Sunday, May 27th, 2018

For years, my mother had this hanging on the bathroom wall of our family’s ancestral home:

Finish each day and be done with it.  You have done what you could.  Some absurdities and blunders no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can.  Tomorrow is a new day.  You shall begin it well and serenely. — Emerson

The quotation was printed over a photo of a golden sunset backlighting a tree on a hill.  It was hanging over the toilet, so I couldn’t help but read it to myself every single time I had a tinkle for the ten years I lived in that house, which explains how it became etched into the frontal lobes of my adolescent brain as permanently as the lyrics to the theme from Gilligan’s Island.

I carried that quotation around in my head for decades, sometimes reciting it to myself when I became so stressed I had to pause for a moment to take a deep breath, empty my mind and lungs, and sit for a few minutes to decompress.  But, I never saw it in print again until about five years ago when I stopped by a coworker’s desk to ask a question and saw this quotation on her wall:

Finish each day and be done with it.  You have done what you could.  Some absurdities and blunders no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can.  Tomorrow is a new day.  You shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

That ending was like hitting a mental speed bump.  It had never occurred to me that the quotation I learned from the resale shop nicknack my mother nailed to the bathroom wall might not have been complete but, apparently, someone thought it was a dozen and one words too long and they did a quotectomy on it.  Who would be so vile as to alter the words of Emerson?

The abridged quotation is fine, I guess, but the complete quotation is much more engaging.  In a letter dated April 8, 1854, Emerson wrote to his daughter Ellen, who was away at school, telling her to prepare to come home.  “It is quite time to think of bringing you home,” he began; wrote a bit more about making arrangements with Mr. Wheeler, who was apparently her teacher; advised her to pay her debts; named a few people who were looking forward to seeing Ellen; and then, toward the end of the letter, he dropped these familiar lines:

You must finish a term & finish every day, & and be done with it. For manners, & for wise living it is a vice to remember. You have done what you could — some blunders & absurdities no doubt crept in forget them as soon as you can tomorrow is a new day.  You shall begin it well & serenely, & with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This day for all that is good & fair.  It is too dear with its hopes & invitations to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays.

Polonius couldn’t have done better.  He was practically lecturing Laertes; if he were in a cap and gown behind a lectern, he wouldn’t have looked out of place reciting his lines.  Emerson, on the other hand, casually, almost effortlessly scribbled a few dozen words to his daughter that became as iconic as, “Neither a borrower, nor a lender be.”

“Scribbled” was not meant to sound dismissive, but I honestly get the impression, by the way he sprints through the third sentence without bothering to punctuate it, that he was dashing off this letter as quickly as he could write it.

I love how freely people used ampersands back in the day they used to write letters to each other, in spite of how hard they are to make.  I’ve tried to teach my clumsy hand to make them and eventually got good enough that maybe one in ten was recognizable as an ampersand, but the rest were twisted scribbling.  I keep trying, though.

finish each day | 12:22 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel
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