Where does courage come from? Who you are will determine your answer. The Christian might remember God’s directive to “Be strong and courageous.” The baseball fan will think of Lou Gehrig, who called his wife his “tower of strength.” The Winston Churchill admirer will recall that “it is the courage to continue that counts.”
We learn courage from people who inspire us. March finds me thinking about my childhood mentor the way that supermarkets once found poet Allen Ginsberg thinking about his mentor, Walt Whitman.
Have your read Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”? It’s the most famous of his Berkeley poems from when he lived on Milvia Street, not far from the Berkeley neighborhood I called home when I courageously moved to Berkeley without clear prospects, having felt “summoned” to California by Jack Kerouac and by first-rate universities such as UC Davis.
The poem begins this way:
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! – and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
Later in the poem, when Ginsberg’s speaker calls Whitman his “lonely old courage-teacher,” each of us might think of our own heroes, perhaps a politician, a pastor or a teacher, and thank that person for his or her courage.
Every March I think of my own (young) courage teacher and my closest childhood friend, a boy named Tito.
My constant companion, Tito taught me about not only courage, but also about curiosity, audacity, humor and action. Tito had a bias toward action, moving always toward some goal or another: a girl he was courting, a running goal he was achieving, an artistic goal he was exploring.
Incessantly curious, Tito never limited himself to any particular subject. He studied Native American culture and was welcomed into tribal conversations that I, being part Cherokee, never experienced.
In college he studied aeronautics, and then flew solo across the country to visit my wife Kate and me in Sacramento. Was he my angel? Picking him up at Sacramento International Airport, I felt like I knew Lindberg. He studied art and illustration, and published his drawings of an archaeological dig on the cover of the science section of The New York Times.
Following Dale Carnegie, Tito believed that “If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” He conquered his every fear.
When we were children, Tito reminded me every March that he would always be eight days older than me. Tito could do so much, but this Renaissance man could not predict the future.
As another poem put it, at 26 years old my pilot friend “slipped the surly bonds of earth, / And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.” I was left behind to smile at our inside jokes and to celebrate his birthdays without him.
We survive loss by adopting the courage of our lost leaders or our lost friends. As Eleanor Roosevelt reminded us, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ ”
To my friend Tito I say thank you for showing me how to look fear in the face. And I say happy birthday.