Borrowed Wisdom

These words are not my own...
These words are not my own...

I think it’s the metallic clicking and tapping from his typewriter that I remember most about my grandfather. He passed away years ago, but somehow the rhythmic percussion of his fingers hitting the keys remains. I can still see him sitting at his corner desk with the typewriter singing as he sent friendship, love, and wisdom to friends and family.

Every now and again, his hands would pause. As they hovered above the keys, his eyes would reach into the distance, searching just beyond him for a memory, word, or story. And then, he’d find it, and his fingers would fly back into action. I would be entirely captivated, as the measured tapping would resume with the keys imprinting and punctuating his words.

One Christmas I unwrapped an old, brown case from my grandfather, and there inside was a typewriter of my very own. Quickly, I set to work mimicking the fast movements of my Grandpa’s fingers. But, I didn’t have anything to say… so I simply typed my name over and over and over. I wrote it in all caps. I wrote it lowercase. I wrote my nicknames. I typed my name with my middle initial and without it. I wrote my middle name in full.  At points I added “Mr.” before it, and then I got bold, adding “Dr.” in front or even “Esq.” behind. After carefully working, I had an entire page filled with my name but nothing more.

I presented the sheet to my grandfather, and he carefully reviewed it. As his eyes glanced over the sheet, a smile slowly spread. He looked up from the sheet and said, “Great start…”  From there, he invited me to watch him more closely. And slowly, I found that the power of his words weren’t held  within the keystrokes. The potency and effect of the typewriter came from his stories rather than the quick, steady movements of his hands. When I truly paid attention to more than the melody from his keys, I learned from my Grandpa to write more than just my name.


In college I frequently found myself sitting with cigars and friends on my balcony. Those evenings were filled with conversation, both about joys and struggles. What I found was that I was able to care for my friends more when I listened than when I spoke. The moments when I did offer anything it was always in the form of stories—stories of my own mistakes, stories of struggles, stories of joys. All of these were not things I created, but things I held. They were wisdom and insights borrowed from the past.

The year before I joined the Jesuits, I taught at an all-girls school. In the classroom nearly all of my insights or comfort to students were simply quotes from my favorite songs or books. Literature became more than the content of the courses; it was a wealth of resources for everyday life. What proved valuable was the gathering of my memories, the mistakes I’ve survived, the joys I’ve celebrated, and the stories and literature I have experienced and then taken to heart. Things I had borrowed and held tightly, but realized were not mine alone to keep.


Recently, I found the typewriter my grandfather gave me, and the constant, rhythmic tapping and clicking of his fingers came to mind. When I was younger, what I thought I had admired was just his ability to type.  As I look back now, I think less about the way his fingers flew and the music the typewriter sang. Instead, I think more about those pauses. Those moments–no longer than a single breath–where he would reach deep into his memory to pull from his heart and place it on the page… knowing exactly what needed to be said.

As I get older and I find moments where I am able to comfort others, I realize more and more that it’s not just ‘me’ that reaches out to them. It is all that I have borrowed and held. Typing the keystrokes of my own name over and over, or recreating the melody of the keys, or even simply writing to write… doesn’t communicate help or love. The truth is, it isn’t about me or what I write. It’s not the typing, it’s the stories that have power and use for others. It’s about listening to another’s heart, pausing over the typewriter keys like my Grandpa, and remembering that which someone else gave me long ago. It’s the wisdom of the discerning pauses which allows me to care and to write for someone. To listen and to know the other, and then to give them more than just myself. To give what I have been given—what in reality I’ve simply borrowed and taken to heart.


Image by author.

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