An essay by Uriél Dana ©2014
Maude Bishop was a retired kindergarten teacher from England. She was in her 80’s, a widow, and had one son that died of polio when he was five. She was the first person I had ever met who had outlived their children.
Maude was hired to be a live-in childcare provider for me during the years my mother was going to school and starting her own business in the 1960’s. Today we would call her a nanny.
By the time I was four, she had taught me to read, write, and do basic math. By cleverly integrating new things into a daily ritual, she made learning fun for me. Every afternoon she would serve tea, toast, and “biscuits” and we would sit and enjoy our teatime. She would begin every tea with, “Did you learn anything new or interesting today?”
In the beginning, if I didn’t know what to contribute, she’d say, “Well lets see what’s in the paper” and begin to read something out loud. Maude would ask me questions on the topic at hand. It helped me to realize that I had an opinion and could think for myself.
During teatime I was welcome to share anything from books, magazines, or newspapers. When it was my turn to share, Mrs. Bishop made me feel like the most interesting person on the planet. Until then, no adult had seriously listened to me when I spoke.
Gradually, she started to incorporate stories from novels into our teatime. I sat open mouthed as she told me about “Captain Nemo” from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and amazing stories from Greek Mythology. I wanted to read these books for myself!
To give me more time to read, Maude Bishop did something that changed the course of my entire life. My bedtime was very early even as a teenager. Mrs. Bishop convinced my mother to allow me to stay up in bed indefinitely each night, “As long as I was reading a book.”
I did not mind the early nighttime curfew because books allowed me to enter portals as living dreams. Books became a way for me to travel through time and around the world.
This ongoing tradition of learning something new every day has continued into my adulthood. It has created a personal vault of conversation fodder, painting and writing ideas, as well as travel skills and a strong sense of self.
Imagine if every person began creating this habit? People often believe they do not have time to read. I find that is only true when we are trying to read something we have no interest in. It is not what you are learning that is important but rather the fact you are learning. A teenager that only reads anime is becoming an expert on anime whether they are aware of it or not. While we are feeding our brains we are also experiencing pleasure in keeping our own company.
What if each of us kept a “brain journal” of things we have learned each day? One line could be something we learned about a hobby or work interest, another an item of curiosity to share with another. The kind of thing that if you came across it in a paper or book you would have to share it with the next person you spoke to.
Today we have so many options available to feed our curiosity. There are TED Talks that last 17 minutes; easy to listen to on a walk or lunch break. Podcasts exist literally on every subject. Audio books can be played in the car or while cooking. I have personally watched a marathon of videos on YouTube investigating how to do something new; from installing castors to acquiring an art skill I need to learn.
The Chinese have a saying, “Most people are a four room house but live only in one room”. Learning something new each day is a way to develop the mental, creative, emotional and spiritual rooms within our selves. It is the synergy of this combination that creates emotional intelligence. These rooms create a full house using the four parts of our brain. The same part of our brain that allows us to create also allows us to creatively solve problems. It is our natural lie detector.
Without nurturing each of these aspects of ourselves, we risk becoming a society of people who are incredibly easy to manipulate.
There is another positive benefit to feeding these four rooms of our brain with information: self-esteem. In a world where few people keep their word, we can use this technique to keep our word to ourselves.
If we make a promise to feed ourselves emotionally, creatively, intellectually, and spiritually each day, we begin to trust and respect ourselves. It requires keeping that promise no matter where we are or what our schedule looks like, how we feel or whom we are with. Everyday we must take time to learn; meditate, and to feed our creativity.
As one of many female veterans left with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, I have found the only thing that re-orients oneself in the world is this simple daily exercise.
Artwork: Detail of painting by Umbrian painter Aurelio Bruni.