Balancing the Books
From late spring to early autumn, 1971, I hitchhiked across the United States, following a meandering loop west from Buffalo to Berkeley, south past L.A., up the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington, and back east through Canada. I was on a mission not only to see the country, but also to find out who I was.
I hitchhiked to force myself to connect, if only for a lift to the next town or to find somewhere to crash for the night. On the journey, a new goal emerged: to develop the parts of myself I knew must be there, because they resonated when I encountered them in others, but to which I had no access. In the largest sense of the term, I took that trip to achieve balance.
Balance is a word with many meanings, in many contexts. But in May, 1971, to me it meant to bring out the latent parts of myself and mate them with what was already there and, in so doing, to become someone whole and complete.
I discovered that I had an incomplete view of who I was during my freshman year as an engineering student at Cornell University. I had grown up a kid scientist, obsessed with the workings of the natural and technical worlds, and my hope was that I’d graduate with a degree in Electrical Engineering and work for NASA. In an Introduction to English Literature course, I read the long poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” by William Blake.
Though by then I had witnessed Woodstock and dabbled in sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, I was vaguely aware that I spent most of my time in my head and lived hardly at all in the realms of emotion and the body. Blake’s poem reached out forcefully, over hundreds of years and thousands of miles, with the message that, if I continued on my present course, I would live out my days as a shadow. His potent words and vivid images not only prompted me to drop out of engineering, but set me on a lifelong journey of self-actualization.
The next summer, I began my cross-country trip with $400 and a sense of longing and adventure. I returned with 25 cents in my pocket and an expanded outlook. My travels had included many adventures I still vividly recall, but more important, they also more clearly revealed the unrealized facets of myself I wanted to develop.
Within days of my return, I made a literal list of new activities to undertake. On it were writing, photography, learning a trade, practicing a sport, pursuing a spiritual activity, and, to carry on the traveler’s sense of adventure, motorcycling. This list became the curriculum for a program to rebalance myself that, in a more nuanced way, I’m still following today.
That semester, I began to carry out my curriculum, setting aside physics and calculus courses and exchanging them for the humanities, and seeking out activities that would, I hoped, enhance the physical, emotional, spiritual, and creative sides. I took all the literature, philosophy, psychology, and creative writing courses I could fit into my schedule. I read novels not only for the stories, but for what the authors could teach me about how to be human. I volunteered at a mental hospital and at a faculty-run free school for elementary-age children. I learned the carpentry trade and used it to put myself through school and, for several years after graduation, to support my new writing and photography habits. I taught myself metalworking and began making knives as a hobby. I started to learn tennis, bought a motorcycle, practiced Transcendental Meditation.
Other books followed Blake’s. I began to read seriously in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, and the works of the Armenian-Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. Within the field of my new major, English Literature, I doubled down on literature classes with a psychoanalytic focus, which led to my first foray into psychotherapy, where I delved into a childhood I had unwittingly pushed aside by forgetting everything that had happened to me before age 10.
Books, my refuge as a child, have often been the first step into activities that have extended me. Before I looked for a job as an apprentice carpenter, I read books on carpentry and woodworking. Before I volunteered at a state mental hospital, I read seminal writings of psychologists from Sigmund Freud to Fritz Perls. Before I put torch to carbon steel to make my first knife, I read a book on metallurgy. Before I taught my first class, I read books on pedagogy. Even after a near-death experience in 1993 permanently altered the way I think and feel, books were what I went to in order to begin to understand who I had become, and it was a book by Carl Rogers that convinced me I could become a therapist.
The cycle of reading/acting/reading/acting has continued to this day.
I have almost no sense of direction, but I’m very good at reading maps, and books are, for me, the most elaborate and detailed maps to just about everything. In my travels through time since my trip across the United States, they have guided me into places I would never have ventured without their gentle prodding.
David J. Bookbinder
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