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Monday, February 12, 2007

The Measure of a Man

Generally when I choose memoirs, I favor those by women. Not to say that I am not interested in how men think, but I have felt I could personally learn more from stories by women about their own lives.

When I saw Sidney Poitier's, The Measure of a Man, I probably would not have bought it except for the next part of the title-- a spiritual autobiography. Spiritual histories attract me. I like to know what someone else has experienced of spiritual truth.

What Poitier had experienced obviously was much different than my life, and yet there were similarities-- growing up before television, rural living, not a lot of money, parents who exhibited strong values, interest in creativity. His level of poverty was such that he had almost nothing growing up-- unless you value the freedom to roam and explore your world, value having a sense of your place in the community, and growing up with natural beauty all around you.

What he writes about racial issues both reminds me of how far, as a people, we have come and how far we have to go. I grew up when the inequities were rampant but was pretty much ignorant of what was going on given my rural lifestyle as well as there not being the television to explain everything to us.

One thing I particularly liked was when he said that by being formed as he was, he was not going to let anybody else define him. He came into a world that wanted to do that and he refused.

Poitier's view of life is simple and yet deep. I probably liked it so much because it was a lot of how I have come to believe. There is no hocus-pocus, no religious dogma, but simply a man who lived well and observed life. Rather than write more on it, I will choose a few of his quotes I particularly liked and that won't be easy as I marked a lot for my future reference.

"What was it about outsiders, I wondered, that attracted the curiosity of others? What made such personalities tick? What were the forces driving them-- forces that kept them intact and in motion, moving to the beat of their own drum, no matter what? Was theirs a life rooted in sacrifice and challenge in defense of nobler purposes and higher values? Or was it a lifestyle of out-of-control appetites in a materialistic environment? Were outsiders simply trespassers, obliged by the nature of their lives to be constantly on the alert, known as 'one of those' but never as 'one of us'?"

In discussing people like Nelson Mandela, he said, "Anger is a negative energy-- a destructive force-- but they converted it into fuel, into positive energy."

"When you're addressing power, don't expect it to crumble willingly."

"But the true progress it represented didn't come from unbridled rage anymore than it comes from polite submission. Progress then and now comes from the collision of powerful forces within the hearts of those who strive for it. Anger, charity, love and hate, pride and shame, broken down and reassembled in an igneous process that yields a fierce resolve."

"I have a kind of respect-- a worshipful attitude, even-- for nature and the natural order and the cosmos and the seasons. I know it's no accident that ancient people celebrated the solstice and the equinox. There's something very powerful that happens, especially in the colder climates of the north, when instead of being a minute shorter every day, daylight lasts a minute longer. You feel it in your bones. You know it as you might know the presence of God. We're halfway there! We may survive this winter after all!"

"My fear is this: I fear that as we cover more of our planet with concrete and steel, as we wire our homes with more and more fiber-optic cables that take the place of more intimate interactions, as we give our children more and more stuff and less and less time, as we go further and further away from the kind of simplicity I knew as a child on Cat Island, our Earth-- Gaia or not-- will become for us the Wire Mother, and our souls will wither and die as a result."

Good grief. I will be copying his book here if I don't stop with these quotes. Suffice it to say he has a lot to share about raising children, culture, life, goals, risk taking, and the measure of a man-- or woman.


Diane Widler Wenzel said...

Very powerful review of a powerful sounding book! I'll add it to my must read list.

Anonymous said...

It has been on my to read list for awhile. It is Oprah's book of the month!

joared said...

You've peaked my interest for reading this book. I, too, can identify with much of how he describes his young life. I'm especially drawn to this quote from his book:

"I have a kind of respect-- a worshipful attitude, even-- for nature and the natural order and the cosmos and the seasons..."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your take and quotes from Poitier's book. I don't read a lot of biography in this period of my life (mostly fiction, spirituality, art and poetry), but I'll definitely watch for this at the library.

Anonymous said...

Ah Sidney Poitier, I recall the first time I saw him in a film, years ago now, my most enduring memory of him were his hands and the way he used them to express himself.

Ever since whenever I've watched him acting or on TV I watch his hands, they are some of the most beautiful hands I've ever seen.

I'll want to read his story now that I've read your review.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a marvelous book and one I will have to add to my list.
I've always admired him as a human being. His quotes were quite profound.
Thanks for sharing this, Rain.