It took a fox, and a very little time, to bring that home—probably a half-minute at best. But before I tell you of that half-minute, you should know that I may have lied to you.
Though I've said to many people that To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book, it isn't. It's one of two. The second, which ranks even with it—the book I don't mention to most people—is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince.
I read The Little Prince—and To Kill a Mockingbird—the summer that I was 12 (what I refer to as my “cloistered” summer—4 months of nearly-nonstop confinement in my Nana's compound, which contained a house with more than 600 books—described more fully in
To Kill a Mockingbird is the more obvious, of course. I went to law school, and am doing medicine; I'm passionately invested in reason, in rationality, in human rights and human dignity.
But The Little Prince? What you're reading—what you read every time I write an essay—is a blossom sprung from the cardinal directions mapped by that book.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—poet, pilot, soldier, explorer—described a large part of the atlas of the things I value most.
And his Fox—the Prince's Fox, whom the Prince tames and teaches to love him—is the one who utters the truth which infuses the whole of that topography: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
The two can overlap, though.
I know, because three days ago it took both to see my first fox.
It paused less than ten feet from me while slipping through my neighbors' slat fence, turning its neck almost 180 degrees to stare back at me over its sleek, willow-thin body. Its head couldn't have come to my knee; a fourth of its body height was its ears, two triangular sentinels at right angles to the only-slightly-larger triangle of its face.
Its tannish-red coat matched the reflected fire of the sulphur streetlight in its eyes. It paused there, midstride, one delicate paw dangling as it examined me—head cocking ever-so-slightly as it blinked and I didn't.
I stood, looking back into the slight fine-boned face, afraid to breathe, afraid to scare it.
After an immeasurable time it blinked at me again, set down its paw, and unhurriedly swiveled its head back around to face my neighbors' yard. One lithe, leaping twist of its body later, it was gone.
I stood staring after it. Was I hoping it'd—what? Change its mind? Come back?
After a couple of minutes, I realized that I was, and that it wasn't. I continued my walk to my car, got in it, and drove away.
Its image remained. That poised whipcord body and dainty face, large eyes somehow intelligent. Regarding me. Considering me. Weighing me—for threat, for worth, for interest.
Cautious. Curious. Beautiful.
And I thought of the Prince's Fox, asking to be tamed, crying once he was, listening to the wind in the wheat fields and remembering the color of the Prince's hair.
Teaching the Prince about rites ( They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours.)
and roses (Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world.)
and taming (It is an act too often neglected. It means to establish ties.)
and ties (If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world...)
—and responsibility for the things one loves (You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.).
And thought, Maybe it knew. Maybe it knew it didn't need to come back tonight.
Maybe it will come again.
Maybe it saw that I'm already tame.
You can find the Little Prince's conversations with the Fox here: The Little Prince, Chapter 21: The Fox
7/04/2010 at 17:02
July 4th. Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence: the day on which we declared ourselves a nation, independent of the monarchy of England.
This is our national holiday. Our fireworks don't commemorate a treaty signed, a battle, or the national patron saint. Our day of national identity—our natality—is the day on which we declared ourselves—declared all men—to be free.
The day that we celebrate that which makes us American commemorates a Declaration.
Words on paper, signed and sealed in a tiny little hall in a provincial town.
A ringing cry of freedom and truth that has influenced every acknowledgment of human rights or privileges which came after it. That has shaped us as Americans for more than 230 years. That a group of wealthy white farmers used to pledge to each other their Lives, their Fortunes and their sacred Honor in a way that could not be forgotten or ignored or denied.
The words first read to me by my second-grade teacher have a force and passion, a thundering certainty which is offset by their simplicity: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...
Self-evident: So obvious that it is apparent to anyone seeing the thing in question. Regard this human being: She is neither more nor less than you. She holds the same privileges you do; she is endowed by her Creator with certain unalienable Rights...
We hold these truths to be self-evident.
Not by any means the first formulation of the idea, no. But it is the most powerful—both rhetorically and in terms of its consequences—for the men who lent their sacred Honor to its utterance, and for the world which they forced to listen.
I love the Fourth of July, love the apple pie and hot dogs and fireworks. But the privilege, the bounty that I'm celebrating as I look at the gorgeous blooms of sparks filling the sky, is one of words.
The words that are my heritage. My inheritance.
I am a citizen of the country who planted her foot by its Declaration of identity, of human rights and human dignity, with fortitude and fervor and a new flag. Who made them indelible. Who gave them to the world forever.
I, like every American, am heir to that dangerous, potent idea. I have inherited it—and all the responsibilities it conveys.
Because that idea is the thing that makes us who we are and defines who we should be. The thing gives July 4th and every other day lived under our flag its meaning.
Because I am American, and Americans hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...
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