One of the gifts I received at my high school graduation was Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I knew it was important, though it had never been assigned in any of my classes. The friend who gave it to me was my age but she always seemed to have something of an old soul about her. You felt that the well was deep, and sometimes our conversations revealed that she understood certain things normal 18-year-olds hadn’t quite grasped.
She only gave gifts that had meaning, so I trusted it. Even though I wasn’t ready for Whitman, hopefully I would be one day.
That day came a few months ago, when I found the book in my mother’s attic. It’s a beautiful first edition, and when I opened it to start reading the introduction, I knew I would keep it near me for a long time. I took it on a train across the Midwest and it brought tears of joy to my eyes. It came with me on a plane across the Atlantic, and it kept me feeling connected to my roots while high up in the air. As I came to understand what a treasure it is, this Leaves of Grass, I felt humbled and grateful, because this treasured friend thought enough of me to offer it as a celebration of our transition into adulthood.
Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every
moment of your life.
Long have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again and nod to me
and shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.
– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Song of Myself) lines 1225 – 1230
Longtemps assez as-tu rêvé des rêves méprisables,
Maintenant je lave la chassie de tes yeux,
Tu dois t’habituer à l’éblouissement de la lumière et de chaque instant de ta vie.
Longtemps as-tu timidement pataugé, agrippé à une planche près du rivage,
Maintenant je te veux nageur intrépide,
À plonger au beau milieu de la mer, et à en rejaillir, et que tu me fasses signe de la tête et cries, et que rieusement tu rabattes tes cheveux.
– Walt Whitman, Feuilles d’Herbe (Chant de moi-même) lignes 1225 – 1230
Translation from the French courtesy of these people.