Saturday, November 1, 2014

Life Beyond Measure by Sidney Poitier

Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Grandaughter
by Sidney Poitier
April 2008
285 pages

Barnes and Noble
IndieBound (your independent bookstore)

"All I know for sure is that "stories" are the bedrock on which each human life is built." - Sidney Poitier

Inspired by the birth of his great-granddaughter Ayele LaBarrie in 2005, legendary screen actor Sidney Poitier set out to write 23 letters, each on a different subject, passing down his wisdom and observations to a new generation. The letters are addressed to Ayele but his words are for all of us. Both young and old, everyone can learn a lot from Sidney Poitier.

“Those who stop their questioning... cut short their explorations and end up with permanently unfinished lives.” - Sidney Poitier

From the onset of the book, we come to understand that family is very important to Poitier. The book opens with a family tree mapping out the lineage of the Poitier family from Sidney Poitier's grandparents down to Ayele. He recounts Ayele's birth, his early encounters with her and how his own family grew over the years.  Poitier also goes back to his own childhood and shares many stories of his parents and his siblings.

Poitier was born in Miami, Florida in 1927, grew up in the Bahamas and came back to the United States when he was a teenager. His experiences living in Cat Island, Nassau, Miami and New York all became distinct phases in his life. And each set of experiences taught him many things.

The beginning of Poitier's life is much different than that of Ayele's or pretty much anyone else who reads this book. Some of the most stunning passages in the letters are Poitier's remembrances of his early life experiences. The first time he saw his own reflection in a mirror at the age ten, the first time he had ice cream, the first photograph ever taken of him at age 16 and the first time he ever auditioned for an acting role. Poitier's education came from life. He learned volumes from experiences both good and bad.

Poitier's writing is beautiful. I marveled at the passage where he describes eating ice cream for the first time. Having grown up in the Bahamas he didn't understand what it was like to feel cold. Not knowing how to eat the cold treat, he took one disastrous big bite. From reading Poitier's words I can just imagine the shock and pain of that innocent first experience.

The school of life taught Poitier very much. Although Poitier's education was little and he didn't even read an entire book until he was in his 20s, no one reading this work would think Poitier anything other than a wise and intellectual man. Poitier's writing is reflective and poetic.

“I vividly recall – crinkled with laughter, stung by embarrassment, frozen in shyness, darkened by disappointment, anger, or fear, lit by wonder and innocence, or mesmerized by the spell of the daydreams to which I surrendered so often during those years.” - Sidney Poitier

In Life Beyond Measure, Poitier is passing on his wisdom to Ayele and to us the reader. He discusses a variety of subjects including family, love, addiction, bravery, fear, doubt, shyness, his heroes, logic and reason, science, technology, climate change, war, faith and death. Even though Poitier is essentially teacher in this text, his writing never comes off as pedantic. The narrative voice is gentle and almost passive. There is a sweetness about his tone.

Passing down the wisdom of the ages is important. There are experiences new generations will never have because of advancements in technology and differences in circumstances. We can learn so much from other's lives and there are so many things we take for granted that a young Sidney Poitier grew up without.

“So I sit comfortable after all these years, and I am very protective of my aloneness. I am very protective of my shyness; it never triggers any displeasure in me, any resentment of itself. It’s a part of me.” – Sidney Poitier

I was particularly struck by Poitier's reflections on his own shyness. As an introvert, I very much appreciated his reflections and insights on his own struggles with being shy. Watching Poitier on screen, I've always noticed an intensity about him. His passion drove his actions. He was never held back by any limitations. Poitier says,  “... I rarely took the path of least resistance. Most of the time, in fact, I walked a proverbial razor-sharp edge.”

There isn't much about Sidney Poitier's acting career in the book. It's not the point of the text. We do get to hear some interesting stories from his acting days. These are mostly relegated to his near death experiences including a car accident during the filming of Edge of the City, his trip to the South with fellow actor Harry Belafonte during the Civil Rights Movement and a dramatic real-life car chase while filming Cry, the Beloved Country in South Africa during the apartheid era.

Poitier discusses death at length. The death of family members, his experience with prostate cancer and leaves Ayele with some thoughts about mortality.

I read Life Beyond Measure as an ebook but I really wish I had a hardcover copy instead. Both are available. There are two inserts in the book (and in the ebook as well) with photos of Poitier with his family.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Life Beyond Measure. I was so struck by Poitier's writing and I'm looking forward to reading his other books. I have so much admiration for Poitier and I value the wisdom our elders pass down to us that to me this book is truly a treasure.

1 comment:

  1. After reading your review, I'm really looking forward to reading this book! It sounds absolutely lovely and very engaging! x


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