“Summer was our best season: it was sitting on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.”
– Harper Lee “To Kill a Mockingbird”
Summer vacation always goes by too quickly, don’t you think? This past one certainly did for me, but as we approach the dying days of summer and our tans begin to fade, the memories we made this summer won’t; they will be eternally etched into our hearts, our minds, and the deepest recesses of our souls. Cliché? Perhaps, but many of us know that this oft-repeated phrase rings with truth. Even today, I can still remember the wide, rolling plains of southern Alberta as my family took a road trip down to the looming mountains of Montana, the scorching deserts of Nevada, and the towering palm trees of sunny California.
Having been trapped in Canada for the past five years, leaving the true north for a change of scenery rekindled my dream of seeing the world, just as Walt Whitman’s poem “Salut au Monde” gave expression to my dreams a few years before. In his poem, he describes the sounds, sights, and people encountered in his travels, employing the use of the senses to stimulate my imagination and take me with him, figuratively speaking, on a magic carpet ride around the world. With him, I hear “the Spanish dance, with castanets, in the chestnut shade, to the rebeck and guitar,” I listen to “the Virginia plantation chorus of negroes, of a harvest night, in the glare of pine-knots,” and I hear “the Arab muezzin, calling from the top of the mosque.” With him, I see “Christ once more eating the bread of his last supper, in the midst of youths and old persons,” I see “the Turk smoking opium in Aleppo,” and I see “Memphis mummy-pits, containing mummies, embalmed, swathed in linen cloth, lying there many centuries.” With his words, Whitman stirred within me a deep passion to travel, a longing born of the thirst for adventure and the need to connect to others. I was entranced with the beauty of his words, and the beauty of the world was revealed to me. More importantly, his words revealed the beauty of humanity to me; not long afterwards, I began to observe people around me as they rushed past and I couldn’t help but wonder about their lives. Who was I, a person no more than a background actor in the movie of their lives, that fate would decide to cross our paths, if only for just a moment? It was then that I realized how much value I placed in the people around me. Just as the young Scout defined the beauty of summer by Dill’s very being, I decided that the beauty of life came from the people I have met, and will meet, in the journey of my own life. It is through them that I catch a glimpse of my own soul.
Few books have stirred my heart as much as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief did in the summer before I entered eighth grade. Through Liesel’s love of books, I began to have a passionate affair with language and I bought not only Zusak’s novel, but a book for learning German as well. Though my attempts at speaking die deutsche Sprache turned out to be nothing more than a summer romance, it nevertheless sealed my interest in learning languages for the purpose of not only communicating, but also of touching the hearts of the people with whom I share the world.
One quote of Zusak’s that made me wonder about the marvels of the human individual goes like this: “Sometimes, people are beautiful. Not in looks. Not in what they say. Just in what they are.” When reading the novel, I was astounded by this idea! Society’s expectations of what it meant to be beautiful paled in comparison to the idea that all people, despite their histories or backgrounds, are alike in one thing: they are beautiful simply because they are. However, this idea unveiled my own insecurities. I began to see the beauty in everyone, in everybody, in every person…except myself. In observing other people, I forgot to find the beauty within me. I forgot to reflect on my own life, in who I am and who I’m meant to be. To this day, I have absolutely no idea as to who I truly am, but I find some comfort in knowing that thanks to our shared humanity, I can find a little of myself in everybody else. In times of deep soul-searching, I constantly contemplate upon the lives of those around me. What are their dreams? Their hopes? Their fears? Do they, like me, suffer from the heartbreak of unrequited love or the pain of rejection? Do they, like me, hopelessly endure thousands of sleepless nights or the agonies of embarrassment? It is this pursuit of empathy that drives my soul. My dreams, hopes, and aspirations all revolve around it. I am driven to madness by it.
Sometimes, I wonder if the aforementioned thoughts are the musings of a lonely heart. After all, like many people, my heart is a dark abyss of secrets, enwrapped in my own selfishness and brimming with the hopeless, dirty, beautiful frailties that make me human. Despite whatever you see in my façade, my soul is a sea of contradictions: it is both light and dark, young and old, strong and weak, beautiful and ugly. Like the personification of Death in The Book Thief, I can see both the beauty and the ugliness in humanity, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Is it truly possible to be both a member of the Hitler Youth and the secret friend of a hidden Jew? Likewise, is it possible that I, a selfish, sinful, imperfect hypocrite, can be beautiful?
In the end, however, I am not a cynical person. It takes a person hopeful in the strengths of humankind to see the beauty in each individual. After all, every human being moves on with their lives despite their faults and shortcomings. On some nights, I find myself thinking about the people who came into my life this summer. I do not look at their faults, but I see them living every happy moment, every brief memory that makes us, as humans, stronger because we move on regardless of our iniquities:
I think about the African-American man selling CDs on the brilliantly-lit streets of Las Vegas,
I think about the family from New Jersey laughing while telling stories around their dinner table,
I think about the olive-skinned girls walking barefoot along the white beaches of Castaway Cay.
I think about the loud Bahamian vendors selling their wares as the rain begins to fall,
I think about the boys wading in the blue waves as the glorious Californian sun sets behind them,
I think about the Indonesian waiters pacing back and forth amidst the clinking of dinner plates on a cruise ship bound for paradise.
I think about the group of missionaries walking the streets of Salt Lake City,
I think about the Jamaican family labouring day and night in their Floridian farm,
I think about the children in Orlando having what might become the happiest moments of their lives.
Beautiful strangers. All destined to become beautiful, distant memories. In them, I see a reflection of myself: a small boy rushing through life, an insignificant drop of water in a sea, barely a speck of dust in the eyes of God. Yet, somehow, the world will never see the likes of each and every individual again once they “shuffle off this mortal coil.” Each human person is unique in design and personality, each a movie star in their own right. Through the words of authors like Whitman and Zusak, I find the words to express my thirst to know more about the importance of every individual. Through literature, I read about the lives of others when, in fact, I truly read about my own life. In the books I read, I find both beauty and ugliness, as well as the human impulses that bind us together in pursuit of a better world. In looking at others, I look at myself: I see my hopes, my fears, my ambitions, and my insecurities. In them, I see my soul. Though people enter and leave my life every single day, I find comfort in the fact that we are all connected through our humanness, both thorns and roses, splinters and all.
Anyway, I think this is where I should stop talking about my experiences; otherwise, I start missing everybody!