A Liberal Arts degree would help to expand and deepen my experiences, and these qualities, he emphasized, would serve me in whatever I chose to do.
His letter ended with the following words:
The best advice I ever received was to work hard to educate myself, build a strong, healthy body, and develop a personal moral code. Thus equipped, although all those things are or should be a constant in life, follow the courses which reveal themselves randomly on the basis of knowing within yourself that it’s right for you.
Events like war, traffic accidents, economic depression, birth, marriage, death. These are real factors which fit the equation for life–over which kismet prevails–not us.
“Dead yesterday, unborn tomorrow.” Now is all we have, enjoy it!
All my love,
I declared my major the next day. The courses I’d already taken made the decision easier than I thought. I majored in International Comparative Studies and Anthropology, which upon reflection, served me well in all of life’s endeavors.
Sadly, my father died unexpectedly from an aneurysm only two years after he wrote that letter. In fact, the last time I saw him was at my college graduation. He was beaming and happy.
* My father’s quoted words, “Dead yesterday, unborn tomorrow!” borrowed from a poem by Omar Khayyam, a Persian astronomer, astrologer, physician, philosopher, and mathematician.
“We’re off on another adventure!”
Growing up, my family traveled and lived all around the world. My father’s refrain each time we departed for yet another foreign location was “We’re off on another adventure!” As soon as our airplane began to taxi, he’d turn from his seat, holding an exuberant grin, and we’d all mouth along as he gleefully said those words one more time. That’s how he saw life. He reveled in it.
My father’s own life ended up being way too short, but one thing’s for sure, he lived in the moment. (And if you’re not already privy to this, he was a spy, so yeah, adventures definitely awaited. You can read about those adventures in my mother’s popular memoir, Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant.)
To this day, I say these words and mimic his beaming expression every time I leave on a trip or head out to do something new.
“We’re off on another adventure!” What a great approach to life. Relish in the purity of NOW while also inviting excitement for all the new experiences that await you. I’ve taken this to heart.
Thank you, Daddy.
I can hear his resounding “yeah!” echoing back.