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  • Writer's pictureMarjorie Robertson

The Daily Reading: excerpt from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

After moving to Milwaukee in the early 1970s, we frequently visited Aunt Yvonne and Uncle Bob (Gramma's brother) in Chicago.

Years later when I began studying French, Uncle Bob wrote to me a few times, encouraging me in my interest in languages. He sent newspaper clippings about the benefits of learning another language and how to choose a career path. In his own hand, he wrote: pursue what you love and what you're good at. The job and money will follow.

These words seem like common sense today, but in the early '80s, most advice boiled down to: get a college degree so you can get a job and be a responsible adult. This was before Joseph Campbell's famous words, "follow your bliss," took hold.

When I was in my first years of college in Chicago, I sometimes took the El (elevated train) and a bus from Hyde Park on the south side to the northwest side to visit and spend the night with Aunt Yvonne and Uncle Bob. By then, he'd retired from Bell and Howell where he'd spent his entire career as an engineer and inventor of cameras and camera parts. Sometimes he and I got into disagreements (as I thought) or debates (as he might've said) over the issues of the day. I argued my viewpoint as Aunt Yvonne egged me on. He just grinned, apparently delighted and unbothered by what he was hearing. This confused me.

When visiting in the winter, I slept on the living room couch. Their small house had a back room with a pull-out bed, but they kept the room closed off part of the year to save money on electricity. One morning between 5 and 6 o'clock, I woke suddenly. Uncle Bob was sitting across the room in an armchair.

"What's wrong?" I said.

He didn't reply.

"I want to sleep some more," I moaned.

He began speaking about things that were on his mind---his philosophy in life, the things that matter, the best mental attitude to have. I realized something important was happening and kept quiet. When he finished, he got up and went into the kitchen.

I've never spoken of this until this year.

By my junior year, Uncle Bob had begun chemotherapy for leukemia and died in under a year.

Below is an excerpt from the Preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I like to believe that Uncle Bob would've enjoyed discussing it.

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…"

from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855), retrieved on May 17, 2015 from:

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